Throwing junk into my half-broken bag to leave for college, I rushed out to see my beloved Pop-Pop — my grandfather — for what I did not realize would be the last time.
Over Christmas break, my grandfather, Bill Awbrey, a ‘58 UC Berkeley graduate and Navy officer, became very ill. I felt hollow seeing his lively skin fade to pale and his powerful voice disintegrate into silence, but losing him has been a journey I will not take for granted.
I miss him when I lose focus in class. As the professor’s voice drowns out and my notes stop making sense, the recent death of my grandfather overtakes my thoughts. I remember his face lighting up as he gasped with happiness every single time he saw me. No matter how old I was, it made me feel like a little girl again.
As a young girl, I made him a lumpy Play-Doh birthday cake with a candle on top. I was so nervous he would not like it, but he kept that homemade creation on the center of his desk for 10 years. Pop-Pop seeing the love I pounded into the small, contorted cake showed me what feeling special and valued is. It sparked a confidence within me that I needed when I was little. I carry this confidence with me now, as I grapple with his death.
Losing my grandfather is a constant battle of coping with the heavy emotions death brings. There are moments when I feel guilty about feeling happy. I find myself questioning if I should feel joy after someone I love just died. People repeatedly say, “He’d want you to be happy,” but I struggle to accept their advice. I am not sure when I can move on, and if I do, I fear I will forget him. He helped shape who I am and who I will always be. He showed me unconditional love and consistency, as he used to come to all my basketball games, despite his aching knees.
Five years from now, I will still cry when I miss him, but being on campus where his footsteps once were helps me process my loss. I walk the same paths he took to class, overwhelmed with pride as a student to be where my grandfather was. When I look through his copies of the California Pelican, UC Berkeley’s old humor magazine, I see how much my grandfather and I are a part of UC Berkeley’s history.
As I walk through Berkeley, I find precious reminders of his time at Cal. His presence is written all over this town, keeping his memory alive. My grandparents lived in a small apartment on Piedmont and Parker when they were married. My grandma’s favorite memory is when my grandpa came home from class and broke down a door to save a screaming old woman, only to have the police called on him for the loud noise. Every day when I walk home from class I laugh, imagining my grandfather’s typical after-class routine. In these moments, I realize he is still here with me. Living in Berkeley gives me peace, as I can reflect on my grandfather’s life, although his passing was so recent.
But wherever I am, the most powerful way of bringing back my grandfather’s memory is through song. Playing music was the last memory I shared with him. On the night of Jan. 19, after I finished packing, my father and I drove to Pop-Pop’s home for the last time. I brought his favorite ukulele, whispering to him that I was here to sing. Even though he was verbally unresponsive, I felt he was listening.
I sang to show my gratitude for him. I tried to convey the pain of losing him through my voice. I strummed the strings to connect with my grandfather and relive the good ol’ times of us goofing around, singing “Ain’t She Sweet” by the Beatles. I sat with him and sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” choking on tears. He was soon going to be in a place “where trouble melts like lemon drops.” I cried out of joy and pain at the same time, knowing he’d be far away from me but in a better place, “above the chimney tops.” I felt he was singing these words to me, reassuring me he would always be there, waiting: “That’s where you’ll find me.”
Looking up at him for the last time, I saw his foot tapping along to the beat, which made my heart so happy. It was OK, he would be OK, I was going to be OK. Giving him a kiss on the forehead, I looked back for the last time and told him how much I loved him, thanking him for the love of music he passed on to me. I found out later that he had passed away a few hours after we left. Though my heart was aching, in that moment, I knew I offered up the best gift I could muster. I was singing for the both of us, saying, “I’ll be OK, Grandpa — you can go.”
Though my last goodbye to him on this Earth is only temporary, I will always be able to find my grandfather. I find him through my footsteps on campus, in my memories and in the rhythms and lyrics of the songs I will sing.