My head and heart have been a constant jumble of thoughts and memories for the last two weeks. I’m ready to unravel them a bit, though, if you’re up for joining me.
My grandmother once jokingly told me, “I can’t wait until I’m dead. Then I’ll finally be perfect.” Even though it was funny and meant to be a fleeting thought, I have held on to it knowing there was a lot of truth behind it.
My Pops was not a perfect man, but he was perfect for me…for a lot of people, actually, as evidenced at his lovely service last week. And isn’t that what everyone should receive in death? The gift of leaving a positive influence and legacy, while previous transgressions are buried and forgotten?
One of the best parts about loving someone, and this is especially true as a child becomes an adult alongside his/her parents and grandparents, is that you can strip away someone’s cape and realize they’re still your hero, weakness or faults and all. And Pops will always be a Super Hero to me.
He was truly larger than life – in physique, in voice, in wisdom, in love. He gave the best hugs, wrapping you in his strong arms allowing you to bury your head in a sea of Old Spice and whiskers.
As a child, I have happy memories of following him to work, drawing on his insurance company’s stationery, watching fishing and hunting shows and lots of baseball. I remember him taking me to watch the Astros, explaining the game as we went while eating ice cream out of little batting hats. I remember him slicing watermelon at the kitchen bar and joining us for popsicles on the patio. He and Memaw once took me to tour Houston’s sugar plant in the sweltering heat, and also let us join the audience for one of the morning shows at the TV station behind their house. It was a lifetime ago. And it was yesterday.
I have waves of memories crashing against me at all times, way too many for one post or even one blog. But there are a few thoughts I’d love to share.
I come from a dog-lovin’ family. Seriously. No one loves dogs like we do and my grandparents had several over the years. When Pops suffered his stroke in 1998, he struggled with memory and speech, always laughing when he’d call something the wrong name – knowing it was incorrect, even if he couldn’t remember what was right. Once when my family was in Houston he called my sister “Bootsie,” the name of his beloved childhood dog. In jest, someone said “What are we, Pops? Just a bunch of bitches to you?” And there we were born: Pops’ Bitches.
We each were given one of their dog’s names to share and wore our monikers with pride. Pops was The Boss (of course) and we were Ginger, Phronsie, Phrenzie, Bootsie and Princess. We planned “Bitches Weekends” where we’d converge in Houston for a long girl’s weekend full of Mexican food, makeup, nail polish, laughter and love. It was the best nourishment and, most of all, he absolutely loved it… Funny, irreverent and perfect. A true circle of support that I know we’ll rely on now more than ever.
At the heart of Pops’ Bitches, at the heart of this family, is my Memaw. You don’t have a Pops without a Memaw. Their love and commitment is by far the greatest gift, lesson or wisdom either has ever bestowed. It is one that embodies phrases like “unconditional,” “better or worse,” “sickness and in health” and “forever.” She spent the last 15 years next to his side throughout every struggle and joy, much like she did throughout their entire 63 years of marriage. Except she was carrying the burdens of two, without complaint or a second guess. “It’s what I do” she would tell you. And she did it well. Exceedingly well. And we love her even more for it. She kept him happy. She kept him healthy. She kept him laughing and smiling. There will never be enough “thank you”s to be said for the sacrifice she made to take care of him, the sacrifice she made to ensure we had as much time with him as possible.
Pops was surrounded by his Bitches in his final days, just the way I know he would have wanted it. We sat, cried, laughed and sang together for almost five days – making the most of what we knew was the end of an amazing era. I spoke already about the waiting and how painful it was at the time, but really…what a privilege to have had that opportunity.
And even after all that time, the end seemed to pass by in an instant. An instant where we were all around him, me holding his hand in mine. An instant full of prayers, tears and “I love you”s. And, at the very end, Memaw leaned over, promised she would join him as soon as she could, and sang their song, the song she had been singing to him every night for years.
I’ll be loving you, Always
With a love that’s true, Always.
When the things you’ve planned
Need a helping hand,
I will understand, Always.
