Remembering Poppop: A Face of Polycystic Kidney Disease

Grandfather and granddaughter at the beachMemories with grandfathers can be some of the most special.
(Photo by Michael Coghlan)

The most memorable photo of my Poppop, to me, is the one where he and my Aunt Denise are standing back to back— both their bellies protruding like perfectly round basketballs. Aunt Denise was nine months pregnant with her first baby. Poppop’s belly expanded from something far less exciting and lovely. He had Polycystic Kidney Disease, which is more common than people realize. To me, Poppop had always had PKD. I never knew him when he wasn’t coming home from dialysis treatments, worn out and bruised. The bruises spread up his arms in the shape of uneven circles that reminded me of birthmarks.

I don’t remember anyone ever telling me that he had PKD, but I’m sure they did, otherwise how would I know? I don’t remember the conversation. I do remember thinking my Poppop was normal, but when my friends met him for the first time they would giggle and ask why he looked like he was pregnant. It never bothered me. I was never offended.

Poppop was goofy and loud and silly, and he told the best stories. Sometimes I think I got my crazy imagination from him. My entire childhood was made up of his bedtime stories about vampires who couldn’t fly, or ducks that were really good at giving directions, or even stories of very normal people doing very abnormal things. He never hesitated to tell a story. Never said, “Later,” or “Not now.” If my brother and I wanted a story, Poppop told one. Sometimes I imagined his brain was like a filing cabinet full of quirky stories he could sort through in a matter of seconds.

Maybe his PKD didn’t affect my childhood, because I didn’t really understand it then. As I got older and started high school, I grew to be old enough to be told serious things. I started to realize how this disease was hurting him. His face began sinking in, his stomach got bigger, he went to bed earlier, and he had to trade his regular lawn mower for a riding one. He was always exhausted.

I never lived in the same state as him and my Mommom, so when my brother and I visited them, we would stay the entire summer. It was these summers as I got older when I noticed the changes happening. The bruises seemed darker; they stretched further. He had to go to dialysis more often, and when he got home, he’d go right upstairs and lie down. We all knew things were taking a turn for the worst. His immune system was bad. He was always so sick.

Hug your grandparents and appreciate their loveHug your grandparents any chance you get.
(Photo by Jillian)

The last time I saw my Poppop, we were visiting from Chicago. I was a sophomore in high school, and he was hospitalized due to heart and kidney problems. Even hooked up to all those wires that reminded me of the back of the TV, he was all smiles. Telling his jokes in that loud voice that took up so much space in the room, it was like another person. A few weeks after, we got the call that he had passed away from heart and kidney failure.

Because Polycystic Kidney Disease is strictly a hereditary disease, it prompted all of Poppop’s children to check their own kidney health. Of his children, my mother was diagnosed with PKD. And of her children, I also inherited it.

Living with PKD is obviously not ideal. Although Poppop has passed on from the very thing my mother and I now carry, I will not remember him for that. I will remember him as loving, imaginative, and silly. I will remember him posing for goofy photos to make fun of himself, and I will forever be proud that he was my Poppop.


Everlasting Footprint encourages everyone affected by polycystic kidney disease to celebrate life together. To learn about PKD awareness for National Kidney Monpth, please visit our Faces of Kidney Disease Group Footprint.

About Liz Grear

Liz Greer, MFA, teaches creative writing, tutors students, and dabbles in ballroom dancing, book binding, paper making, and playing hopscotch between Chicago and New Jersey. She dreams of running a writing workshop in a prison, because she believes words can change things. Maybe not all things. But enough things.

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