It’s been three months since my grandfather died. It’s crazy to think about it. It has been a difficult three months. For those of you who don’t know, I called my grandfather PopPop. As did my friends, other family, and random strangers. Some called him the Candy Man, some called him a dirty old man (make no mistake, he definitely was), he called himself Crazy Bernie, but to me, he was always PopPop. I’ve thought about the right words to honor him and remember him for a long time. To be honest, for several years I’ve wondered what would be the best thing to say about him and I’ve hit a wall. There’s a lifetime of memories and things to share and none of what I put into words can do him the true justice he deserves. But I’m going to try.
PopPop and I were extremely close. More than what most people would consider in a grandfather-granddaughter relationship. Attributed to being the youngest grandkid, or maybe the only girl – I couldn’t tell you. But we had an amazing relationship. And I’ve recognized that the very reason these past three and a half months have hurt so much and have left me in tears or staring off into space at some random times is BECAUSE we had such a good connection with one another. We were involved in one another’s lives.
My dad and PopPop worked together. They did everything together really. Every morning PopPop would be waiting in his car for my dad outside our apartment. Back in the ’90s, PopPop had this ugly brown car. I have no idea what kind of car it was, but I hated the color and I hated that it always smelled like smoke (he used to smoke way too much). My dad was rarely ready before my brother and I had to leave for school, so we would often get rides from PopPop instead of having to walk. It was about a mile, but especially on days when the weather was bad – best days ever. And the car had a bench seat in the front so you could actually sit 3 people if you wanted to. And I was super tiny as a kid, so naturally, I would sit right next to PopPop in the middle seat. That was my seat.
Somewhere along the way, PopPop discovered I liked these gummy burger and pizza things. I have no idea if they still make them (I haven’t had them in probably two decades), but at one point, any time I got in his car, he’d have a bag of them for me. Because that was the kind of person he was. PopPop was the first person to let me “drive.” We were in Pennsylvania (my grandparents had a vacation house up there) and my brother and I were fighting so he took me for a ride to get away from the chaos for a little. Just us. We went down a state park and I remember asking him if I could drive and without pause, he put me on his lap and I got to drive the ugly brown car. I vividly recall him not even having his hands on the steering wheel (that may have been ignorance on my part, but blissful I most certainly was)! I was probably 6 or 7. I went back to that state park the day after his funeral with my parents and brother and the memory of going down that road with him scared the life out of me. No person in their right mind would let a child even pretend to drive that road! It’s super narrow and windy. But he didn’t hesitate.
PopPop would often pick my brother and I up from school too. Both our parents worked and the alternative was after school. PopPop picking us up was way better. We’d go to this restaurant called Zeke’s. I don’t even remember the kind of food there and they’ve long since closed, but we went a lot. There was a park across the street from there that we would go to after eating. The best. And when PopPop was ready to leave and we weren’t? I would scream: “Stranger! He’s trying to take us!!” I was a brat. He would throw his hands up in the air “Oh! Ho, ho! No, no.” and we would get to play a little longer. It never occurred to me then that he still continued to take us to the park after we pulled those stunts. When I went to high school I figured the rides to school would stop – I was going to a school much farther away and traffic would be a nightmare – the train was the only logical transportation. But I still got to see PopPop in the mornings, waiting for my dad. And a few times, I did get a ride. Who was luckier than me?
As kids, we went to PA a lot, but after my grandmother had died, not so much. We started doing other things and PopPop came with us quite a bit. We went to Disney World. We went to the Grand Canyon and Sedona. Skiing in Killington. Yup, my 78 year old grandpa went skiing with me. We went on a cruise in Hawaii. That cruise was when I realized my sweet, kind, thoughtful grandfather was also a dirty old man. I don’t remember him drinking in my lifetime, but according to his stories (and some family members’s stories), he could drink. We had just gotten on the boat and my parents and brother were off doing something else, so him and I sat at the bar and sipped on some sodas. And the stories. Oh the stories he told! From his Navy days, from married days to his current days. Things no granddaughter should hear. Had they been told by anyone else – hysterical. And good for him. But not my PopPop! But we became closer on that trip. I was always the favorite
(I’m joking, but really I’m not). And when I told him I was joining the Navy? Forget it. I could do no wrong. I was already at an elevated status in his mind. Joining the same branch of service as him? Set for life.
