July 8, 2010

universal teachers

Pop Pop died. I briefly referred to him in last Saturday's meme, in the rambling part about why I'm about to torture my 20 month old girl with the delights of a 14 hour car ride (she's currently only ever had success being strapped into a car for 2 hours or less). This trip was my brother's idea; he wanted his children to meet their great-grandfather before he died. My mother was too, too happy when he told her his Big Road Trip Idea (that he and his whole family, me and my whole family, our mother and our stepfather take a Partridge Family-style road trip to see Pop Pop before his time on earth ended, but without the singing and--blessedly--minus Danny Bonaduce). He and my mom jumped up and down together with much excitement after the details were finalized. Everyone else looked on nervously.

Pop Pop died on Tuesday, July 5. His funeral is this Friday. I can't go. It's a long story, but the important thing is that I'd love to be there to say good-bye and support my mother and her two sisters but it's not possible right now, this year. Also, in less than 2 weeks, I'd have to turn right back around and make the drive again. Did I mention Melissa--who's only ever been successful in 2 hours or less drives--would have to make the drive twice as well? Actually, 4 times--north to south, north to south. The portable DVD player and Ni Hao Kai Lan dvd's aren't in our posession yet either. And not having a car-viable DVD player plus Ni Hao Kai Lan dvd's makes 14 hour car trips with 20 month olds my idea of sheer, living hell. I mean, yeah. There are crayons and coloring books and lots and lots of Cheerios. But those are only interesting for 5 minutes, tops, and there are only so many times you can mentally deal with hearing Yo Gabba Gabba's There's a Party in My Tummy.

I wasn't close to Pop Pop. He was a lifelong DamnYankee and I was a daughter of Carpet Baggers. But I do have lots of positive memories of him from childhood. I think I named my favorite stuffed animal I've had since I was 3 years old (a large dog named Luff Pup Pup, currently retired and living in my attic) after him. There are certain smells and old people style of furniture and house decorating I'll always associate with him. My most vivid, oldest memory of him is being about 4 years old, sitting on his lap, and slapping at the cigarettes in his shirt pocket, while he slapped my hand away. That sounds very abusive--slapping and cigarettes. What can I say? It was the 70's. I think Hawaii 5-0 was on in the background during these cigarette slapping games, too.

Before I write about Pop Pop's death, let me preface it all with the following:

1. I don't know exactly what happens to us when we die. And I'm not afraid of death myself--just the process of how I'll get there. For example, I don't want my process to be scary. I'd rather die peacefully asleep, having a nice dream wherein Gerard Butler brings me flowers and brushes hair from my eyes. Or even Alzheimer's would be good, because basically my mind would be gone and I'd have no idea what was going on. Dying in a fire-y airplane crash is not ideal. Neither is being tortured and axed by a serial killer. Being eaten alive by a great white shark is not one of my preferences. I've spoken at great length about this with the Universe.

2. I do know we're energy, and when we die that energy is gone. If you've ever been in a room with a deceased person you'll understand what I mean: when my mother and I found my father dead in bed from a heart attack, his energy was gone. There was activity and noise in the room--the overhead ceiling fan was on, the History channel was very loud. But the room was much, much too still. When I walked into the room, before I even realized he was not alive, I deeply knew something was missing.

3. I believe in a universal something, which I like to call God. But I don't have an exact definition for it, because I think many paths can lead you to it. But it's very good, and it's very loving, and it will intervene if you ask politely. And I thank it a lot. And during really bad periods, I have a prayer I say out loud to it that goes like this: "Help." And it always, always does.

4. I've felt presences before. Mostly just of people--and one pet--I've known...I'm not Sylvia Brown over here. Once, several months after Mom Mom (Pop Pop's wife) died, I was at a friend's house. We were all sitting on her couch after dinner, watching a baseball game and for no reason whatsoever, I became intensely aware that my grandmother was very near me. And I suddenly just knew: Mom Mom was visiting to make sure I was okay. And then she was gone, and I've never felt her presence again.

5. I still occasionally feel my father's presence. We talk whenever this happens. Which is nice, because when he was on this side of things, we weren't able to do that. Actually, my father was a great talker; and now the tables are turned and he's having to silently listen to my ramblings. That's a fine example of Karma at work, I like to think.

Pop Pop's death was not a good death. It was filled with sadness and I'm told he was deeply afraid of death. I don't know what demons were haunting him to give him this fear. I probably don't want to.

When he and Mom Mom moved into their oldest daughter's house about 9 years ago, I think he did it because he thought he'd die before my grandmother and wanted to make sure she was taken care of when he was gone. Pop Pop was utterly devoted to her, and this was a very deep, very codependent, life-long devotion. To the point he told his 3 little daughters they were in the way as they grew up, and he resented them and the time they were taking from him with his wife. Pop Pop wanted to be with Mom Mom aaaall the time. But alone. Once they were finally alone, he was incredibly sweet to her but in a "get up, old woman! get up!" kind of way. Like, after her strokes left her partially paralzyed, every day he'd tie her shoes for her but he'd complain the whole time about having to tie an old woman's shoes. It was cute. In a bizarre way.