Days may not be fair, Always,
That’s when I’ll be there, Always.
Not for just an hour,
Not for just a day,
Not for just a year,
There was a fat tear that escaped his right eye—one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen—and then he was gone.
That tear was an incredible gift to us. It was the proof we desperately sought that he had been listening to us laugh, cry and tell stories for those five days. Proof that he didn’t want to leave us as much as we didn’t want to leave him. Proof that he held on as long as he could. A final, precious goodbye without words.
I will never forget those last moments. As painful as they are, sometimes I just sit and relive them over and over again. And, you know what? It was so peaceful. I’m not sure what I thought would happen, but it exceeded all expectations surrounding the hope of a tranquil passing.
After…it’s all “after,” now…we were asked to leave his room for a few minutes and right as we turned the corner, Simone – the facility’s therapy dog, greeted us wearing a kerchief around her neck that was made with fabric from one of Pops’ old shirts. We all burst into tears again as we hugged the dog. There would be many tears to come, but these were happy tears at such a serendipitous moment.
Pops died the week of National Bosses Day, leaving no question that he was always the Boss, even in death.
We had a wonderful celebration of Pops’ life, held in his hometown at the church where he and Memaw were married. Days before he passed my grandmother pulled me aside and asked if I’d speak at the service. Initially, the thought paralyzed me with fear, but it didn’t take long for me to recognize the honor that it was and feel grateful for the opportunity. Who cares if my voice cracked (it did) or if tears streamed down my face (they did)? We were surrounded by friends and family that love Pops and each other. I had nothing to fear.
And, true to our family’s form, there was also so much humor in the service. For one, they played a portion of a photo slideshow I had made years before to start the service. At the point where they started playing the show, I had used one of Pops’ favorite songs as the soundtrack: Harry Belafonte’s “Jump in the Line.” This was the song that was blaring over the speakers as we walked in to say goodbye. I couldn’t help but smile. It felt like a big party. Then the preacher made some comment about that song’s relation to the movie Beetlejuice and I thought my brother and I were going to lose it. In Bryan’s words, “One degree of separation between Pops’ funeral and Michael Keaton. Done.” At the end of the service the preacher said he was going to sing a song requested by my grandmother and warned us that he liked to “crank it up.” He then sang the loudest, liveliest Country version of “I’ll Fly Away” I’ve ever heard. So funny. Pops would have loved every minute of it.
The graveside service followed, where we witnessed his military honors. The presentation of the flag was very meaningful to watch, but what really got me was the playing of Taps. It was just beautiful. Impeccably played and so poignant to experience. It was so still around us, too. All you could hear, other than the trumpeter, was the flag blowing in the wind. It was what had me crying the hardest. I wish I had recorded it.
Afterward, my family gathered at my cousin’s Dairy Queen as the final pit stop before we headed north and south, depending on if you were going to a wedding or a baby shower on Saturday. The circle of life.
Right foot, Left foot
And now here we are. Trying to resume our normal lives when they feel so shaken, when “normal” seems so far away. Life has changed and we’re navigating a new path, trying to adjust without losing sight of the old way.
Maybe it’s because when I was born my Dad said I was a “Little Red Pops.”
Or maybe it’s because Pops and I were both brass players.
Or maybe it’s because we both survived living in China – each fighting a war of our own.
Whatever the reasons, Pops and I have always had a very special bond. He made me feel safe while I learned to spread my wings. He made me feel loved whether I was being good or bad. He made me feel like a princess long before it was ever my nickname.
Despite how tiring it was or how short-fused it made me feel, I would not trade those last days with him for anything in the world. And now I’m struggling in my grief. Missing him so much. Wishing I could watch his chest rise and fall again, hum to him, tell him a story, hold his hand. Anything.
My sweet Memaw said it best and speaks for all of us when she said, “I just want to do it all again.”
Rest in peace, my precious Pops.
Thank you for reading and allowing me to share these memories, smiles and grief with you. The support, flowers, cards, brownies and messages have made all the difference in the world and have lifted me up in my darkest hours. I love you guys so, so much.