It was the holiday season. Our house was full of a loud and chaotic family.
Everyone was in our living room, talking over each other and laughing. Our family isn’t a quiet one.
I was 10 years old at the time. I was sitting on the floor, not really present in the chaos around me. I was focused on watching him watch everyone else. Even at that young of an age, I understood what was happening.
His face wasn’t sad, but his eyes drooped a little. His smile was tired, but genuine. He just seemed to be taking it all in. Silently observing and impressing every scream, laugh and voice into his mind.
Being that young, I probably shouldn’t have understood what was going on as well as I did.
But I’ll never forget the feeling I had, just knowing that this time was special. And looking at his face, I could tell we were thinking the same thing.
I remember climbing into his lap at some point that night to the familiar exchange we often shared.
“Pea Pod, who’s my number one?”
I looked up at his face smiling, “Me!”
“You always will be. Don’t forget it.”
Every time he called me his number one, which was with every hello, goodbye and lots of moments in between, I’m pretty sure he was meaning granddaughter. Because I was his lone girl in a pack of boys. And I know he loved all of us deeply and equally.
But to me, especially now, that exchange had even more meaning. And I like to think it did for him too.
I like to think it was a part of our bond and how it wasn’t any more than the others he had with the boys; ours was just different.
Because he knew he had to teach me how to fight, and I knew he was the one I was going to learn from.
A month after that Christmas, I was sitting in a church pew. I was clutching the stuffed alligator he gave me years prior, staring at my dad who was standing in front of everyone.
I squeezed Albert the Alligator just a little tighter as Dad said my name.
“When I think of George as a grandfather, I think about his relationship with my daughter, Jordan. Both of them have had their medical challenges, and there is a connection between those two that is absolutely unbreakable and one of the deepest I know of.”
Sitting there, I felt numb. I was in a fog. But even so, I remember so vividly, my mind shooting back to that moment during that last Christmas.
The loud chaotic scene in the middle of my living room.
The moment the two of us locked eyes and he smiled.
The moments my tiny, tired and broken body rested on his chest, and his arms pulled me into his big, tired and broken body a little tighter.
The way my dad described my relationship with my grandpa a month after that night in the middle of our insane family’s holiday season, was spot on.
Papa and I, we were unbreakable.
We were unbreakable because we were a team.
Every day, both of us had a fight nobody else in our family had.
Both of our bodies were fighting against us.
He was sick, as cancer attacked his body every year that I knew him. My bones and joints are flawed, and every day of my life, including every day of my childhood, has been marked with physical pain, and a body that just doesn’t want to work most days.
Though we were facing vastly different fights, there was something about fighting together.
When my little hand rested in his huge one, canes clutched in each of our opposite hands, we stood in front of our worlds, just a little stronger.
We were unbreakable because we just got it. We got each other.
Truly, nobody understood me better than that man.
As I think about it now, sometimes we didn’t even need words.
Sometimes it was just a smile. Sometimes a thumbs up. Sometimes just a look.
In some moments, I’d face him, standing on my knees, on top of his sitting legs, both of my hands on his shoulders. I’d get my face close to his, staring at his one real eye and one fake eye. Sometimes in these moments, he’d make a goofy face and we’d laugh. Sometimes we’d just look at each other.
A few times I cried, falling into his arms.
Because I knew he just knew. And he knew that I just knew.
We were fighting our challenges. As hard as we could.
Together, we were figuring each day out, but it was hard.
We were unbreakable because he made me into who I am.
Everything I know about dealing with medical challenges, I know from him.
He taught me that a medical challenge is only part of my story.
He taught me that smiling is important. Even, maybe especially, when it’s hard.
He taught me how to be truly joyful. Whether it was us hiding from Mom and Grandma while we shoved candy into our mouths, sitting on the beach watching pelicans dive into the ocean, fishing on the dock or breaking all of Grandma’s rules, Papa taught me how to find the good stuff in everything.
He kept me laughing and made me smile until my cheeks hurt.
He taught me that everyone is battling something. And each battle is unique.
He taught me that while it can feel lonely because I’m the only one physically inside my broken body, I’m not alone. I have an army behind me, as did he.
I have an army of six boy cousins, one brother, two crazy aunts, one rockstar grandma and two incredible parents.
He taught me that being strong is a full-time job. But by the same token, leaning on that army of people and letting them fight with and for me sometimes, is good. And necessary.
He taught me to love the Florida Gators fiercely.
He taught me to not focus on the pain. To push through. Even when every inch of me hurts, he taught me to still keep going. Even when every inch of me hurts, I don’t have to show it. And sometimes, it’s better not to.
Again, reminding me that life is still good, and pain shouldn’t take that from us.
He taught me the power of a good nap, the healing in a giant bowl of ice cream and the magic in a Jimmy Buffett CD.
He actively showed me how to be faithful and grounded. How to hold onto the fact that Jesus somehow has a purpose in this. The sicker he got, the more his faith grew.
The thing is, Papa was my best friend.
He was a fighter. So, I took notes and learned how to be one too.
George Polk was the center and glue of our family.
If I’m brutally honest, him being gone has not gotten easier, at least for me.
12 years later, I think about him every day, and every year of my life with more and more happening, I selfishly wish more and more that he was still here.
Every Christmas, I think about that last one with him.
This time of year is hard for my family.
Things are different, as are we.
Papa was our center. He was the one who pulled everyone together, the one everyone gravitated towards. Now, we’re older and all going different directions.
Now, it’s a little quieter. Even 12 years later, the void is huge.
While we still find lots of joy, it’s still hard.
Because cancer just sucks, this world doesn’t make sense and we want our Papa back.
Learning to cope with that has been difficult. Like I said, I think about him every day and that one last Christmas we had with him, every year.
I know lots of people have similar situations.
That one person is gone. The void is gapping, and it feels just a little bigger during the holidays.
I don’t have answers for it. I wish I did.
I guess this is more a post to let those in similar situations know, you’re not alone.
And it’s a post for Papa.
Papa, we’re smiling. We’re doing our best to make you proud.
Laura, Mom and Amy are still sticking together, bickering sometimes, but still sticking together. Grandma is still worrying too much but laughing even more. Dad has fully adopted your scream that was just for the Gators. And I’m still bossing the boys around, and they’re still not listening.
We miss you every day. It still hurts, a lot, and I don’t think it ever will stop.
Your impact was deep and lasting.
Your stories live on.
We’re growing up, but we’re together as much as we can be.
You told Dad to make sure none of us forgot you. Trust me. You haven’t been forgotten. By any of us.
We think about the pirate patch you’re probably wearing in Heaven, even though you don’t need one anymore.
And while our tears still exist, we’re rejoicing in that.
We’re rejoicing in no more cancer, and the way you shaped us.
Papa. You’re my number one.
And you always will be. I promise.
Don’t forget it.
I haven’t. And I never will.