One of the two biggest touchstones of this time was my Pop Pop's passing. I've since struggled with how to properly memorialize a man who meant so much to me, and exhibited such a depth and breadth of love and integrity over the course of a lifetime. What I know for certain, is that when he exited this earth and his light was extinguished, our world was left a little more replete with shadow, less resplendent with light.
Below are the words, inadequate at best, that I wove together to pay tribute to my beloved Pop Pop. In honor of him, I share them with you:
To anyone who knows us well, the phrase ‘a severe mercy’ is a familiar one. It is the title of a well-loved and oft-referenced book, but also the inscription on our wedding bands.
When we chose to incorporate the phrase into our wedding ceremony, and our marriage, it was because we felt that our love- a compassionate gift to us, unearned, but gratefully received, was larger-than-life, unique, especially extraordinary. What we had was not just love, but exceptional love. A severe mercy.
For the second time in my adult life, I feel like I have been witness to a severe mercy.
Over the past 6 weeks, our routine took shape. Rise on Saturday (or sometimes Sunday), eat breakfast, cube watermelon. Set Ella loose with crayons, colored pencils, watercolor paints and paper. Select and snip flowers from our backyard garden, and balance the vase between our knees for the 30 minute ride from Phoenixville to Blue Bell.
Yes, over these past weeks, our visits to Pop Pop took on a shape and a life of their own. If he must move from his apartment to a bed in the medical unit, then come hell or high water, he would have his great granddaughter’s artwork and freshly cut flowers to brighten the space. He would have watermelon (and mom’s Russian tea cake cookies) to satiate his sweet tooth. And he would have company, family, by his side. But these visits, and the simple pleasures that populated them, were far from one-sided. We may have brought artwork to adorn the walls, but Pop Pop supplied the colorful stories that lit the corridors of the past, and allowed us entry to worlds that only he had inhabited. Our hands may have sliced fruit and arranged flowers, but his soft, strong hands held ours, with resolve and reassurance, as we watched our loved one begin to slip away.
Last Sunday we arrived as usual, not knowing quite what to expect. The week before we’d had a lovely time together, full of conversation, nostalgia, watermelon juice and palpable hope. This week we’d been warned that Pop Pop’s decline over the past 7 days had been steady and stunning. I entered the room ahead of Robert and Ella, just as the nurse was exiting. Pop Pop was dressed and upright in the bed, and his eyes lit up when he saw me. As I sat on the edge of the bed, my heart leapt into my throat, and when I opened my mouth, it came pouring out. Much more important to me than standing here and telling you these things today, is the fact that I got to tell my Pop Pop what he meant to me. How fortunate I felt to be his granddaughter. How grateful to have had the honor of watching my daughter and my husband form individual, loving relationships with him. And to tell him all of this, as he looked into my eyes (tear-soaked as they may have been), and gently stroked my arm. To say to him, “I’m so glad that you’re my Pop Pop.” And for him to say back to me, “I’m so glad too.”
For the next two hours, we simply sat together, in the calm confidence of Pop Pop’s presence. I held his right hand, and Robert held his left, and I felt the wordless proclamations of deep and abiding love, each time Pop Pop squeezed my hand, tight within his grip, over and over and over again. I read to Pop Pop from Samuel Johnson’s “Prayers & Meditations.”
“Let the Holy Spirit comfort and guide me, that in
my passage throughthe pains or pleasures of the
present state, I may never be tempted to
forgetfulness of Thee. Let my life be useful and
my death be happy;let me live according to Thy laws,
and die with just confidence in Thy mercy, for the sake
of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Pop Pop relished the roasted tomatoes that Robert had prepared for him, and we all laughed over the glaring omission of the “stinky cheese.”
Ella gave him a sprig of mint that she’d plucked from the garden, and as he inhaled its scent, he declared, “Beautiful mint.” He blew weak kisses across the expanse of the bed. He closed his eyes, breathed long and deep, then opened them again, and looked into mine long and deep. And as we sat there, I felt a knowing.
When the diagnosis was in, and the prognosis delivered, we all knew that death from this cancer could be painful and arduous. And out of love for Pop Pop, we hoped and we prayed that it wouldn’t be. That instead of a painstaking journey, Pop Pop’s passage could be paved with peace, and marked by mercy. That Pop Pop would receive his very own ‘severe mercy.’ And 15 minutes later, after another round of goodbyes had been said, after hugs, and kisses had been exchanged, hands clasped together one final, fierce time, he did. Just as Sheldon Van Auken had described it, in this book that first changed my life and molded my marriage, my Pop Pop was ushered away by “a mercy that was as severe as death, a death that was as merciful as love.”
In addition to all of the roles that my Pop Pop filled with such love and loyalty- father, husband, uncle, grandfather, great-grandfather, “Odd Fellow”, he also displayed a great affection and aptitude for the written word, and in particular- poetry. And so today, I can think of no more fitting way to bid him goodbye, to honor his memory, and to articulate my own loss than through the words of Mary Oliver’s poem, “In Blackwater Woods:”
In Blackwater Woods
Look, the trees
their own bodies
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
the long tapers
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders
of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
~ Mary Oliver ~