A few weeks ago, my dad went to visit his parents. His mother, my grandmother, hates her iPhone, but she was rather excited to learn that she could “video call” me, no matter how far away I am. That day, after my train back to Edinburgh from Glasgow, I called her up.
“Larry!” She called out to my grandfather after she picked up. “Come over here quick and look who’s on the phone.”
After looking for the house phone first and realizing that was the wrong phone, my Pop Pop smiled when I came into his sight, just like he always did.
“Hey, Kaitlin,” he waved before adjusting his glasses. The screen was crooked like his smile. “How’re you doing over there? How’s Europe?”
I filled him in quickly—told him things at the internship and in class were good, the weather was cold, the usual things we might talk about—and he nodded.
“Well, you keep it up out there.” He smiled again before turning to the living room, his original destination. “We’re proud of you. Bye now.”
I didn’t think it would be the last time we got to speak. It’s one of those things that you think won’t happen to you, that you think only ever happens to other people and you read about in study abroad blogs like this one, ready to brush off as an issue you’re never going to face. Then, it actually happens to you.
When I was sitting at my internship one Wednesday afternoon, my dad texted me to tell me Pop Pop was in the hospital. I was shaken up at first, mostly because it felt so sudden, but I thought to myself—and proceeded to share with my coworkers—that it always seemed like Pop Pop bounced back from everything, even at 85, so I had nothing to worry about. I didn’t really hear much after that, so I went on assuming everything was going well. In a routine phone call with my mom about five days later, I happened to casually ask how Pop Pop was doing and was met with a deep sigh. “Not very well, so you should keep him in your prayers.”
I woke up the next morning with a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach. I wouldn’t call it a premonition. I don’t know if I believe in those, but this might be the closest I ever come to thinking I do. I was on my way out the door for Nando’s and a round of bowling when a text popped up on my phone, and I knew it was bad news.
Pop Pop had passed away, and here I am, an entire ocean away with no means of making it home to say goodbye and knowing that, in a way, I had kind of missed my chance. I have known grief up close, and that is not something we need to talk about here in any way other than acknowledging how different it is. There is something much more tangible about close grief—when you see it and feel it, find the familiar smells and the sounds and the voices of the people who knew them too, who loved them as you did.
I was not alone in my grief, and I won’t be alone going forward. But it’s different. Something about it is never going to feel real, knowing I am this far away, knowing that the last time I saw my Pop Pop was on the screen of my phone that’s only a few inches big. I’ll think about how his face lit up when he saw me on that goofy little screen forever, though.
When you can’t go home, when you lose someone as far away from home as you can possibly be—in a place where there are few roots to attaching you to the people you love—it’s really, really hard. Grief is draining and it is hard and it leaves you wide awake and overthinking, wondering if you’ve made the right choices if going away was worth it.
Maybe you’ll be in a place where you can do the things that the person you lost would have loved. Or maybe you’ll have to do what I did, and go on with your night, your following day, your week carrying them around with you.
I kept doing things I know he would have loved to hear about, and that is what I’ll do until it’s time to go home in the coming months. Maybe it won’t feel real until then, and maybe I will carry this around with me every single day until it’s up close again.
Now, I will remember that Pop-Pop loved to golf and that he would’ve loved all the golf courses in Scotland and that he was very, very happy that I was going away and following my dreams or whatever. I’ll get to say goodbye the right way eventually. Today’s just not that day.