(Note: I’ve taken the liberty of anonymizing the text a bit. Names have been changed to protect non worst-writers everywhere. That said, I’ve lost my step-father recently–and I’ll miss him.)
Dear friends, guests. We are gathered here today to pay homage to a friend, an uncle, a colleague, a neighbor, a father, a stepfather, a grandfather, a husband. Thank you all for coming.
Before I begin. I feel obliged to air something. As some of you are aware, Pop-Pop is Catholic. This is a Lutheran Church. If I’m not mistaken, according to history, there is a big difference among these two Houses of worship. Really. I had to go to Germany–the land of Luther–to figure this out. The thing is, when I was young, I only attended Pop-Pop’s church. Yet I was baptized Lutheran. Needless to say, there is confusion being reared in step-families. Nomatter. I grew up in and around Catholic worhip. And I know Pop-Pop wouldn’t mind that he’s with us here in this House today.
Due to Pop-Pop’s situation over the last few years he was unable to attend his Catholic Church down the street. My mother started bringing Pop-Pop here to this Lutheran Church, her church, after that. When I accompanied them to this House I could tell that Pop-Pop was happy to be here. On behalf of my mother, I want to thank Pastor So-N-So for looking after Pop-Pop in this time of spiritual need. But I also want to especially thank-you, Padre, for the past few weeks.
When I heard you rushed out to the hospital the other day my heart fluttered, I was joyous, I could feel the compassion four thousand miles away. I know. It’s what you do. It’s your calling. But it’s also more than that. Because I know your compassion is not only for Pop-Pop. Thank you.
Mother, Liebe Mutter, I will not be able to convey in words here today the praise that you deserve for what you have done all these years. Sister 1, Sister 2, Sister 3 and I–And I’m sure I can say this for friends here, as well–we are proud of you. You cared for Pop-Pop at home to the limits of what was possible. And after that–when you allowed others to help in his care–you cared for him more.
Pop-Pop was my stepfather. And more often than not, I had trouble with that label. To me, most of the time, he was just dad or gogo and sometimes he was didi. I spent all of my youth with him. He gave me a home when I didn’t have one. He raised me when no one else would. And allow me to say in my own defense: raising me was easy.
To me, Pop-Pop was an intimidating man. The big police-like-man. The man I would tell people was on the special security detail for Governor So-N-So of the fifty-second-state when the governor visited the District of Columbia. Pop-Pop told me once, with a smile, that Governor So-N-So wouldn’t have been assassinated if he was by his side that day. I believed him. Pop-Pop was a man-of-law thru and thru. Even years after retiring from his duty it always felt as though being a man-of-law was part of him.
I remember him watching the movie (insert favorite title here) on one of his many visits to the old country. I got the film for him on DVD because it was the only way for him to watch something in his native English. He never heard of the movie but he really enjoyed watching it because it is about what he did as a man-of-law. He was not only a crime investigator but he also policed thought crime and misdemeanor’s of the heart.
Did I mention this man was intimidating?
I know. None of you get that. Pop-Pop was a nice guy. He was a fun guy. Whether with friends and neighbors watching the Team-A play on Sunday or finding a reason to dance to Polka music after Team-B lost. He knew how to have a good time. Yet. Let me say this after spending part of my life with this man. As accustomed to it as his generation was–besides all that intimidation that I felt from him–he never once desciplined me. It took a few years for me to realize it, but there was a good reason he deligated that to someone else. Plus. I was easy to raise.
What I hope to leave you’all with today, what I hope to communicate to you, is my appreciation for Pop-Pop. I just want to say today that I appreciate Pop-Pop. But more importantly, I appreciate what he did for my mother for the past forty years.
As you may know, in his last years, Pop-Pop succumbed to a disease. Even though he suffered from a heart attack at a fairly young age–and after that going through various heart surgeries and other treatments–then there were the back injuries that also required surgery–and let’s not forget the good’ole prostate cancer. He survived them all. Pretty good job. Then comes this other thing.
It seems these days the word Dementia or Alzheimer is everywhere. Most people don’t even know there’s a difference between the two. Trying to get informed about them isn’t all that easy either. Ultimately, I reckon, it doesn’t matter if there is a difference. Because there is one very important thing that makes them somehow the same. Fixing all that other stuff, as amazing as it is, is petty in comparison. They can’t fix this because there is no operation, no drug, no treatment–to get in to the place you see every time you look into those eyes.
For years now I’ve been traversing the Atlantic to come home. It’s always time to see the folks. I used to travel once a year. That turned into two times a year. Then Three. How ’bout five times? This is my fifth time here in a year. That’s a record. But I don’t want to complain about how we are influencing US Airways’ bottom line. Or how much fun I have figuring out how to get on T-S-A agents nerves at USA-Number-One International Airport.
I mention the travel because it has given me a unique point-of-view. I witnessed Pop-Pop’s illness, sometimes intensely, but only periodically. There was progress of this ailment with every visit.
