Clouds lollygagged across the sky, carried gently by the occasional half-hearted gust of wind. The sun, giving its all for that clear sunny perfect day we’d been hoping for, was defeated by the humid cloud that seemed to swallow up all of Pinckney, Michigan. We were left sticky and disgusted but somehow satisfied with the green grass that had finally replaced the snow. Sounds like any old April day, right? Ha! That’s what I thought too. If I could have predicted the future then, I wouldn’t come back to this memory, my last good memory with him, every other night in my dreams. If I could undo everything now and relive it over and over again and never feel anything but the feeling I had then and there, I’d be happy I would be honestly happy for the rest of my life. Yeah, if I could undo everything and erase the unwanted, everything would be fine. But I can’t, and it’s not.
You see, it started as just another one of my trips to Michigan to visit my crazy, gotta-love-’em, family. Mom was hustling around, neatly stuffing all of the essentials into suitcases. Dad was doing what she told him to. Fluffy, our cat, was lying on the suitcases, effectively protesting our departure. And I was going through a mental list of everything I needed and always forgot: alarm clock—check; riding jeans and sneakers—check; underwear—check; hair towel—ooh . . . the hair towel—check. It was all normal. Things still proceeded as normal from the taxi ride, to the plane ride, to the two-hour car ride to my grandparents’ house in Pinckney, Michigan.
When we finally arrived we were greeted with hugs and kisses from my aunts, cousins and of course my grandma and grandpa. There, and only there, my mother finally relaxed and got prepared for sleeping in and no cooking. I was happy too for I was at my favorite place in the world. What could be better than to be spoiled, loved, always have something to do, and be surrounded by cousins? Days in Michigan were always laid back: sometimes we would go to Screams, a Halloween-themed ice cream store appropriately placed in Hell, Michigan; other times we would ride horses, go to the lake, or just hang out and be with each other. I guess it didn’t really matter what we did, as long as it was with the people we loved.
The first day started like it always did in Michigan, at 7:30, to the TV news and laughing voices of my grandparents. I tiptoed down the squishy-carpeted steps like I always did and snuggled into my spot in my grandpa’s lap. Then after a minute, he started drumming his fingers on my knee, like he always did.
As the day proceeded, my newly crowned four-year-old cousin came over and was excited to see me, her magical cousin. After chasing her around for half the day and laughing a lot, I was tired and the humid air got me feeling stickier than a melted popsicle, but no, Katie wasn’t tired. At that point I dragged her over to where my grandpa was sitting drinking some ice water on the porch and I gave him a look. He seemed to receive it correctly as “Help me!” because he looked at Katie and asked her if she wanted to go on a picnic. I watched and smiled as her little blue eyes widened and her jaw dropped.
I followed her into the kitchen where we packed some crackers and pop in a little wooden basket with a quilt. We then tromped back out and met my grandpa where he was standing, turning off the electric fences that contained the horses.
We started walking past the barn—a place filled with happy memories of horseback riding. Inside I could hear hoofs hitting the ground, music playing and my aunt singing along. We kept walking into the pasture where Peaches and Misty, the large, beastly, gorgeous inhabitants, munched on their evening hay, and down the long hill to the back of the pasture, farther and farther away from my grandma who I could still see in the bright kitchen happily making dinner. I had never been that far back in my grandparents’ property. I asked him where we were going but he just said, “You’ll see.” I laughed and looked over at my little cousin who was smiling and looking very excited. We kept walking, past the compost pile and the garden, past the little heap of junk that we never got around to cleaning up, farther and farther into the silence broken only by the occasional chirp of the crickets.
We finally ducked under a broken part of the fence and entered a new world, our world. Katie called it the Animal Kingdom. There weren’t many inhabitants: just some bunnies, a gopher we expected by the hole, the occasional deer, and some bugs. You might think that it was generous to call it an animal kingdom but that is what it was.
In our kingdom we found a broken metal chair that looked like it had been sitting there for years, obviously of a long, royal, mysterious past. That would be the throne. We also found some ducks, a mommy and a daddy, that would be the king and queen. You might say it was nothing special, just a grassy spot on the edge of a secret duck pond, sheltered by trees and high grass. Forgotten and taken over by the bugs. But it wasn’t, not to us. We loved it.
Katie loved the bramble bushes, which, if you were willing to get scratched a little and push aside the branches, revealed a top-secret hideaway I loved the beautiful spot. Grandpa loved us, and we all loved being there . . . together.
We had our picnic on the edge of the hardly-a-pond pond that disappeared in the winter and during droughts. While we were there we laughed, talked, and enjoyed each other’s company. Being able to relax and let go was amazing, but to me what we did was insignificant compared to the people I was with. It was special then but not as special as it is now.
It was a good memory but we never knew it would be our last good memory.
Not long after I returned to home-sweet-home in Massachusetts, we got a phone call with some news that I still haven’t fully accepted. My grandpa was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer—a very fast, mysterious, deadly cancer. They tried everything: alternative doctors and medicine, special diets, strange devices believed in some cultures to heal, bubbly foot rub supposedly godly and curing, healthy salt, and a trip to Mexico to a special healing center. It was all just for hope.
We visited him a little while after that animal kingdom trip and he didn’t look the same but I knew he was still in there somewhere behind the sunken eyes, pale face and skinny shapeless body He was always fighting. He didn’t say much but what he did say I will never forget. He didn’t want me to. He said, “Grandpa loves you.” He kept telling me that.
Everything happened too fast for me, just a blur. All I could do was sit back and watch as everything just happened, even though I didn’t want it to. It was like an emotional, sad movie that I watched from afar. Except I wasn’t watching the movie; I was in it and it wasn’t a movie, it was my life.
On July 15, 2005, the worst happened. I flew to Michigan again. This time nothing was normal: no mental checklist, no average plane ride. Just a solemn journey, spent looking out the window, to somewhere I wanted and didn’t want to be more than anything. It was a hard week that droned on forever, with everything seeming to happen sluggishly slow; even my memories of that time are in slow motion. It was hard sitting in the first pew of a funeral service, and the first car in the funeral procession, but most of all it was hard holding an all-of-a-sudden cold hand.
In the lengthy speech I gave at his funeral I tried my hardest to explain the concept of the animal kingdom for Katie, who was too little to come. I knew she wanted everyone to know and so did I. I managed to talk fluently, calmly and I didn’t mess up at all, which is hard to do at a time like that. But I did it for my grandpa. And I was glad I got up there in front of everybody because they all cared about him and had similar memories.
The whole town was there. My grandpa was one of the most loved men in Pinckney, Michigan. He was a builder, a township supervisor, a friend, and a great family member. I’m proud to be remembered as my grandpa’s granddaughter. And I am thankful that I had that memory of him.
Katie and I still go down to the animal kingdom today and sit and remember our grandpa. Being in our special spot, talking to our grandpa, is the closest we can get to him now.
Sitting there listening to Katie look up and talk to him, mumbling, “I know you miss your little girl . . . can you ride down on your winged horse and visit?” is a new memory I have from that spot. When she saw the hot tears welling up in my eyes she whispered knowingly, “It’s OK, he’ll always be in our hearts.”
Lying in the tall grasses, thinking to myself as Katie still rambled on, smiling at the sky, I realized something that I will never forget: sometimes you don’t know how good you have it until it’s gone. Right there with the hot July air suffocating me I learned one of the most important things I know: savor your animal kingdoms for you never know what the next day will bring.