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'The Simplest of Signs'

John Hughes, editor of the Deseret Morning News, gives Kirsten Hodgson of Sky View High in Logan the first-place award for the Young Writers Contest, which is held annually by the paper.
John Hughes, editor of the Deseret Morning News, gives Kirsten Hodgson of Sky View High in Logan the first-place award for the Young Writers Contest, which is held annually by the paper.
Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News

As we go through life, we collect memories like pretty rocks or interesting stamps. Some memories seem to be commonplace, and these are those that we put in the back of our minds and forget. But, once in a while, we experience a treasure, a memory that we constantly take out, polish and remember. These are the memories that shape us and make us who we are. These are the ones we want to retain. And this is a memory I want to keep forever.

When my Grandpa Berge started losing his voice in spring of 2004, we were all concerned but didn't think much of it — maybe he had a bad cold that affected his vocal cords. But, as the year went on, he gradually lost his voice entirely, his ability to swallow and the capacity for all movement. My grandpa had Lou Gehrig's disease — ALS — a fatal sickness that attacks all voluntary muscles.

Because I lived three blocks from my grandparents' home, I was very close to my grandpa. One of our favorite things to do was going for Aggie ice cream, then singing cowboy songs on the way home — "Don't Fence Me In" was my favorite. Grandpa was someone I could talk to about my life. He was the one who taught me my times tables while we weeded the garden. I was his first grandchild, and we were very close.

By February of 2005, we all knew that he wouldn't last long. He couldn't even close his eyelids. One cold, gray afternoon I was coming home from a debate practice with my mom when she said we needed to go over to my grandparents' house before we went home.

Walking into the house, we went to Grandpa's room. Their usually friendly home smelled like a hospital, full of medicine and chemicals. I could hear his oxygen machine humming in the corner. My aunt, Britta, was feeding him through his tube since he could no longer swallow. He looked awful, terribly thin and pale from the disease. I felt completely helpless. I walked over to him, sat down on the edge of the bed and took his cold hand in mine. My mom came in.

"Dad, Kirsten is just getting home from debate," she told him. "She is doing very well."

As I looked down at him, I personally disagreed. I was struggling with debate since I'm not a normally talkative or social person, and I was seriously thinking about quitting. The class was too hard for me, and it was too much outside my comfort zone.

Several months before, Grandpa had come up with a sort of sign language to tell us what he needed. As his condition worsened, however, he wasn't able to do much with his arms or hands and couldn't use the sign language. Then, sitting on the bed, I looked at my grandpa, unable to even close his eyes, and he did something that has left a lasting impression on me. As I watched, he lifted his hand slightly and gave me a thumbs-up, his sign for "yes" or "good."

Although this gesture was just a simple thing, it meant so much to me. In his final, difficult days of life, he was encouraging me, telling me that I could make it. He was also telling me that my doing debate mattered to him, that I mattered. "Fight on" he was saying, even as he had fought during his trials in life. I will never know where he got the strength to make this small gesture, but he decided to use some of his last strength to say how much he loved and cared for me and that he was proud of me. It was later that week when we got the phone call from Aunt Britta, telling us that Grandpa had passed quietly away.

Even though he is gone now, I know that he'll always be with me. I miss him horribly, but I can feel his love for me and I know that he is proud of me. His gesture of love has left a deep imprint on me, and I will cherish it forever. I stuck with debate, and I'm now one of the team captains. And although my life still has challenges, when I feel like quitting, I "take out" this treasured memory of my grandpa in his final days, loving me, speaking to me with a "thumbs-up," the simplest of signs.