PopPop has always been there for me. When I graduated from high school and college, he was there. He came down to Florida when I got my master’s and spent the week with us in Disney before I actually walked across the stage. That was an awesome experience. When I commissioned into the Navy, I don’t think I ever saw him look prouder. The night of my commissioning was the Navy Ball and we attended. My favorite picture of the two of us was taken that night – the last dance I ever had with him. When I was stationed in Hawaii, he came to visit again with my parents. I got to give them a tour of my ship and after running into my CO, we went to the bridge for him to sit in the Captain’s chair. Another proud moment to share.
In the past few years, I’d gotten used to calling PopPop just to say hi. Or he would call me. Our conversations were always short, but meaningful. If I was unable to answer my phone, I’d get random messages. “Hellloooooo. Anybody home? Haha. OK! Goodbye!” He had a distinct way of saying goodbye. There was the very staccato way. Almost as if it were one syllable. The race to saying it the quickest. Or the drawn out “Good-bi-eye” as he shook his hand at you as in a ‘get outta here, crazy.’ There were a lot of mannerisms he had like that, though. His expressions were priceless.
The week before he died, he made it clear that he was ready to go. He had been in the hospital and I was lucky with work that I could be home to see him as often as I did before he passed. He was always in good spirits. We had some alone time at one point and I wasn’t ready to accept that he was going to go yet and had brought up a conversation him and I had had in July. We had agreed that he would live to be at least 103. I initially had said 100 and he laughed at me, saying a hundred was too young. It would be 103. So that day in the hospital I told him he wasn’t allowed to go – he promised me another seventeen years. The look in his eyes was what I needed to accept that he was ready then – he was just waiting for us living people to catch up. He told me a lot of things that morning, but what I choose to share with you is summarized to this: Live. It doesn’t matter what everyone else thinks, you just need to enjoy every minute of when you’re alive. When I couldn’t help but cry, he yelled at me. Told me not to waste my time mourning – he had lived his life and had more fun than he should have.
Throughout that week he told us of heaven. It’s a beautiful place. And all your sins are forgiven. Even the ones you might be nervous about – you’re good. PopPop was never all that religious. He gave me rosary beads at my First Communion that were in a very nice box that says “The family that prays together stays together” and has come to every single sacrament I’ve received in the Church, but otherwise not so much. He died on a Monday. The Sunday morning before he asked me to pray for him (I had visited before going to church). When I got back after church, he had taken a turn for the worse. I was closing on my house in Virginia (yes, I moved again) the next day and had to get on the road. When I told him I needed to go, he laughed at me and told me he’d get there before me. And laughed. He was in so much pain, but he still laughed. “Good-bi-eye” he said to me as I tried to hide tears, knowing this was truly our last goodbye. It was the only time he said that to me without waving me off. Mostly because we were holding hands. My dad and aunt walked me to my car and I’ll never forget me aunt asking my dad “what happened?!” in disbelief. We thought even that morning that he was going to make it through this. My dad’s response: “He lived 86 years.”
I closed on my house and took care of some new owner things before making my way back up to New York Monday afternoon. I stopped for some dinner and was messaging a close friend saying I was pretty sure he had passed, but no one was answering my calls. I just had this feeling that it was THAT moment. I had just gotten back on the road again and was about halfway home when my mom called with the news. You know that even when you expect the worse, it still feels miserable to hear it and confirm the truth behind it. I had to pull over again to let it truly sink in. I texted two friends. I couldn’t use the words and I certainly couldn’t say it over the phone. And I pulled it together as much as I could and got back to driving. I was overwhelmed by the support my friends showed. They passed the word along to make sure I had someone to talk to and distract my thoughts so I could make it the remaining 4 hours that night. And then even moreso by the fact that almost all my friends had met PopPop at one point or another. Because he was that important. My friends knew my grandfather. And loved him. Because how could you not?
To everyone who reached out – it is greatly appreciated. There are few words that can really make a difference, but your presence (physical or through phone calls or messages) meant the world. Especially you Queens folks that braved the R train to come to the wake and funeral.
To the man who taught me:
- some people are screwballs and should be treated as such
- $20 will get you crack if you’re ten years old
- to always have a spare napkin or two (you neva know when ya gotta go)
- not to take any wooden nickels from anybody
- laugh when people are angry with you
- live and be happy
- you always love me, no matter what
- and so much more
– you are forever missed.
My last saved voicemail from PopPop was from May 6th, 2017. It’s 7 seconds long and I had no idea I still had it until another friend had left me a message and I saw his name on the saved messages list. I say these words back to him now:
“I miss you. I love you. Good-bi-eye.”