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My Bittersweet Sixteen (Creative Non-fiction Piece)

(Hello Reader 🙂 Before you are so kind to read my piece, I would like your help on how to make this writing less telling and more showing, if you can give me some feedback on that OR ANYTHING ELSE, I would be very appreciative!)

       The red and blue flashing lights, the will reading “do not resuscitate,” the sound of my brother’s cries. On January 15, 2009, my grandfather, who I called Opa, which means grandpa in Dutch, died while my entire family was at his house celebrating my sixteenth birthday. With the patriarch of our family missing, it has been very difficult to continue on with life as usual. He was quite a remarkable man and his position in our family will never be replaced.
            My birthday began as an enjoyable day. I walked into my high school that morning to find that my best friend Korie had decorated my locker door with a collage of pictures of all my favorite bands with room for people to stop by and write “Happy birthday” messages to me. Then, my mom delivered a surprise cake to the school during my lunch period. Meanwhile, my mind was occupied all day with the thought of seeing my cousins later that night at my grandparent’s house to celebrate my special day. This year, we arrived at the house at five o’clock, which was earlier than usual because my grandfather hadn’t felt well and we didn’t want to keep him up late. “Happy birthday Miss Sixteen Year Old!” my cousin greeted me when I walked through the door. “Oh, no! Holly’s street legal? Better tell everyone to keep off the sidewalks,” my uncle teased. Soon the conversation, laughs, and general loudness of my large Italian family quickly filled the house. Then, an hour into the party, Opa cleared his throat and mentioned that he had to leave the room. After a while, we realized something was amiss.
            “Can the boys check on Daddy?” my grandmother asked. All nodding in agreement, my uncles and father went into the other room to see what was wrong. In the meantime, my grandma handed me a black velvet box and whispered in my ear, “This is a special gift that Opa picked out especially for you.” I opened it and saw two glistening diamond earrings. I had never had real diamond jewelry before and I was memorized. With astonishment, I looked up at my grandmother and said, “Oh, Oma, thank you! They’re—.” I was suddenly cut off by a loud moaning that came from the other room. Immediately, my dad rushed in. “All the kids go into our minivan,” he ordered as he tossed the keys to me. The questions and comments from my younger cousins and siblings seemed endless as we all sat in the car. “Why did we have to leave the house?” “Is Opa okay?” “It’s cold out here!” “Can we please go back inside?” “Why did Opa make that funny noise?” Unfortunately, my older cousin and I had no answers as we tried to comfort them through our own confusion.
            Soon, a police car pulled up and my brother started to cry loudly. “Why is he here? Is Opa dead?” he pleaded for an answer. “No, no. He’s just here to make sure everything is okay. Don’t worry,” I attempted to soothe. Despite my good intentions, I was wrong. A few minutes later my aunt opened the driver’s side door to quietly talk to my older cousin and me, trying not to alarm the already upset children that were in the backseats. “We don’t know for sure, but we think Opa had a heart attack,” she explained. Before we could even react, an ambulance pulled up and my aunt ran up to it to guide the EMTs exactly to where my grandfather was. As I found out that night, Opa had a living will that read “DO NOT RESUSCITATE,” which kept the paramedics from doing much.
            Some time later, the grim news came in. “Opa has passed away. Come in the house and say goodbye. He’s in the hallway covered by a sheet from the chest down,” my dad announced to us all. As everyone filed out of the van, I didn’t move. “Come on, I know it’s hard, but we have to do it,” my cousin told me with tears welling in her eyes. “I can’t. I don’t want to remember him this way! I don’t want that image to haunt me,” I protested. After several attempts from my dad, aunts, and uncles, my decision was accepted, and I was finally left alone. I remember how hard I closed my eyes as the undertakers came to take care of the body. Thankfully, my efforts were fruitful and I didn’t get a glimpse of the body bag. It wasn’t until I opened my eyes and the undertaker’s van was a safe distance away that I made my way back into the house to join my family. Guests who had arrived late were in tears from the news. They greeted me with a brutal mix of “happy birthday” and “I’m sorry for your loss” sentiments. It was a horrible combination of emotions. That night, my family went home and we all slept in my parent’s room, trying to comfort my mourning mother.
            Later that week, we had a three day wake for my grandfather. This amount was longer than most wakes I had been to. However, it was helpful because every day new people showed up to give support and help us smile during such a trying time. What I remember the most is all the different things I learned about my grandfather through the many people that I talked to at the funeral home. After the last hour of the final viewing, my Opa’s life all came together like a large puzzle, which I managed to form in my mind in my mind later that night.
            On May 24, 1927, Johannes Jacobus Rustemeyer was born in the Netherlands. He had a harsh childhood, filled with extraordinary experiences. His mother died when he was four years old, leaving him with an abusive father to raise him. Being the brave spirit he always was, he often took the blame and beatings for his six other siblings. After four years of single parenting, my great grandfather had enough and put all his children in an orphanage. He ended up returning a year later to retrieve his daughters, leaving his sons behind. The following year, Adolf Hitler needed young men to work. At the tender age of ten, my grandfather was forced into a labor camp in Poland. When he was finally liberated, he returned to a war-torn Holland and joined the Merchant Marines at fourteen by forging his father’s signature. During his service, he travelled to every continent, except Australia. At age twenty-four, he journeyed to America and immediately enlisted in the armed forces when promised a speedy citizenship in return. My family often reminisces about the first thing my grandfather did fresh off the boat. He walked around, found the nearest bakery, and went in pointing at a strawberry shortcake. Paying for it with the little money he brought with him, he proudly sat on the corner outside the shop and ate it, truly feeling free for the first time. A few years after that moment, one day, while on leave from the Korean War, my grandfather met Rachel Pietropaolo. After months of being pen pals, that same woman became my future grandmother. The two had six kids, eventually six grandchildren, and built a wonderful life together during their fifty-two year marriage.
