On Saturday, October 21, 1995, my Pop-Pop died.

Here’s how it happened: I was home alone that weekend, because my sister had gone to Vermont to see the leaves changing with one of her friends, and my Mom was at a church retreat in South Jersey someplace. On Friday night, my Pop-Pop had called me and asked me to have dinner with him that night. I asked him if we could do lunch the next day instead… because I was expecting to spend some time on the phone that night with the guy I had a huge crush on. Pop-Pop said that would be fine, and he would come by around noon and we’d go get something to eat. Cool. I told him I loved him and I’d see him tomorrow, hung up, and had a very typical evening. I did talk to that guy I liked, but nothing of importance happened.

The next morning it was raining out. I put on my PJ Harvey t-shirt, a cardigan, jeans and my Doc Martens. I always remember this outfit. I waited for Pop-Pop but he didn’t show up. At around 12:15, I called his place just to see if he forgot, or if there was a change in plans or anything, but there was no answer. I figured he was on his way, then.

By 1:15, he wasn’t there, and I had tried calling a couple more times. Then, Mr. McCreadie called and asked me if I had been able to get in touch with Pop-Pop, because he had been trying to call to confirm a golf outing they had planned for the following day. Now, this was weird. Mr. McCreadie had called a few weeks earlier when he couldn’t get a hold of Pop-Pop one night, and that night, I’d panicked. I worried something had happened to him, and just jumped in my car and drove up to his apartment building. As I ran into the lobby, I saw Pop-Pop, standing and laughing with a couple of other old men in the hallway. He hadn’t answered his phone because, in his words, he had “been out bullshittin’ with these guys” for an hour or so. He apologized for making me worry, and I went up to his apartment and had a drink with him before heading back home.

The fact that Mr. McCreadie called again on the morning of October 21 was kind of eerie. But at the time, I was resolved to go see if I could find Pop-Pop again. But it was probably nothing, because the last time he called to say he couldn’t reach Pop-Pop, I’d panicked and run to his house as fast as I could only to find that he was just out talking. Well, maybe this was just another of those situations. Or maybe Pop-Pop had stopped at a store on his way over to pick me up. Maybe he got the time we planned to meet up wrong. Yeah, that seemed like the most logical thing: he probably stopped someplace on his way. Either way, I better go and make sure he was OK, just in case something had happened.

Before I left the house, I grabbed a scrap of paper and wrote a note to him that I stuck on the storm door. “Pop-Pop, I went to your house because I couldn’t get in touch with you. I left at 1:15. If I missed you, stay here. I love you.”

I drove up to his apartment with my heart pounding. I didn’t like this, because it was just weird. Pop-Pop never forgot to do anything with us, ever. He was always early for things. And an hour late was definitely pushing the limits of what he would ever do. I prayed that he didn’t fall in his place and couldn’t reach his phone. What if he broke his hip? I drove faster.

When I pulled into the lot, I wasn’t happy to see his car parked in its spot. So that meant he was still in the building, and not out shopping. I remember feeling bile in my throat as I walked-ran up to the glass doors of that building, and feeling annoyed that I had to hold the door open for a couple of old women walking out with their little rain bonnets on. I was like, “Hurry up! I gotta get to my Pop-Pop’s place!”

(Man, the details I remember… weird.)

I buzzed his apartment, but got no answer. I buzzed again. Nothing. So I went up in the elevator to his apartment, and knocked on the door and called to him. No answer. Well, if he was out in the hallways, maybe someone could call him over an intercom or something? Or if he was inside the apartment, maybe someone could let me in…? I didn’t have a key to his place.

I went back downstairs, shaking, and up to the desk. This being a senior citizen housing building, they had someone at a reception-type desk to answer questions and stuff. (It wasn’t a nursing home or assisted living place… just an apartment building expressly for people age 60 and over.) I told them the situation, and while they didn’t have an intercom to page him on, they said they could send the maintenance guy up to his apartment with me and he could open the door and check on him.

So that’s what we did. Damn, as I type this, it’s like I am back in the moment. My heart is literally pounding and I feel sick to my stomach. But I have never written about this, and I feel that I need to.

The guy opened the door, and asked me to wait in the hall just for a minute. I could tell it wasn’t good when he said that. I held my breath. The guy came back after walking through the apartment for only a minute or less, and said, softly, “Your grandfather is in there, in bed. We need to call someone, OK?”

