Losing Pop

This is a story that ran in our EDGE of the Lake Magazine

I was on a country highway I had not travelled in years. To my right, a road wound over a hill and then dipped away into a dense, green landscape. Something told me I had memories along that blacktop, right over that hill. I wasn’t sure what they were, only that they suddenly felt powerful and recent, not faded and lost. There was no time to turn back and investigate.We were going to my father in law’s bedside. He was dying.

His given name was Gerald. Depending on who you were and what he meant to you, you might also have called him Pop, or Counselor, or General.     

The first morning I visited his home as his daughter’sboyfriend I found coffee, toast and fruit in the kitchen. No one else was around, so I put some margarine on the toast. There is no word to describe how bad that margarine tasted. I checked the date on the container. It had been purchased three, maybe four boyfriends previous. 

Just after I spit the toast into the garbage my future father in law came in. He was wearing running shoes with no socks and shorts that looked like cocktail napkins strapped to his upper thighs. Most sweating men would reach for water. He poured a cup of coffee. Then he picked up a piece of toast and dug a knife into that margarine.

I try to tell myself there wasn’t time to warn him, but it was more than that. The front walk leading to his door had been worn down by the soles of many suitors. I said nothing because I represented a sudden change in the boyfriend lineup and had no idea where I stood with this man. 

When he crammed that toast and God-awful margarine into his mouth I waited for his eyes to pop out. I waited for him to run to the garbage can. But there wasn’t even a grunt. He just stared at me and chewed while a puddle of sweat gathered at his feet. Then he washed down that margarine plutonium with scalding coffee. His expression never changed. 

That sums up Pop nicely for me. Even when things weren’texactly right he wouldn’t let you know it. He knew that silence could be as powerful as words, although that rule was always dumped when the stories started flowing with dinner and wine. And, at least for that moment, I represented the enemy by way of a new boyfriend. Of course, he would never let me see weakness.

I don’t know, maybe that’s just me looking at it. Sometimes Pop intimidated me even after twenty years and four grandchildren. Not so much by who he was, but by who I wanted to be. He was a big man in many ways, with big appetites and a bigger heart. Not the kind of guy you heard say “ouch” too often. He adhered to a strict moral divide between right and wrong, and if something needed to be said, no matter how cringeworthy or painful, he would do it, plainly and right to your face. Sometimes he would stare at me and all the bad decisions I’d made in life seemed naked before him. And yet, I solicited his advice on numerous occasions and he never once told me what to do. He would listen, ask questions, listen some more, ask more questions, and then the answer I sought would suddenly be there.

I think that’s called wisdom. And grace. And generosity. And patience.  

Pop’s death was a terrible loss, but I try to see his life as a victory. He was married to the woman he loved for more than fifty years. Who wouldn’t covet what they shared during the time they had together? They raised a family, they travelled, they made a difference in the lives of people around them. And they did it all while they loved one another. I am sad only because Iwanted them to have a chance to make a few more memories, and maybe be with them while they did it.  

On my wife’s birthday we travelled home to say goodbye to her father. 

She grew quiet as we stopped at the town’s first red-light. Roads filled with distant memories were all around us. Memories that came alive as we passed. I had turned left on that street, sneaking to Pop’s office to ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage. (I was terrified. He made it easy.) I took a left on that road, then a right, to reach the house where he got to know his grandchildren and ate that terrible toast. Further down the same street to the left was the church where I married his daughter.

Those were some of my memories as we drove to the far side of town. To their final home. I know my wife was reliving those and many more.

We pulled up to their house. The rest of the family was inside. For more than twenty years I had been arriving at homes owned by this man, my children and pets and noise and chaos spilling out of the car. For the first time ever, this one time, I did not want to be there.

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