I should warn you that this post is long and, for the most part, more for me and my own memory than anyone else. It has taken me seven months to write it; but, today, something clicked, and I was ready… It was hard to write (and may be hard to read), but I want to remember the rawness of this loss, and hopefully have something I can share with my children one day to give them a tiny glimpse into a relationship that has meant SO much to me.
Those of you that have been around for a while know what a special relationship I was blessed to have with both of my maternal grandparents, but especially my Poppy. My anecdotes about the crazy things he said and did were a fan-favorite among my earliest blog readers, and he was never slow to provide good content. He was a firecracker of an old man and absolutely kept us all in stitches (usually not on purpose)… More than that, he was genuinely one of my oldest and very best friends. I don’t know what it was exactly, but I think anyone that knew us both would agree that we had a special bond – even beyond your typical grandfather-granddaughter relationship. Oftentimes today, when I am going about my regular business of teaching young minds, I’m reminded of some of my earliest memories playing “school” in Poppy’s basement. Tom, as I called him, was my only pupil, and he was notorious for getting in to trouble or dosing off during lessons.
When we were little and would have sleepovers at Granny and Poppy’s house, my sister always slept in curlers in the bed with Granny, and I always slept upstairs with Poppy. To this day, I can still imagine every detail of his striped pajamas, sheets with rocking horses, and the donuts he kept in the freezer and let me dip in his coffee in the morning. From our annual summer vacation to Myrtle Beach, to picking persimmons in the park across from his house every fall – there are very few memories from my childhood that don’t involve my first and closest pal.
They say there is something uniquely wonderful about the role of grandparents, and I couldn’t agree more. I see it already as I watch my own parents and in-laws evolve into that role themselves. Sure, there’s the fact that they don’t have to “parent” or “discipline” the way a child’s own mom and dad do; but, I think, more than that, it’s just the fact that they are AVAILABLE.
In a culture that is always so so busy, Poppy never was.
I could call him up at 5:30 (and often did) to see if he wanted to grab a hamburger, and he was ready at 5:45. In college, every single time I drove home, he sat by the phone for the whole six hours praying and waiting (and- no doubt – cat napping) for me to call and say I had made it safely. Later, he rode along on errands with Sam and I so that I could run inside hassle free while they waited in the car because he “had nothing else to do” on the long days. And, in what has become one of my most precious memories of him, for months he knocked on my front door every afternoon at 4PM with a clementine to share with Sam.
I never really blogged about losing Poppy back in March. It was a weird time for me – my blog was in transition back then and, more than that, the loss was much harder on me than I had ever anticipated. This was a man who promised me a trip to Disney World when I turned 13 “if he was still alive,” and told the clerk when he bought his suit for my wedding that “the only a reason a man my age should be buying a suit is to be buried in it.” It may sound terrible to some people, but death was one of Poppy’s favorite conversation topics (not to mention his hobby of taking Sunday afternoon drives out to visit his burial plot), and something we’d come to take pretty lightly in our family. *A favorite family story is the time he was having a heart attack and no one believed him. My sister – the hard hitter of the group – insisted that we take him to the emergency room to “teach him a lesson about faking it.” He spent the whole drive there talking about stocks that were about to mature and instructing us – under NO circumstances – to allow any life-saving interventions. Sure enough, when we arrived, it turned out he was having a heart attack, and he immediately told the doc to “do WHATEVER IT TAKES” to save his life.” He kept us on our toes alright.
I guess when you grow up with someone 70 years your senior – especially someone who wasn’t afraid to talk about death – a part of you assumes you will be “prepared,” when the time comes, to say goodbye. I wasn’t. Now, looking back, I can see that losing Poppy never felt like a reality to me… It felt like some abstract thing of the future that we joked about and never really expected to come…
But, as it does, the time did come. It started as a bad ear infection (of all things) in June of last year and slowly worsened over the next nine months until one day, in early March of 2014 – with my mom, dad, uncle, and me sitting by his side – he just simply stopped breathing. It was one of the most peaceful things I have ever experienced and all you could ever hope for in a loved one’s last minutes. I fully believe that Poppy was comfortable and ready to go. Never once was I sad for him.
Twice a day every day now, I drive by the care center where Poppy spent his last month, and where I said my final goodbyes. It is right down the street from my school and for several weeks I spent all of my lunch breaks and many of my afternoons at his bedside. Though the Poppy in that hospital wasn’t the same Poppy that taught me to swim or embarrassed me by asking if my new spaghetti strap shirt was a “training bra” at my 16th birthday party, those days spent holding his wrinkled and frail hand are some of the most treasured days of my life.