From the look on his face, I knew he meant that my Pop-Pop was in the bed, unresponsive. Not alive.

At this point, I don’t remember crumbling into tears, but I know I did. I think I howled in sadness, because the lady across the hall from my Pop-Pop’s place came out and somehow, I ended up in her living room. She had some Keanu Reeves movie on, and her window faced a brick wall. I watched the rain run down the bricks even as police showed up and then someone from the funeral home. Somewhere in that conversation, they asked me what funeral home to contact, and I told them the name of the one we’d just used for my Granny’s funeral only six months before. It was nearby, so they got there relatively quickly. I remember thinking it was weird that they never called an ambulance at all. I guess it was obvious that he was long gone and couldn’t be resuscitated.

I called my Dad, but he didn’t answer his phone. I then called my Mom’s best friend Lil and told her what happened, in tears. Lil and her mother came to pick me up in their blue station wagon. They drove me back to the condo, where I started making all the phone calls to let people know that Pop-Pop had passed away. It wasn’t easy, by any stretch. But the worst thing was that I somehow had to tell my sister and Mom.

My poor Mom. 1995 was a shit-tastic year for my Mom. She and my father divorced. In April 1995, her mother died. She and her Mom were so close, and losing her right when her marriage was falling apart was a cruel one-two blow. I’m STILL mad at the universe over this injustice. Seriously. Granny was a fantastic mother and grandmother, and the love of my Pop-Pop’s life. He would have done anything for her, he loved her so much. They were a great couple. When Granny died, poor Pop-Pop was shattered. But he stayed so strong and hid a lot of his grief the best he could. We spent as much time with him as we could, and he came and helped us out around the new condo we moved into after the divorce. We did what we could to keep our family going forward, even though it was suddenly smaller. Having her father around was a HUGE comfort to my Mom. She was Daddy’s little girl, anyway… she could do no wrong in her father’s eyes.

How could this happen? How could we lose Pop-Pop only six months and 18 days after Granny?! It had to be a nightmare. Life couldn’t be this unlucky, this cruel.

Oh yeah, it can.

I ended up calling the pastor who was leading the retreat my Mom was on. She was a great woman who listened carefully and compassionately to what I was telling her, and she said she would break the news to my Mom for me, if that was OK with me. Of course it was OK. Pastor Jean was such a comfort to us during that period of our lives, and I knew that if anyone could do it and have it not be as traumatic as it could be otherwise, it would be her.

Now, I had to find a way to get my sister to come home from Vermont. Should I, though? Should I ruin a trip that she had been looking forward to for months, saving her money for, a trip she also needed for mental health purposes to get away from the stresses our family was under that year? I didn’t know what to do, and ended up calling the friend she was with and telling her that they needed to come home a little early if they could.

My Mom’s brothers arrived soon after that. Uncle E. in Pennsylvania got there on Sunday, and Uncle B. arrived on Monday.

I think my Mom got home Saturday night, and it was terrible. So sad. My sister got home the following day, and she said she just knew that it was something with Pop-Pop. She had bought this beautiful porcelain angel in Vermont, and it came to symbolize Pop-Pop. I wrote a eulogy and read it at his funeral—it was called “The Steadfast Tin Soldier.” I remember I wrote it in about a half an hour, and had my sister and Mom weigh in with their favorite memories of him.

It’s hard to believe that it all happened 14 years ago, because it all still feels so vivid. I miss him so much, every single day of my life. I really mean that. I think about him and Granny all the time, and talk to them. I’m not ashamed at all to admit it. They were such a comforting force in my life, always, that to suddenly not have them there anymore was more than I could take. I still can’t take it, clearly… and that’s why I still need to talk to them. I didn’t want things to happen the way they did, especially with Pop-Pop… I didn’t want to have to be the one to ‘find’ him, all alone. I didn’t want to miss out on the last chance I ever had to have dinner with him. I’m still really upset that I said no to having dinner that Friday night so that I could talk to some worthless guy on the phone. I would love to have just one more dinner with him. Babbling, laughing about weird stuff, being happy… those were the hallmarks of dinner with Pop-Pop. God, I miss him. I love you, Pop-Pop. And Granny. I wish I could see you both again, and I love you both so very much. With all my heart. Please watch over us, always, and never leave us.


