I lifted my deep purple suitcase and placed it into the trunk of my grandfather’s car. Through the front mirror’s reflection I could see a certain glow beaming off his eyes, which were framed by lines that represented years of living. He didn’t notice me looking, but I was.
I quickly opened the front door, took a deep breath, and stepped into my winter vacation with my grandparents in Florida. We pulled away from the Fort Lauderdale airport as he stole quick glimpses of me. Smiling, expressing his longing for me to visit. He had missed me. I sensed a certain feeling of hurt, deep within him, that had built up because I had not come to visit any sooner.
Yet my college days had taken a toll on me. I was left delaying my visit to Florida until the middle of my junior year. But at least I had come.
We had dinner that night at a falafel place near the airport. As we walked in, every single person smiled in response to my grandfather’s grand “Hello, how are you?” that he exuded to the entire store as if he owned the place. His friendly greetings were so sincere that I had to ask him if he had been there before. His response, in a typical Grandpa Neil fashion: “No, this is the first time.” He seemed confused as to why I would even think he had. I took note of that, his ability to walk into a room and capture every stranger by the heart with just a warm, genuine hello.
We chatted over French fries and burgers. He kept mentioning my smile. As he had done so many times on our weekly phone calls throughout the years, Grandpa never stopped raving about it. We talked about our days, catching up on what we had missed from each other’s stories. I told him the details of my story within the bookends of what was — then — my life.
The rest of the trip was a typical visit to my grandparents. I spent time with my grandmother, sat sandwiched in the middle of the table during our meals together. We spent hours watching game shows on television each evening. I soaked in the routineness of life in Florida, life with both my grandmother and grandfather. I closed my eyes and took it all in.
A few days later, I found myself in the same car with my grandfather as we pulled back up to the Fort Lauderdale airport. He jumped out of the car and took my deep purple bag out of his trunk, as I stepped out, breathing in the last bit of winter vacation. Soon enough I would be back in the depths of stressful papers and tests, and I wasn’t sure if I was ready. My grandfather sensed my sudden anxiety and he put his hand on my shoulder, looked deep into my eyes and said,
“Arielle, keep smiling. Keep doing what you are doing. Just keep smiling.”
I assured him I would do just that. We hugged, and I said,
“Grandpa, we didn’t take a picture the whole trip!”
He chuckled and urged me to capture the moment. I took my phone out and fumbled it to take a few quick shots of us smiling together. I kissed his heavy cheek, he kissed mine, and I was on my way back to reality.
On the plane I shuffled through the pictures we took and I stopped and stared at one in particular, one where my grandfather and I shared the exact same smile. We looked truly happy.
About a month later, my grandfather, who I remembered so saliently as someone who radiated pure enjoyment of life — always awake, always working, always doing — was put in hospice care after a sudden surgery that presented him with the end of life challenge that nonsurgical cancer brings.
The night I spoke to him last, I remember hearing, through the phone, his surprising struggle to speak. He sounded pained, in an extreme way that seemed a tremendous contradiction to the grandfather I had kissed at the Fort Lauderdale airport a month before.
I spoke, as he laid in the hospital bed before his sudden surgery.
“Grandpa,” I whispered, “I love you,” with tears unknowingly inching their way down the cheeks he himself had kissed what seemed like moments before.
He was struggling for the words; I could sense it.
“Arielle. Just keep smiling and doing what you’re doing. Just keep smiling. I love you.”
I broke out in full-fledged cries as we hung up the phone for the last time.
About two days later, my grandfather passed away.
Only a month before this, I had taken that photograph where we shared lively smiles and warm hugs, as we said goodbye in person, for the last time.
The day Grandpa passed away, I found myself lying in bed, peering up at the ceiling, thinking.
G-d gave me such a typical visit-your-grandparents experience. Everything was normal. Everything.
G-d gave me my last memories of my grandfather in a simple visit, a visit in which we spent meaningful time together, we hugged, we kissed. And I left his warm arms to walk back into my real life.
That was then. And this is now.
As winter break begins yet again, now in the middle of my senior year of college, I can’t help but think back to the direct hand G-d used in my life just a year ago. It is just as clear to me today, as it was the day I laid in my bed hearing of my grandfather’s passing.
I was blissfully unaware.
And now I think of him, linked to G-d’s touch into my daily life, the good and the bad, all of it. I think of him with the photograph of shared smiles, which sits framed next to the bed in my dorm room.
While I embark on my next winter break experience, I breathe in, trying to truly take in the last advice my grandfather ever gave me.
“Just keep smiling and doing what your doing, just keep smiling.”`