“But I don’t want you to die.”
My sister Amy’s tearful words sound distant and echoing.
Grandaddy Lee is lying in a bed in the ICU. My parents just stepped outside to give us some privacy. He reaches out, his hands worn but still massive, and takes her shaking hand. He says, “Don’t you worry about anything like that.”
Grandaddy Lee is lying in a bed in the ICU.
The words provide no comfort. There’s nothing I can do. He can’t hold her hand for long; he’s too weak. He drops her hand and falls backwards onto the bed, arms dropping loosely by his sides and his white hair billowing as it hits the pillow. Amy wails louder, words lost between sobs.
Then her crying fades. I am standing in a train station in London. In front of me is a tall, bearded wizard wearing half-moon glasses. He looks exactly the same as the last time I saw him. Except for one thing.
I look down at his hand, which is blackened and withered. He catches me staring.
“Rather unpleasant to behold, isn’t it?” he says. “The tale is thrilling, if I do say so myself, but I’m afraid now is not the time to tell it.” Then he extends his good arm.
What isn’t he telling me? What happened while I was gone? He makes it seem like it’s nothing — but clearly something is wrong.
I take his arm and there’s the familiar feeling of being compressed and pulled through space, and just like that, we disappear.
I’m back in Newnan, Georgia. It’s Wednesday. Grandaddy Lee picks me up from school and drives me to buy a pack of Pokémon cards.
Once in the card shop there is a kid who taunts me for buying Pokémon cards. He has a mean laugh, projected loudly throughout the whole shop. His wide grin makes his face even uglier as he follows me around the shop. I’m scared. I want him to leave me alone. I can’t find Grandaddy Lee.
I tell him to stop following me, but he won’t and instead turns it up a notch. Finally I find my protector in the corner of the shop. I run over to him and hide behind his large frame. Nick is following, but stops in his tracks.
He tells me that I should always do what I enjoy and not care what anyone else thinks of it.
Grandaddy Lee puts a big hand up like a stop sign. “Whoah now,” he says to Nick. “I think it’s time you should go about your own business now, ya hear?” Nick slinks away. He tells me that I should always do what I enjoy and not care what anyone else thinks of it.
I’m back in the ICU and Mom is telling me, quietly, that it’s time to go.
Grandaddy Lee died about a week later. We were totally shocked. He’d only been sick for a month.
What made this worse was that it felt like he could have been saved. The doctors debated the cause of his illness: MRSA, pneumonia, or a simple respiratory infection. By the time they figured out things were much more serious, it was too late.
It’s hard to grieve when you’re filled with anger. That’s how the whole family felt: angry. The doctors hadn’t done enough. They let him die. They left a man without his father, a wife without her husband, and Amy and me without our Grandaddy Lee. It was all their fault he was gone.
It’s hard to grieve when you’re filled with anger.
Why couldn’t they figure it out? His sickness wasn’t pneumonia, it wasn’t MRSA, it was a chronic form of cancer. They wasted weeks swapping him back and forth between treatments, confident that they’d hit on a cure. But two weeks in they ran a new test. It was cancer.
They didn’t even acknowledge that they’d been so wrong.
In the months after he died I immersed myself in the world of Harry Potter again: movies, books, cosplay, everything. Granddaddy Lee had given me the books when I was 10 years old, so reading them and watching the movies felt important.
I had grown up with Harry, Dumbledore, and the rest of the Wizarding World. They were real people in my life. They were my friends. They were my escape. As a kid, I would read each book and then immediately watch the corresponding movie. I followed that routine as I grieved: book, movie, book, movie. Just two months after we lost Grandaddy Lee, I was already on number six, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
That movie has one of the most tragic moments in the whole series. Given what I’d just been through, that moment loomed large. As I made my way through the movie I knew the whole time what was about to happen.
The dreaded scene up on the tower of Hogwarts Castle arrived. The Death Eaters have Dumbledore cornered and wandless. Harry looks on, unable to help, as Snape closes in.
“Avada Kedavra.” Dumbledore dies in a flash of green light and plummets to the ground.
I watched, heart racing, as Harry chased after Snape and the Death Eaters. I felt Harry’s anger as he screamed Snape’s name. I understood his combination of pain and helplessness as he ran after the evil men in long cloaks who had killed his wise teacher. Dumbledore was dead.
I began breathing fast and clenched my fists. My forehead got sweaty. Harry’s loss was real, it felt like I was there alongside him. I wanted to storm into the forest with him, wand held high, and avenge Dumbledore. Then we would rush to the hospital, kick open the door of the ICU and confront the doctors who had failed Grandaddy Lee. We’d draw our wands, line them up against the wall, and question them. How did you miss a simple diagnosis? Why couldn’t you save him? When they didn’t have answers, we’d take our revenge…
My phone rang, jolting me out of my thoughts. I paused the movie. My mom’s picture popped up on the screen and I answered.
“Did you hear about what they’ve done for your grandfather?”
“No,” I said.
She told me to check an article online. As I read, I learned that the Coweta County School System had created the Dr. Robert Lee Award in his honor, given for “leadership, vision, and courage.”
I couldn’t save my sweet Granddaddy Lee, but it seems I didn’t have to.
I was struck by how much he reminded me of Dumbledore. The award created in his name proved it. Courage. Leadership. Vision. He wouldn’t have wanted me to be angry or vengeful, he would have wanted me to celebrate who he was and what he did. To keep him alive in memories. I couldn’t save my sweet Granddaddy Lee, but it seems I didn’t have to.
After all, those we love never truly leave us. When we really need their wisdom and their strength, they’re always there.