His hands. That's what I'll always remember about him.
They were big – big enough to completely enclose mine, whether I was a little tiny four-year-old or a "big girl" sixth grader. I always used to call them "puffy," and while in retrospect that sounds a little rude, to me it was always a compliment, never an insult. They were puffy – soft, gentle, and comfortable in addition to the strength and power I always knew they had.
There were a lot of reasons to hate the chemo, but my chief reason was the way it drained the puffiness from his hands, and covered them in painful sores. It went against all the laws of nature to see my grandpa's hands – his strong, wonderful hands – looking so thin and weak, fingers gruesomely decorated with wounds. Those were the times when I had the most fear.
They were protection, his hands. Whenever I was holding them, I always felt completely safe and taken care of. I'll never forget hiking with him, little four-year-old me scampering after him over gnarled roots and rocks and all the things over which I now tread carefully, fearlessly. And whenever we reached a creek crossing, or a wobbly log or big rock, my tiny hand would disappear inside his as he held me steady and helped me across.
Even when I grew older, and more fearful, his guiding hand never failed to make me feel safe.
It helped, after he died, when I got my trekking pole (or, as I then called it, my "hiking crutch"), but it would never be a substitute for the strength and protection that was the grasp of his hand.
I wasn't the only one he helped. There is a picture of him, me, and my little brother clambering over driftwood logs on the way to the water, my brother and I both holding tightly to his hands. Knowing he would keep us safe.
But it wasn't only the family, either. The world is a better place, thanks to my grandpa's capable hands. And not only because, in one of his great accomplishments, he created a beach cleanup which still occurs every year (of which, though I can't take any credit, I am still very proud), but simply because of everything he was willing to do. He was never afraid to work, never unwilling to help out, always ready to lend a helping hand, even if he did get those hands a little dirty in the process.
Those hands, which could handle oars to canoe across vast distances, helped my brother and me to build block towers higher than our heads on the living room floor. Those hands, which could swing a tennis racquet with ease, drew the pictures decorating the front pages of one of my old journals. Those hands held the chains of the swing, pulling me back very slowly and safely ("Holdonholdonholdonholdon . . ."), and then pushed against my back gently but with enough force to send me soaring skyward on the old yellow swing. And whenever I think of hiking, the first image in my mind is always those hands, either wrapped around a thermos of hot chocolate, pouring me a paper cup full, or holding mine, steadying me on the trail as I climb over rocks and logs.
I refuse to remember the hands ravaged by chemo. That wasn't him. That wasn't who he was, ever. All I ever need to think about is how, after every treatment, the strength of his hands always returned. They always filled out again, that power returning, beating back the hurt. That warm puffiness that has always meant safety to me.
It's been years since he died – years since I've seen him, heard him, talked to him. Years since the last time I held his hand.
But that doesn't mean he's not still with me. It never will.
Because every time I'm lonely, in pain, or just standing before the next obstacle life throws at me, struggling to muster up the courage to climb over it, I can still feel his hand, closing around mine, big, puffy, and safe. Helping me to reach the top.