My Papa with the Trembling Hand

by Anna Harmon

“Who are you?” My papa stuck his head through the doorway to my grandparents’ sunroom and looked at me, wearing the meanest expression he could make, narrowing his eyes to scare me. But I wasn’t falling for it. He knew who I was. I had lived across the street from him my whole life. And he was my papa, after all.

“It’s Anna!” my grammy responded, playing along. 

My papa’s eyes lit up, pretending to finally recognize me. “Annie!” he exclaimed, as if I had surprised him.

“You like her, don’t you?” my grammy teased.

My papa returned to his grouchy act and claimed, “I only like her when she sings.”

I giggled, sitting on the sofa, kicking my feet, which barely reached the end of the seat cushions when I had my back pressed against the back of the sofa. 

“Nope! Never!” I said. I’ve always hated singing in front of people.

He always had a tremor. His hand would shake constantly, and it fascinated me. It was specifically apparent when he struggled to open a beer can, unable to keep it still. I watched intently as he stood in his kitchen, his hand trembling while holding his beer. It didn’t worry me. In fact, I loved to watch it. That was my papa, the one I knew, with a joke up his sleeve and a trembling hand coming out of it. Whenever he would hand me something with his trembling hand, I would dramatically shake my hand back when I went to retrieve it. I wasn’t trying to make fun of him. I loved him. I just thought it was funny.

I didn’t find it so funny nearly a decade later when he would stand in one spot for a half an hour, rocking back and forth, unable to get his legs to move for him. And of course, all the rocking on the hardwood floors would cause them to creak, which made my papa believe that his old floors needed to be fixed. So, when he was finally able to get his body to move again, he went straight to his toolbox and began ripping up the floorboards and nailing them back together again. At this point, I was old enough to know and understand the disease that engulfed him: Parkinson’s. The disease that demolishes the mobility of the most restless beings, my papa included. 

I would just sit there watching him, extremely uncomfortable. He was a stubborn man and didn’t want anyone to help him, but it was so hard to sit back and watch my papa struggle. It was so hard to watch him focus more on whether or not his body would cooperate with him that day rather than joking around and playing with me. It was just so hard to watch him fade, all of his happiness, his teasing, his spirit just disappearing before my eyes. Soon the Parkinson’s became so bad that he needed a wheelchair. 

There was a day when my extended family visited my grandparents’ house, and as my uncle wheeled my papa into the living room, he asked him where he wanted to go. “Heaven,” my papa replied to him, looking defeated. I sat on the sofa in the living room watching this, trying so hard not to cry. I knew in that moment that this was not the life my papa wanted to live. And he knew this too. As his freedom deteriorated, so did his spirit.

I had a hard time talking to my papa at this point in his life. The Parkinson’s made it hard for him to put phrases together into sentences, and his hearing was another issue in itself. One day my grammy had to run errands and asked me to walk across the street to her house and keep an eye on my papa as he watched golf while she was gone. I remember sitting there on the sofa next to him, trying to listen to him explain what was going on in the golf tournament on TV even though I could not understand a word he was saying. I felt terrible. I didn’t want to ignore him, but every way I could respond seemed condescending. Although I wish that these issues in communication were the only reasons that I didn’t put more effort into spending time with him, I had others. Seeing my papa this way and watching him struggle made me feel sad and helpless, and that was not how I wanted to remember him. I wasn’t ashamed of him. I loved him. I was just scared of forgetting who he really was. 

Eventually, my papa fell and broke his hip and had to go to the hospital. With his deteriorating body and a different sickness ensnaring him every week, my papa didn’t return to live in his home across the street from my house. He was instead put into a somber nursing home. Of course, his restless way of living, even then, moved him to at least five different nursing homes before he was taken to the home in which he would peacefully die in his sleep two days after Valentine’s Day.

I visited him with my family in the nursing home a month before he died. I was turning fifteen that year. It was my sister’s birthday and we brought cupcakes so that he could celebrate with us. The lights had been turned off so that my sister could blow out the candles on the cupcakes. When my dad turned the lights back on, my papa saw me and was taken aback. 

“Who are you?” He looked puzzled. At first, I thought he was joking, but his face remained in the same state of confusion. 

“Who is who?” my mom asked distractedly as she handed around the cupcakes to everybody. She looked up and saw who he was looking at. “Anna?”

My papa’s eyebrows furrowed for a moment as he continued to look at me. Then his eyes widened as if he were seeing me for the first time. “Annie!” he exclaimed, surprised. 

“Hi papa,” I said quietly, a little confused.

“You look so different, so grown up!” he smiled.

Everyone laughed. “You saw her just last month at Christmas,” they all told him.

But he didn’t. He wasn’t really there, not all of him at least. He had been gradually slipping away from us far before that Christmas day when he was able to escape the nursing home and spend Christmas at my house. But as I was standing in that nursing home room staring back at my papa, I felt for the first time in forever he was there and actually seeing me when he looked back at me. My papa–the one who played with me, the one who always wanted to hear me sing, the one who seemed to not have a care in the world besides a harmless trembling hand–had come back to me in the very last moment that I would see him alive.

I still see him when I dream sometimes, and I still feel like he is with me, watching over me. I miss him every day. When I think about him, there are several different things that I wish for. I wish for things that could have never happened, like knowing what he was like before I was born and before he had developed his hand tremor. There were other things that I wish for that were in my control, and they are the typical thoughts of, “I wish I spent more time with him” and “I wish I told him that I loved him more often.” When I was little, I didn’t know that my papa was not always going to be living in that house across the street from me. By the time I realized it, he was already drifting away from me. I visit my grammy regularly, and after every visit, I hug her and tell her I love her because I now know the value of her presence in my life, something I was too young to realize when my papa was still with me. But above all the things I could have changed, there is one that I wish for most. I wish that just once, because I know that it would have meant the world to him, I would have agreed to sing for him.