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A Dada Legacy

When I was born six weeks premature, my grandfather was the first family member to hold me. The fact that I arrived in the world earlier than expected was one that I knew from a very early age - with both my grandparents quoting it as not only a massive stress, but also a bit of a miracle.


When I was seven years old and changing schools for the fourth time, my grandfather was the first family member to tell me not to be scared - that I could make new friends easily because I was "a social butterfly."


When I was in high school, I walked circles around the house talking to my grandfather on the phone for over an hour about physics. He was excited I was in a STEM program because he first came to the US as an engineering student half a century earlier.


Six months ago, my grandfather passed away and I have slowly, slowly been writing this post ever since. This had been my first loss in my family, and I didn't know how to expect how it would hit me let alone how it actually did. To be completely honest, I had a tough time of it. With the permanence. I thought about how it changed the verbs I'd use to describe him.

My friends told me it was important to talk about it. But I couldn't use the past tense without tearing up, breaking down. And so instead, I thought a lot. Mostly about the time we spent together, the lessons I learned, and the qualities I inherited. And I tried to do what one friend suggested, which was to keep my grandfather in the world around me - in an object, in a color, in a place. Before I knew it, I was thinking about chocolate. Some of my earliest memories are sitting on my grandfather's lap, sharing Terry's chocolate oranges and "talking frogs" (he came to visit one day and told me he brought "talking frogs" which baby Sara was of course enthralled by the idea of...turns out they were frog-shaped chocolates that crackled and popped in your mouth to "talk").

I also thought about the time I used a pen to draw a flower on his bald head, when I was still young enough to be cute but old enough to definitely know better. I thought about how he didn't flinch or say a word, just laughed along with me. My grandfather was serious, no nonsense. He was legally blind but he was determined to do things his way, to take care of himself as much as he could. With his grandkids, he could be goofy and loving. And even when his laughs were fewer and farther between, he had his own sense of humor that was endearing in that grandfather way.


Four months ago, I started at a new school in a new country to do some science and social science research that can hopefully one day help expecting moms and premie babies. When I was getting ready to move and start this next chapter, I felt scared and overwhelmed. Worried about starting over in a new "school" for the countless time, nervous about jumping into a level of academia and expectations that I hadn't experienced before. But then I thought about my grandfather -- the conversations we had about friends and about science when I was 7 and when I was 17. I feel lucky to have had such positive experiences and memories, such love, from the patriarch of my family. From the man who gave me this last name that in some languages means strong and in another means a form of abstract art. I used to be pretty self-conscious of my last name (that slant rhymes with my first name and therefore became a very easy tease in elementary school). But the funny thing is, "Dada" is also what we called our grandfather. And so in this way, he's always with me.

Some days those feelings of fear come roaring back. The imposter syndrome, the loneliness. And on these days, I go to Tesco and I buy a chocolate orange. I stare out the window, or at my notebook, or into the glare of this blank screen as I peel back the foil and think about the first reassurances I ever received from my grandfather - the first person to hold me, to call me a "social butterfly," to encourage my future as an engineer (sorry to miss the mark on that one!) - and the legacy he left behind. I hope to keep living it.

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