Barry: Pop gift
My father-in-law, Pop, moved to Paonia from California in 1997, a few years after his wife died. My then-girlfriend Christina wanted him out of L.A. and closer to her in Colorado, so she found a place for him and nudged him along at every step of his transplanting process.
We’d visit Pop often in his new little home, eventually even buying the house right across the street from him. Three years ago, we left Aspen and moved in with Pop. Our house needed some serious remodeling, so we lived with him for the better part of a year while we made our own house habitable. We had breakfast every morning around his small kitchen table, where we’d discuss what he’d read in the New Yorker or saw on PBS or discovered in some book that was far too big and complex for me to ever consider reading. He was in his late ’80s and sharp as a tack. His body was slowing down, but his mind continued with the exploration of matters scientific and philosophical.
When we finally moved into our own house, we would still spend much of our time with Pop. In the summer he’d come over for breakfast, and he often would hang out on the porch until dinner time, after which we’d grab a flashlight, walk him home and then do it all over the next day. When the seasons changed and it became too cold for him to be out, we’d come to him — all of 100 yards away — to make food and hang out and watch movies. When it was time for us to leave each night, we’d make a point to stop at the end of the driveway and take a moment to realize how precious this was. Although his health was good, there was still a real sense of the finiteness of this arrangement. As I watched him and Christina, his youngest daughter, grow their relationship and spend glorious days together having deep conversations, I knew that this was big. And I knew that it wouldn’t last forever.
I remember feeling that with my grandparents. From the time I was in my late teens I was convinced that they were going to die soon (I mean, they were in their 60s, for God’s sake. That’s so old!) So every interaction I had with them had the sweetness of the fleeting. Every conversation we had I treated as the possible last. Not in a weird or dramatic way but with more presence than I brought to conversations with others. You know, others who I assumed would just always be around. Turns out my grandparents both lived until I was in my mid-30s; so much bonus time!
So we’d stop on our short walk home, take in the quiet of our small-town evening and acknowledge how precious this was, how the moment is ever-changing and how important it is that we really savor it all, especially this.
And we did. We knew that our priorities were to spend time with Pop, and we never wavered. It was never an obligation or a chore; we just really loved being with him, and we could tell the feeling was mutual.
As his health took a sudden downturn, every trip to his house started to feel more urgent. Even if we’d just seen him that morning for breakfast, we were always a bit relieved to walk in for dinner and see him standing at the kitchen counter, poised over the heat register, reading from his stack of books and magazines. Whew. OK. One more day. One more wonderful day. Let’s eat.
Then, one year ago this week, we walked up his porch steps to begin making breakfast, only to find the front door locked. This was unusual. He generally woke up early and unlocked the door first thing. We used our key to let ourselves in, and he was not at his usual spot. We knocked on the bedroom door. No answer. We went in to find that Pop had died peacefully in his sleep.
With one whole year to reflect, I realize that our two years of living both with and across the street from Pop were outstanding in one very specific way — I knew what was important, and I never wavered. I can’t say that about too many other aspects of my life. Maybe none. Sometimes I’m not clear about what my priorities are, or if I am, I can convince myself too easily to blow them off for a while. I’ll get to that really important stuff tomorrow, right?
But the people you love are here and gone, sometimes after a long, rich life, and sometimes all too soon. Pop gave me the gift of knowing what I needed to do and actually doing it consistently. And each day I strive to continue on that path.
Thanks, Pop. I miss you.
Barry Smith’s column appears Mondays.
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