9 responses »

  1. Thank you for sharing this and I’m so sorry you had to go through that. I’m sure your Pop-Pop knows what a special granddaughter he has and is proud of you every day. xoxo

  2. I’m so sorry that this is such a bittersweet memory for you. Life is too short to beat yourself up about things you wish you could have done differently. As long as he knew you loved him, that’s all that really matters. My Dad is in the same boat as you though, he still regrets not visiting his mother in the nursing home after her first stroke, before the fatal one and it’s been 36 years….

    I keep nagging my husband to go visit his grandmother, I shared your post with him and asked how long he was going to wait to see her…

  3. Lisa, thank you for sharing this story about your grandfather. It sounds like he was a wonderful man and I hope this helps you to write about it.

  4. It’s evident just how much he loved you, and you him, even when you’re writing about something as horrible as this. I’m sorry you had to go through it. Stuff like that sucks. When I was 20 my dad called me at work and said “Leave work when you can, and go get your sisters from their jobs and go home”. So I did. We went home and waited for Dad to call. Turns out he had been at home, by himself, listening to his police scanner and heard a 911 call go out to my grandparents’ address. A neighbor who always checked on Poppy, who was retired and stayed home during the day while Nana worked, had not been able to get him to answer the phone or the door, used the key to let himself in and, there was Poppy, draped over the recliner, like he had been in the midst of a heart attack and reaching for the phone. My dad had to go track down my mom at wherever she was working, and then they had to go find Nana and tell her. My dad phoned my mom’s brother and sister and left everyone strict instructions to CALL HIM ON HIS CELL PHONE.

    My dumb aunt called the house, and WOULD NOT hang up and call Dad when I repeatedly told her to. She went through this whole guessing game: “What happened? Is it my son, ____? No? Is it my son, ____? No. Ok. Is it my mom…?” I finally screamed into the phone “POPPY DIED, OK?! NOW JUST HANG UP AND CALL MY DAD LIKE YOU WERE TOLD!”

    For years afterward, I was just so angry that Poppy died alone. I actually used to angrily scream at him in my head “WHY DID YOU DO THAT?! WHY DIDN’T YOU CALL SOMEBODY SO THEY COULD BE WITH YOU?”

    I later realized how silly and redundant that was- he HAD been trying to call…

    Don’t waste any more time feeling guilty, or “what-if” -ing. He knew how much you cared.

    Also, it’s sad, but I’ve heard it said, more than once, that (for elderly couples, anyway) when the wife dies, the husband usually follows within 6 months. They just can’t go on living without her. It’s not the same. Somehow, women are more able to pick up and go on… It’s tragic, but I also think it’s evident just how much he loved your grandmother.

  5. I’m humbled by and appreciative of your kind words, all of you. Thank you for reading this and letting me know what you think. My grandparents meant the world to me, my Mom and my sister. Sharing this story was something I’ve meant to do for a long time, just to get it off my chest. Every year on October 21, I remember everything all over again.
    October 21 is a cursed day for me. It’s also the day that my disc ruptured when I stood up from the kitchen table in 1993. It took about a year for the pain to finally subside and I could stand up straight and walk correctly again. Thank God it has never gone back to that level!

    And Shades, you’re really right about elderly couples and their hearts breaking when one of them dies. We completely believe that’s what happened to Pop-Pop. He missed her so, so much that he just had to go be with her. We’re comforted by the fact that he died in his sleep (an apparent heart attack) and there were no signs of struggle or pain. And we knew she was right there, ready to welcome him home with her.

    And finally, it’s so damn true: don’t waste another day not talking to someone you love. It’s not worth it to put things like that off.

  6. I’m just amazed that you know the date and remember it. I have no idea what the date was that Poppy, or my dad’s mom “Grandma”, or even my dad’s grandfather passed away. It seems like each one was in the fall, around Sept./Oct., but I made no conscious effort to mark or remember the dates. Actually, I probably made more of an effort NOT TO remember the dates… And here I am, 10-15 years later, wondering when exactly those events happened and how long it’s been…

  7. L, this post was so beautiful and had me in tears. I am so sorry you had to go through something like that, especially with someone you cherished so deeply. I myself fear the day I get the call about my grandparents. Because, like yours, they love each other dearly and I know one would not last long after the other. I became so close with them when I went to colleg since they were only an hour away. And I know my Dad is going to be crushed when they go (my Mom’s mother died when I was six and her father when I was 16 but I was always closer to my Dad’s parents even though they lived further away) You were so brave and strong for your family and I know that your Pop-Pop and Granny are looking down at you so proud.

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