Why I'll Always Know Him

 By Elizabeth Smith

The Pensieve Editor's Note: The following essay was written in response to "Why I'll Never Know Her," by Skyler Smith.

My pappy stepped through the open door. In my early memories, he limped with a dark cane; later, he pushed a metal walker; and finally, he rolled in a wheelchair. Regardless, he was clad in slacks and occasionally a light, yellow sweater. His brilliant white hair was parted neatly. He smiled at me, and we hugged. He gingerly sat in our front room armchair, and I played the piano, after which he clapped and asked to hear another song. When I admitted I had nothing else prepared, he told me to play the same piece again and again. By the third performance, his head drooped forward, and my mother called from the kitchen to come eat the cake. He and my grandmother sat to my right at the table. When the ice cream began to melt on his plate, he whispered loudly that he was proud to be my grandfather.

    My doubt haunts me: Although we spent many hours together at birthday celebrations, holiday gatherings, and the occasional weekend trip to the lake, I sense there is a part of him I never discovered firsthand. He suffered from a stroke when I was only four, which meant I did not have the privilege to hunt or birdwatch or travel with him. Now he is gone, and I have resorted to old recordings, photographs, and stories to fuel my mental image of a grandfather in his prime. I wonder if I really got to know my pappy.

    Six years after my pappy’s passing, I married Skyler Smith. By the wedding day, I knew the answers to most get-to-know-you questions for my husband. Favorite color? Green. Favorite season? Fall. Hobbies? Board games and cycling. Even so, I suggested we read our past diaries aloud in the evenings. Being enthusiastic journal writers—we both began writing to navigate the woes of adolescence—Skyler and I have studied these old notebooks for countless nights since. Soon we will celebrate our sixth wedding anniversary, but we just finished reading our accounts of freshman year in university.

    I can vividly picture the eighteen-year-old version of my husband. His T-shirt and blue jeans hang on his body as if they were still in his closet. He pierces holes into a hand-me-down belt so his pants will not cascade. Instead of rooming with fellow freshmen, he lives with his older brother who is married and is finishing a business degree at the same institution. Hence Skyler’s first roommate is a baby nephew, who stares at his uncle through the slats of the crib until sleep overcomes them both. Teenage Skyler dreams of a park near his home, of the boys he has known since kindergarten, of a fickle girl with long dark hair. He is suffering a brutal bout of acne; he is too timid to talk to girls. And, perhaps, this isolation prompts him to talk with God more often than a devout boy might otherwise.

    I am certain what would have happened if Skyler and I met then. We would have been in a general course taught in an auditorium, and we would have maybe sat next to each other by chance. I would have asked for his number so we could study together. If the timing worked out for Skyler’s carpool, we would have booked a study room in the library and crammed for an exam or two. Then our interaction would have ended there because all my flirtations fizzled the day after finals week. 

    But I suppose this is the beauty of our reality: Several years into our undergrad, we both stood at the side of a campus gymnasium after a ridiculous round of Human Hungry Hippos. He wore the same secondhand jeans, and a pimple had erupted on his forehead. Yet I sensed humble confidence behind his eyes and compassion in his voice. Our sweaty, out-of-breath conversation began with him asking “How are your classes going?” It ended with me asking “Wanna go to the symphony with me?”

    Although I look forward to discovering what experiences shaped him from an insecure boy to the man I took to the concert, I am uncertain these diary accounts will provide anything more than additional get-to-know-you trivia. Does it matter that I know Skyler sang as he walked to seminary in the early mornings? Our evening readings feel remarkably similar to my attempts to better know my pappy.

    Skyler shares my worries. Or at least I assume he does, since I know his answer to the question “If you could have a superpower, what would you choose?” He would choose the power to communicate perfectly. From what he has explained to me, it is an ability similar to the Vulcan mind-meld from Star Trek: When Mr. Spock touches Captain Kirk’s temple with his first three fingertips, Spock merges their minds so that he can broadcast the sights, sounds, and feelings of a certain personal experience into Kirk’s mind. Kirk then gains a literal empathy for the Vulcan.

    If my husband and I could communicate perfectly we would certainly avoid disappointment. Yesterday afternoon we kissed each other hello and sat at the dinner table. I asked Skyler to tell me about his day. He responded with the words refactoring, poll request, and framework. During many past conversations, he has defined and redefined these terms for me, yet for some reason I could not find them in my mental dictionary. To avoid embarrassment, I smiled and spooned more peas onto our daughter’s tray. I am a tad worried that our effort for a genuine conversation over dinner was unsuccessful.

    The same was true on the day we drove home from the hospital with our newborn daughter in the backseat, when Skyler asked me what it was like to give birth. I said my abdomen strained, my heart deserved a speeding ticket. I had the urge to push but the fear to push, a warm fluid filled my underwear, the chalky mist of laughing gas filled my mouth. The fire, the vomit, the scream, the sudden relief, the baby lying safely on the mattress. Skyler, who had sat in the hospital room during the entire delivery, responded with blinks.

    If my husband possessed the power to communicate perfectly, I would certainly grasp his daily grind. If I possessed it, he would fathom the enormous change in my body. Unfortunately, only specific alien species can mind-meld. Yet perhaps our struggle to understand and be understood is fundamentally human. Perhaps it is our effort as a couple, whether successful or not, that makes our conversations genuine. And when we do gain a scrap of true, hard-earned empathy, I value it more than the stone in my ring.

    After graduation, we moved to Skyler’s town: Victoria, British Columbia. Initially, I thought of Victoria as another answer to a questionnaire. But after spending three years together in his town, I understood why my husband enjoys cycling so much (the driver’s exams are rigorous), why he isn’t a strong swimmer (only two weeks of July bring a summer heat worthy of the pool), and why rain reminds him of his childhood (it falls 130 days each year on average). He and I wandered through the forested hills, planted peas in our first vegetable garden, and hunted for the tastiest fish and chips among the downtown restaurants. I even birthed our baby in the same hospital my mother-in-law birthed Skyler. And as we got to know Victoria intimately together, the place was no longer just his town that I could write on a trivia sheet. The place had become “our” town, and I got to know my husband more intimately as a result.

    Now we have come to my town, Farmington, Utah, where we live in a suite in my parents’ home. We are not certain how long we will stay, but I hope that, despite the inevitable changes that have occurred in these dry hills since I left for my freshman year, our shared experiences here will be scribbled in our journals and remembered as another “our” town.

    And so, it is true: the grandfather I know in my memory is not the same as the grandfather my older siblings know in theirs, and I doubt I can unearth too many insightful details from the memoirs and speeches my pappy left behind. My mind would undoubtedly categorize them as trivia anyhow. Instead, I embrace my somewhat meager firsthand experiences between my pappy and me, the moments that are not solely his nor mine, but ours: his slightly trembling hand as he dealt the cards, the cowboy tune he blew when I asked him to play his harmonica, a loud whisper that I was his “pal” before he softly slipped into the passenger seat and waved goodbye.


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