I saw him a few years back when he started to lose control of his hands. We were doing stuff around the house. You know, sea air really does a number on houses built in the raging beach seventies. Things need to be done to keep them from falling in canals. It was chore and fix-it day. But before it could get started, Pop-Pop asked for help. That was a change. His asking was different. It was the way he was asking. I mean, hand him a screw-driver here, or hand him a hammer there. Sure. Not this time. This time chore and fix-it day was different.
At first I thought a meteor might have hit the house because of the way he asked for help. But then. Suddenly. Without saying anything. I could see that he just couldn’t hold the screw-driver anymore, he couldn’t hold a hammer either. This was already long after he couldn’t raise his arms above his head to reach something. No problem, I thought. I took the screw-driver. Of course. And we fixed it together. And I didn’t mind him saying after we were done that I broke it more. I broke the meteor more.
Remembering that, I can’t help but think about him twenty-five or thirty years ago. How graciously and meticulously his hands worked month after month on his new crabbing boat. It was his fixer-upper galore. His fixer-upper ninth symphony. He bought an old but salvageable flat bottom, all-wood boat. It was gonna be the perfect solution to the old wobbly aluminum boat that would almost tip over while trot-lining for crabs. And what a boat it turned out to be. It was beautiful. And boy did it work. He was very sad when he had to sell it because he couldn’t bring it to ocean city.
Then there was the time, maybe three years ago, where I thought I should give our hunting rifles a cleaning. They hadn’t been used in years. When I was young he had instilled it in me to take good care of the weapons. It was my job. At first, when he saw me at the gun cabinet, he didn’t want me messing with his stuff. But even then if you told him something calmly, and you repeated it a few times, explained it while looking in his eyes, he understood. We’re not going shooting or hunting, I said. I just want to oil them down a bit. We don’t want them to rust. He stood there the whole time and watched me–like any man-of-law would. When I was finished I think he was pleased.
And that reminded me of the time… I almost shot him.
I think I was about 13 or 14. You know, the age of youthful wisdom and grace. We were hunting in Southern Maryland. We were out for squirrel. Our hunting strategy was to each find a spot in the woods and wait, patiently. You know, for the squirrels to come to us. When that failed, as it usually did, we walked the woods about ten yards from each other to see what we could rustle-up.
We were walking along and Pop-Pop was to my left.
My twenty-gauge discharged.
To my left.
I can still see it now. The bursting smoke. The devastating sound blast. Moist leaves filling the ignited space between us. When I came to my senses, I had dropped my weapon and looked around–where Pop-Pop was standing. He was standing right in front of where the shot landed in the ground–only a few feet away from him.
So much for youthful wisdom. And Grace.
Eventually Pop-Pop put that gun back in my hands and said. With a smile.
I was visiting in November last year. Pop-Pop was having trouble communicating. He couldn’t put his words together. I would tease him a bit here and there– when mom wasn’t listening. He would say something inaudible while watching over me trying to fix something, trying fix the deck or a rusted lounge chair. Random words would come out of him. And then there was that smile. I thought he was teasing me. I could feel that he wanted to say that I better do this or do that–or you’re breaking it more. But he was kidding. He was teasing. So I turned to him and said…
Bikini clad girls are gonna surf by in the canal in a minute. Keep a watch.
He’d stare at me. Long pause. I repeated it. On a good day he would crack a smile. Yeah, on a good day we could still tease each other.
Back then he was still mobile. He could even get up out of his chair by himself, although with more and more struggle. The same for getting in and out of a car. So when I would go to the hardware store to get supplies I took him with me.
The only other problem with this late stage of dementia is the hoarding. Is that what it’s called? He would go into the hardware store–every-time–like clock-work–and buy kitchen towels. My mom would freak out when we came home cause she already had twenty rolls of kitchen towels. But I read that if it doesn’t hurt him, let him do it. It’s good for him. And I think it was. Then I let him pay for the kitchen towels and the screws and whatever else. He’d put his wallet back in his pocket–and I’d collect the change.
I kept the change, Mom.
But here’s the thing. The hardware store in town has cute girls working the registers. Pop-Pop smiled at them. He always liked flirting. Maybe that was the reason he forgot his change. Sometimes he’d smile at the pretty face and then turn to me and lose his smile. I guess that makes sense. But this one time he smiled at me and I could tell he wanted to say something. He couldn’t get the words out clearly but he was trying to whisper that the girl at the register was pretty. Yeah, and she was pretty the last time we were here, I’d say. The girl blushed. Then I figured out how to get him out the door. Cause I knew, as soon as we left the register and the pretty girl working there, that it was already in his head he needed kitchen towels.
But then something special happened. In the parking lot of that hardware store. He got something out. He said something. It is the last thing I want to remember him saying. And I want to close with this and leave it with you. He walked slowly across the parking lot–and before starting the struggle to get his broken body in the car–he turned to me with that smile–the smile that wasn’t the only thing he had left. He looked at me. He puckered his lips. The slight spark in his eyes brightened and he said:
I love your mother.