            Though the nostalgic piecing together of my grandfather’s life was therapeutic, it didn’t take the pain away from the next day—the funeral, which occurred on a solemn, cold day. I never shook the eerie feeling that I had while saying the final goodbye to my grandfather in the funeral home, knowing that in the next few hours his body would be cremated. Surprisingly, I didn’t cry the night of his death or even at the funeral service. In fact, it took until the month anniversary of his passing for me to finally let out all my emotions. It didn’t hit me until then that day I would never see Opa again in my mortal life. Before then, it felt as though he was on vacation, but soon he would be at the next holiday gathering. It was difficult to deal with after that sobering revelation, but eventually I got through it. I never stopped missing him nor was able to think about the day he died without having all the sad memories flood back, but I was capable of accepting reality. Not having Opa around while the family was all together or when we visited my grandmother was a strange, empty feeling, but, as unwanted as it was, we ultimately all got used to it.
            Despite the shock of its timing, Opa’s death was not an unforeseen possibility. In the years leading up to it, his health had declined. After the birth of the sixth grandchild, my little brother, Opa began to show signs of Dementia, a deteriorating brain disease. Having little family history to warn us, the diagnosis was a surprise. In the beginning, it was a small annoyance. Opa would forget to turn off a light when he went to bed or leave the water running after he left the sink. However, his condition progressively worsened and eventually developed into full-blown Alzheimer’s disease. There was no brushing off the symptoms anymore. In fact, my grandmother had to quit her job as a paraprofessional at the local elementary school because my grandfather could no longer be left alone. Alzheimer’s is a frightening sickness that causes delusions as well as memory loss and we witnessed both through Opa’s suffering. The incidents were many, but three stick out in my mind more than the rest. First, he started to forget who the grandchildren were. He called my brother “the boy,” my sister “the girl,” and me “Ann Marie,” which is my mother’s name. Although he didn’t remember any of us, I was called by a name because I look very similar to my mother in her younger years. Next, when he was in the hospital for a congestive heart failure scare, Opa woke up extremely disoriented and wanted to know why strange people were in his kitchen. This made him very anxious, and he ended up running out of the room with a catheter bag trailing behind him down the halls. Lastly, he was once in his house and started to believe that the police had bugged it and were spying on his actions. When my uncle, who works for a patrol board, attempted to calm him down, Opa became very violent and took a swing at his own son. Those times were so emotionally draining for us all. I don’t know how my grandmother did it day after day. It was difficult enough seeing him every weekend as we did. The man who we had loved and cherished for years no longer was himself, trapped in a mind that was holding him prisoner. After a long, eight year battle, the heart that endured parental abandonment, the body that survived the starvation of a work camp in the Holocaust, and the mind that could navigate the roughest seas, succumbed to an incurable illness. It will be five years this January since his passing, and I still vividly remember the day he left us.
            I love my Opa and would give up all my possessions to spend one healthy day with him again. He babysat me for the first four years of my life, taught me how to count, and even used to put me in a wagon and bring me to the local park in his town. I will never forget those memories. I’ve learned several things from him and the life he led. To this day, he teaches me lessons as I reflect back on the experiences he went through while examining my own life. I try not to take people for granted, especially my family. I know they are not going to be here forever, so I tell them I love them every chance I can. I also try to live each day to the fullest like my Opa did. He knew how precious life was and how to savor it. Almost five years later and even writing this piece is difficult as I think about my grandfather and the tragic end to his life. However, I now think optimistically and how he was very sick and did not deserve to live that way. There are even times when I can feel his presence around me, like when I sit in his chair at his house or when I find a dime, a sign that my family has deemed as a gift from Opa, letting us know he is with us during tough times. My birthday wil never feel the same and I may miss my grandfather every day; but I stay positive hoping that I will meet him again in Heaven someday.

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About woodh2013

I'm the girl that's named after the famous city of lights and cameras, but am too shy to talk to the kid sitting next to me in class. I'm the girl that blasts opera while I commute to and from school, but is in the crowds of rock shows on Friday nights. I'm the girl who can't draw to save her life, but takes beautiful pictures. I'm the girl who worries about everything, even when things aren't so bad. I can't be put in a box, so you want to know more? Read my work.

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