In his final days, I sat on his bed and reminisced about all the things we had experienced together. I asked him questions about his own childhood – though he could rarely answer. We shared milkshakes (I drank most of them), and I played “bird sounds” on Pandora to remind him of his favorite past time – sitting on his back patio in the sun. I combed his hair, helped him take his shoes on and off (he was very picky about this there at the end), and giggled with him about the nurses (who were all so wonderful). There was nothing left unsaid between us. I was able to thank him (profusely) for the role he had played in my 30 years of life, and the way he looked at me and hugged me told me everything I needed to know about that feeling being mutual.
One of my very favorite days was about a week before he died. He was looking so weak to me – almost unrecognizable really – that I had worried about bringing Sam to see him because I was afraid it would be scary or upsetting for him; but, after discussing it with the hospice workers and doing some internet research, I ultimately decided that I wanted him to see his only great-grandchild one more time before going home. I will never forget the moment I brought Sam into that room… Without even the slightest hesitation, Sam lit up and jumped into bed right next to Poppy like nothing in the world had changed. They may not have known each other very long, but their bond had been forged…
AS A SIDE NOTE: I was convinced Sam was going to be a girl when I was pregnant with him. But, much to my surprise, we found out just two days after losing my Granny in 2011 that he was, indeed, a little boy. I was confused by that back then because it just seemed natural that God would send our family a girl to name after Granny and be a sweet reminder of her. But, looking back, I understood that God sent us a boy (at least in part), for Poppy. People had warned us that men often don’t live long after losing their wives (especially ones that were already 12 years older than their brides); but Sam brought Poppy new life. He was SO proud of him – always talking about “how smart” he was, completely fascinated by his growth and development, and forever enamored by his grins and giggles. It brings me so much joy and comfort today to know that these two (two of the most important men in my life) got to spend almost three years together. I will be forever thankful for their little relationship, and I smile just thinking about my little lefty being an awesome baseball player in honor of his great-grandpa “Pepper” one day.
It has been more than seven months since then. The loss does get easier to handle, but it is still there. Almost daily something happens that reminds me of Poppy, and all too often I’ll be driving home from work and the thought of “I think I’ll stop by and check on Poppy” casually pops into my mind. I get a knot in my throat thinking about how much I miss my old bud… In a way, losing my grandfather was one thing (in a sense we grow up knowing to expect that) – but losing my friend has been the part I wasn’t prepared for…
Something about this pregnancy especially has made me think of and miss Poppy even more here lately… I wanted a baby a year ago, but God just kept whispering “wait.” As February and March came and went last year, I realized that – at least in part – God’s gentle message had been so that I could invest in and spend that time caring for and loving the man who had given SO much of his time to me. The reality is that I couldn’t have done that with a new baby and toddler at home. (It should also be noted that Jeff and Jennifer – our sitter – were an AMAZING help with Sam during that time.)
Ironically, this new baby, whether a boy or a girl, will be born almost exactly a year after Poppy left us. Every time I think about that, I get choked up about how big and how good God is. Poppy started getting sick in the summer, we had nine months to prepare for him to leave us, and he finally went home in March. (Much like my pregnancy, only the opposite in every way.) I’m not sure exactly what that connection means, but it means something to me. If nothing else, it means that Poppy and Granny helped put the finishing touches on this sweet baby in heaven – that they knew him/her even before I did, and are sending him/her as a love gift to me (to our family). While this baby (and any future children) won’t know their great grandparents here on earth, I am confident that they will, and do, know them…
P.S. Dear Poppy, per your request, we didn’t have a funeral. Instead, we had a party. There were crab cakes and wine and LOTS of stories. We celebrated you and your long and full life… Uncle David is living in your house now. He has painted the outside and, surprisingly, I really like it. Sam still calls it “Poppy’s House” and probably always will. (I’m ok with that.) I took a few things of yours for my house – I hope you don’t mind. A little train for Sam’s room. The photo of you in the navy. Granny’s old “bar cart” that I’d had set aside in your basement for years. I also took all the National Geographics with “Tom” scribbled all over them. I know I ruined their “value,” but they are priceless to me. We miss you every day, but in our hearts you are alive and well (and, hopefully, playing golf in heaven).