Enjoy the changes life throws at you because eventually there will be no changes left.
I have realized the importance of these words even more over the past month as I said goodbye to one of the greatest men that ever lived, my grandfather. Watching him struggle as his Parkinson’s advanced more rapidly than expected was the hardest experience I have ever endured.
My mom called to tell me things weren’t going well and I might want to plan a trip home before Thanksgiving because the doctors weren’t sure if he would make it that long. I lay in bed and cried all day, not wanting it to be real-unable to deal with the thought of loosing the man I called Pop. He was a WWII veteran, retired labor relations director, father, husband, grandfather and great-grandfather. I went home four days after I got the phone call, and he passed away the day after I got home.
Someone told me I had to be strong, hold it together and crying was a waste of time. He told me he was looking out for me by telling me to toughen up when I got teary-eyed. I was so hurt by that, and having to be strong when I had never experienced such sadness before seemed impossible. But strength takes all different forms and for me, feeling the emotions made me strong.
I found the strength to go home, sit by his bedside with my sisters, Dad and grandmother and hold Pop’s hand. I squeezed once and he squeezed back twice, just like always. The feeling of him holding my hand that night and knowing I got to say, “Good night Pop, I love you,” before he went to bed that night has helped me see the beauty in a sad situation.
Watching him struggle to stay alive and laugh at my stories was extremely powerful. It was like he waited, held on to life until I had the chance to say goodbye and let go. It helped me focus. It’s easy to get jaded when things get tough, to stop believing in love after you have your heart broken, to stop trying in school when the hard work isn’t paying off or giving up on friendships when the other person stops trying. But his death gave me the opportunity to re-evaluate the way I live my life, reorganize my priorities and see the intensity of true love.
My grandmother, his wife of 57 years, sat by his side for a month straight, I don’t think she ever slept, worrying that the moment she closed her eyes, he would pass away and she wouldn’t be there. He loved her so much he held on until she was ready for him to go. He knew she wouldn’t put him in assisted living or hospice because he wanted to be home-but he also knew when it was becoming too much for her to handle and waited until she was ready. She held his hand all day, sat by his side, talked to him, cried for him and above all loved him more than I knew was possible. True love is completely selfless and seeing her take care of him reminded me that life is about family and providing support for those who have been there for you.
It was also a time for pride in my family and where I am going because of them. I have never felt so proud to be part of something so incredible. I cried watching the veterans hand the folded flag to my grandmother, but I also felt honored and privileged to be part of such a strong man’s family. I found strength in crying that day.
I also found strength in the memories. Pop brought humor into every room he entered and the church was filled with people whose lives were better because he was in them. My sisters and I wanted to honor my Pop by speaking at his funeral, but I didn’t think I would be able to get through it without crying. And I’m not a cute crier who gets one or two tears-I heave and turn red. But somehow telling the stories about Pop gave me the courage to stand up and talk without crying.
Pop was always teaching me lessons not with stories, but with his actions. I learned you can do absolutely anything, no matter the challenges. He started loosing his sight around 65, but you never would have known. He could fix anything and let nothing stand in his way. He also taught me a lesson through Euchre: never pass on a bower (a great opportunity), or question whether its possible to win three tricks with no trump. He made whatever he had work, and never stopped amazing me, even during his final days.
The Parkinson’s had spread, making it difficult for him to talk, but he lay there and listened, never missing a beat. He got the strength to ask questions and talk to his granddaughters, again overcoming every obstacle in his way.
Dealing with his passing in my own way-crying, remembering, writing-gave me strength. Every time I got off the phone with Pop he would say two words, “be good.” I now remember to live by those words. Always be good to friends, family and yourself. Simple words with incredible meaning.