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Late afternoon on Saturday I learned that my grandfather died. We called him Popo. He was ninety-four years old and he was like a well-built watch that just kept on working properly until one day he stopped. I had a feeling he was going to die when I learned that he entered the hospital on Thursday. I had trouble sleeping the next few nights, and on Saturday, right before I got the phone call, I was feeling strange and shakey. But he died peacefully, and when asked by the nurses if he would like to be resuscitated if his breathing stopped at any point he said no, he was ready to go. My mother assured me that he wasn’t in much pain and was calm right up until the end. But his death was still as unexpected as a death can possibly be at the age of ninety-four, in the sense that even the Sunday before he entered the hospital he had driven himself to church, and then gone out to lunch, as he usually did on Sundays, with his son and daughter-in-law.
There is so much that could be said about his life, and his obituary outlines the most basic things. But for now, right here, it does not seem like the place for going into biographical details, which I am not very good at getting straight anyway. I think most of the people reading this will have never met him, and the task of trying to accurately convey the entirety of who he was will surely bore my readers and defeat me before I even make the attempt. Suffice it to say that he survived a birth in New York City which involved medical complications, he survived being a child of the Great Depression, and he survived being deployed to the islands of Alaska in WWII. He survived these things and so much more, and was just a steady person who woke up in the morning and made coffee and toast. He bought and sold property around Central Florida. He had lots of recreational hobbies like riding his motorcycle through the Blue Ridge Parkway of North Carolina and taking his grandchildren out on his pontoon boat to see the manatees in Silver Springs, in Florida. And when he could not do all of this anymore, he did not seem very phased by his losses at all. That might be mostly how I would describe Popo: unphased. He was not what I would call a complicated person, and my relationship with him never felt complicated, but was perfectly easy, simple, and sweet. He was funny, and every moment with him I felt myself waiting for the next dry joke. The last time I saw him in July, my parents and I picked him up at his assisted living residence and took him out for seafood. When we pulled in to drop him off afterward, where his elderly neighbors were lounging on benches in the front of the main building, he said, “You all duck down; I don’t want to be seen with you.”
John O’Donohue says that we think that we all inhabit the same world, but the truth is that each person carries within themselves an entire world of their own particular, unrepeatable experience. My grandfather, at age ninety-four, was like an entire world of his own– myriad memories and experiences that began accumulating long before I came into existence, tied to times and places that are quickly vanishing from the living memory of this world’s current inhabitants.
Popo’s voice, forged in the context of Nashville, Tennessee in the 1920s and 30s, will never be in my ears again. In my head I can hear his voice saying my name so clearly. He will never sit across from me at a meal and be his particular self with his particular hand gestures, and so forth.
If my life were a map, many of the people who are important to me would be like cities. Others who only passed through my life more briefly might be like distant counties that show up on the weather channel from time to time. But Popo, my grandfather, would be an entire country, maybe a continent. And how does it make sense that countries can suddenly sink down into the sea, leaving little trace?
I know–there is nothing unique about my loss, and it is true that my grandfather lived a very long life. And all told, he was an ordinary man. It is a loss every time someone anyone loves dies, multiplied by the teeming throngs that populate the earth, each with our own particular pockets of experience and familiarities. But before moving onto the acceptance part, the adept-at-the-practice-of-losing part, let me just say the bald truth that Elizabeth Bishop does not: It is a disaster. It is a calamity. But as it turns out, we have to learn to take loss again and again, relearning again and again that beloved people, objects, experiences, the good year, the bad year, the season, the job, the house, the apartment, are all really as collapsible as tents, and when the time comes, they fold up quite neatly and succinctly and vanish out of tangible reach. Then they become memories. And that introduces a few possibilities, ranging from disastrous, if we think that it is only a matter of time before the memories, too, will disappear, or redemptive, if we believe there is an eternal possibility. Surely there is a place to fold up the entirety of a life in the form of a blueprint, a memory faithful to the original, and keep it safe. That place, I’m afraid, could only be the mind of God. For now, the rest of us have to muddle through it, keeping apace with the losing of things at ever farther and faster rates.
Today I came to work and my boss, Pastor Liz, reminded me that the Presbyterian Ladies were taking us out to lunch. It seemed strange to abandon my desk for almost two hours when I am already missing the rest of the work week to travel to Orlando for the funeral. But it was a nice treat to slow down and just give up on being anxious and trying to get lots of things done, and keep going over in my head all that I need to do before traveling tomorrow. I sat at the table surrounded by quite a few grey heads, wrinkles, festive Christmas sweaters (not worn ironically), one remarkable plaid shirt with Christmas wreaths embroidered along the collar, and one remarkable pair of jingle bell earrings. I really and truly like older people. A grandmother spoke about how she just taught her granddaughters how to play peaknuckle (sp?), and how during the game her granddaughter texted three different people on her phone, and yet still managed to win the game. She just shook her head at this remarkable fact and said, “Even if I did text, I don’t know who I would text or what I would have to say.” Another older member of the Presbyterian Ladies group talked about how she was pleased with her decision to move out of her two story home with its dangerously steep staircases and into an independent living home. And at some point the conversation turned to the Harry Potter series, which most all of them had apparently read in its entirety.