Last Words Prompt
“‘Good people have nothing to fear.’”
There are some stories I have that I do not enjoy telling. This is one of them. I do not share it out of a desire for pity or as a back-handed acknowledgement of tragedy or really even as a form of catharsis. I share it because the people involved merit the telling.
First, an awful backstory: my cousin, Ryan Zawada, died of a rare form of cancer when he was ten. Obviously, this event devastated my family and, ultimately, sundered it. Of course, none of that was Ryan’s fault. Trust me, you would have loved this kid. He was naturally happy-go-lucky, and a bit of a goof. He would have made you laugh. No one should have to go through what he did, especially as a child. Yet, he was brave and fought. I have learned that it doesn’t just matter how you live, it also matters how you go, if given that knowledge. Ryan is one of my heroes for facing something unfathomable with dignity and grace.
Understandably, illness is a trigger for my family now. So, when my grandfather, Dominick Pape, got sick several years later, it felt like we were being visited by a bona fide curse. Personally, this was very worst case scenario. I did not know my “father” growing up. In fact, the only reason I even met him, in my mid-twenties, was because he developed ALS and thought he should meet me before he died. Honestly, I do not even remember our conversation. So much for closure. Enough about him – I only bring that part up for this: Pops, as we called my grandfather, was one of my major mitigators of that anger. In essence, he was the closest I ever had to a dad. And he was a damn good one, too. He was a kind man. Of all the things he taught me, the most important was how to be ethical. I am ashamed to admit that it took me way too long to walk that path but, when I started, it was him I emulated. He is also the reason I have words in my blood. My favorite saying of his: “You have to plan your work and work your plan.” When the schism within my family occurred, I was left briefly homeless. Take a wild guess who threw his door open without a moment’s hesitation.
Langerhans Cell Histiocytosis. Look that up – there’s literally a one in a million chance of developing that when you are elderly. The medical community does not even agree on how to classify it yet, though it is treated like a cancer. Because it is so rare, it took forever to diagnose and Pops’ condition deteriorated significantly. However, while his body was frail, his spirit was not. He would fight, just like Ryan. His first day of chemo was the last time I saw Dominick Pape proper. His improvement was phenomenal. We watched baseball, and he asked me to bring him the newspaper the next day. One last hopes up moment that would crumble by sunrise.
When someone is dying, they become their true self. Pops grew up during a time when “man” was synonymous with “hard” and “silent.” Yet, he was gentle and a caretaker. That is what made him an actual man. The only good thing that came out of this for me was that I got to meet that person, tell him how much he mattered to me, and hear him say: “When I look at you, I’m just so proud.” Trust me on this as well – tell people you care about what they mean to you, and do it often. Not everyone gets the chance to say it or hear it.
“Death rattle” is not a colloquialism. I pray you never hear this sound coming from someone you love. It will stain you, forever. Knowing this was it, I said my last words to my grandfather, unsure if he could hear me but believing somehow he would. I told him I loved him. I thanked him for helping me make it this far. I told him I was proud of him, too. Then, I said: “It’s okay, Pops. You can let go. Good people have nothing to fear.” Within an hour of my grandmother and me leaving the hospital, he was gone.
After Ryan Zawada and Dominick Pape died, no one said anything but kind words about them. One would expect this, of course, but in their cases I could tell these words were sincere and not mere platitudes. These two people touched the lives of others and those they met were better for it. If I’m being honest with myself, not everyone who encountered me would be able to say the same. I was no saint for much of this. It’s easier to be selfish, easier to blot out pain and justify it later. However, I am not that person anymore. And that is the other reason I share their stories. If you are like them, know that it matters, know that you are creating a legacy, and do not ever stop, even if it gets hard. If you are like me, know that it is possible to turn it around. Live in such a way that when your end inevitably comes, you can face it unafraid.
By Dan Pape