And yet, when Mom Mom was hours from her own death, lying in a hospital, Pop Pop refused to visit her, he refused to stay by her side and comfort her, to say good-bye. It was a confusing choice. I'd have given anything to say good-bye to my own father. To this day I'm haunted I didn't get to...I can't imagine actually having the chance to say good-bye and choosing not to.

Pop Pop became terribly abusive the last several years of life. So angry, so bitter. He sat in his room upstairs a lot, refusing to be social. He spent great amounts of time suffering from paranoia, thinking people were talking about him behind his back. He said mean things to and about people, and when they stopped visiting or inviting him places, he couldn't understand why, and he became deeply indignant and incredibly resentful.

After Pop Pop died, my aunt found a letter he'd written a few years ago. It was labeled along the lines of "Do Not Open Until After I Die." Everyone assumed it was a letter of apology for his poor behavior lately, or a maybe a thank you for taking care of him and Mom Mom in their last years of life. It was not. It was a letter of hate, full of resentment and anger, and blame. My heart broke for my aunt and my grandfather when I heard about this letter; it's been really difficult to wrap my mind around.

Because my memories of Pop Pop are the memories of a little girl--he was a really, really good grandpa if you were a little girl.

I've been praying a lot for Pop Pop. When I was in Savannah, I lit a candle for him. I always light candles in Catholic churches. Now I wish I'd lit more for him. I don't know where he is; I hope he's okay though. When my father died, there was only love. People he'd worked with for less than a year came to his viewing, crying. And my father was not a piece of cake that washed down easily with some milk; he could be a bully. He had troubling problems with alcohol and rage. And he lectured, a lot. But there was a deep goodness about him that people sensed; I miss him deeply, to this day. I haven't seen Pop Pop in over a decade; and so I don't know where the goodness from my little girl memories went, who that man who wrote that vicious letter was. Surely, the good grandpa was still in there somewhere. Maybe buried beneath the paranoia and the rigid need to dominate and control? Right?

My mother visited him a week before he died and they had a conversation that went like this:

"When I closed my eyes just now," said Pop Pop, "I think I saw a man reaching out to me. I tried to reach out to him but I was afraid to."

"Pop, that might have been an angel. Go ahead and reach out to him if you see him again, don't be afraid."

"That was no angel. No angel would come for me," said Pop Pop.

"What's that supposed to mean?" said my mom.

"Please don't make me explain it to you," he said, closing his eyes again.

And then, she said, Pop Pop cried.

Which really broke my heart, particularly after I found out about the letter. I don't think Pop Pop cried at my mom's visit because of the angry letter; the letter was written years ago and he probably didn't remember writing it. My heart broke because I don't know who the man who died was; I only remember playing the cigarette slapping game with Pop Pop, being grossed out by his dentures in the water glass, how silly he could be, and my ratty old stuffed dog in the hot attic that will always have his name. And my heart broke for my aunt, because she really put up with a lot of Pop Pop's poop over the last 9 years, not to mention throughout her childhood when my mother claims he was often particularly unkind and very detrimental to a small child's burgeoning self-esteem and sense of place in the world. And now she will have to find a way to forgive a parent who was able to write such a letter to a child.

And so I've been praying to my father and my grandmother's spirits to find him and help him, and I've been meditating, asking the Universe to direct me to the Why and How and What of it all. Why would someone write a letter like that to their child? How could such a nice grandpa who was a good jokester become so hurtfully bitter? What can someone do to avoid ending one's time here in such a manner? Because our time here is so very, very short which makes it so very, very precious.

I guess you just watch, and you learn, and you decide who you want to be and how you want to live. Maybe the Universe sent Pop Pop to us all to be one of our lives' greatest teachers, to help those of us whose lives were touched by his to decide who we want to be, and how we want to live.

I know I've kissed Melissa's smushy cheeks a lot more than I ever have since Tuesday. And I tell her I love her a lot more, and make sure she knows she's my life's greatest blessing. And ditto for my husband. And my cat. And my family. And my friends.

Life is crazy and short, we don't have a lot of time to waste. Live and love freely, and remember who you are, a child of God with great things to do here even if they're very small. My prayer is, wherever Pop Pop is, he knows that now.


  1. I am sorry for your family. This was beautifully written. Thank you for sharing it -

    I think it is our greatest challenge to find the divine goodness in people who seem to hate themselves and others.

    I don't know what else to say here. But thanks. xo

  2. Oh, I am so sorry for your loss. I love reading your thoughts! And I especially agree with you about the energy.

  3. Erin & Beth--thanks. Was I overly emotional? I think I was overly emotional when I wrote this and could have culled about 5,000 words.

    I'm better now. Hopefully so is my aunt. And Pop Pop. :-)



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