I was in 1st grade when I remember losing my first grandparent. My “Grandma Leik,” my mother’s mom. A tiny lady, no taller than 5 foot (with shoes on) who had a thick Brooklyn Accent, ate yogurt, read the newspaper, loved lady bugs and always took my side. “She doesn’t have to finish her dinner, she has a tiny stomach like me, leave her be..but there is enough room for dessert.” She was the only person who my mother retreated from. She was small, soft, but incredibly strong. She passed away from end-stage renal failure and I do remember she also has stroke. A "TIA" they called it. She said not to worry, it was just for a moment. “My tongue got twisted around my eye and I couldn’t see what I was saying.” She had the ability to make everything seem light and approachable. Even the scary parts of life.
Her husband, my grandfather, passed away when I was an infant. I don’t remember him. So when it was just her in the house, she moved from New York to Pennsylvania. It wasn’t longer after that she got sick, less than a year after her move. Maybe she knew she was going to get sick, maybe it was God’s plan. It was perfectly imperfect timing though. She was never alone while she was ill, I just wish we had her healthy for longer.
When she passed, my mother was distraught. She had lost her father and brother less than four years prior; and now her mother too. I can’t image the emptiness she felt. Like a piece of her family, her childhood, all gone so quickly. The funeral was in Long Island New York, at my mother’s childhood parish.
My grandmother’s viewing was the first time I remember ever seeing my mother cry. As a first grader seeing your strong stoic parents have a vulnerable moment sticks with you. I wanted to comfort my mom. I wanted her to go back to being the one who comforted everyone else. It felt backwards and that made me feel frantic. I sat next to her and said “Don’t worry Mom, Grandma will be a baby in someone else’s house now, we just have to figure out where she lives.”
I don’t know why I said it, or where the idea came from. 7 year olds, particularly Catholic 7 year olds, aren’t generally exposed to ideas or theories of reincarnation. The internet didn’t exits then, so it wasn’t a product of Google. We only ever watched Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, so it wasn’t the premise of something I saw on Television. It just came from somewhere inside of me. It was something, which I truly believed. Maybe children are closer to heaven so they have a better understanding of the circle of life. Either way, my comment, stopped my Mom in her tracks. She didn’t cry and she didn’t speak. She just looked at me and then hugged me.
Years later, she reminds me of that story and tells me of how much peace it brought her in that tumultuous time. The wise words of a 7years old.
Fast Forward, 22 years. My grandfather has been diagnosed with Liver Cancer. This time it is my father’s father. I have since lost my Father’s mother and this is my only living grandparent.
It happened right before Christmas. He had some curious test results and needed to go back to the Doctor. “Make sure he doesn’t come in alone, we’d like someone to be with him” the receptionist told my father—and that’s never a sign of good news.
By New Years Eve the cancer was also found in his Colon, Rectum and spread to his Lungs. All stage 4. He woke up less than 10 days ago feeling like he couldn’t breath. He was taken to the hospital by ambulance.
He never came home.
They kept him in the Intensive Care Unit for a little under a week and then moved him to the hospice floor. He knew he wasn’t going home and we knew he wasn’t going home; but I never talked about it to him. “Make sure your Aunt throws away my milk, it expired yesterday. And tell her to bring me my glasses and cell phone.” It was a last exercise of control over his life and made him feel better to get just a few things in order.
My grandfather deteriorated fast. It was hard to watch, but also a blessing. He was too proud and refractory to allow us all to watch him slowly shrivel up and fade away.
He was the type of man that did everything his way. He never wanted to depend on other people and loved his independence. Hell, he worked full time up until his diagnosis. He was a mover and a shaker and he never seemed “old” to me because he never retired to a life of sitting on the couch watching sitcom re-runs. Instead, when his job required him to learn the computer he took a computer training class. “I’m the oldest one in the class Lana,” he said to me proudly.
He didn’t get lost in the tides of change, he keep swimming and always stayed in front of it. He got a cell phone when the trend started and even knew how to operate the voicemail, although he refused to leave his own voice on the prompt for a personal message. My message says “Hi, you’ve reached Lana, I’m unavailable to come to the phone…” So he would leave all his messages saying, “Unavailable Lana, it’s available grandpop, make yourself available and call me.” It made me smile every time.
He was a man who always did things his way. He was painfully and refreshingly pertinacious. He was famous for these one liners; that were part persnickety and part fun.
“Pop did you get your hair cut? It looks nice.”
“No, I got them all cut.” He’d say with a devious smile.
“Hey Pop, that’s a good idea.”
“Ya know Lana, I was so bright my mother called me SUN.”
“Pop what did you say? What?”
“Don’t you call me a whop, Eye-talians don’t like it.”
He was an original jokester and a text book wise guy. I loved that playful side of him.
Five years ago, when his wife, my grandmother passed away, he didn’t want to be “that old guy who moved in with someone” <-those are his words. So he sold his house, rented an apartment, got a new car and even got a girlfriend Wanda. A family friend who was also in her 80’s and they rekindled a romance. He was like a teenager again.
“Pop are you coming over for the BBQ?”
“No I can’t, I ‘m going to Wanda’s house.”
And he’d hop in his new car, with a Teddy Bear on the dashboard (given to him by his girlfriend Wanda) and drive up to take her out to dinner.
He didn’t follow any rules and did what he wanted. I always admired him for that. He’d call me in the summers at 7:00am
“Why aren’t you awake yet?” he'd bellow into the phone.
“Pop I’m on break from teaching, I’m sleeping in,” I’d moan into the phone.
“You can sleep in when you’re dead” he’d say. And even in my sleepy fog I’d smile.
I visited him almost every night while he was at the hospital. I had to miss seeing him on Saturday, because I had plans to go away for the weekend. Friday night I asked him if I should stay home, he shook his head no and pursed his lips. “Live your life, don’t be a jackass.” I told him I’d see him Sunday and he shook his head okay and closed his eyes to go to sleep. Even in his final days he stayed true to himself. So I went to the beach for my annual girl’s weekend with my friends. And Sunday night, (last night) when I got home, I went to see him.
It was late, just me and my dad. They had classical music playing in my Pop’s room. It was nice, I know he enjoyed it, but it made the air extra heavy for me. My Pop was in an unconscious state...shallow breathing, sinking into the bed a bit, certainly smaller than when he arrived less than two weeks ago. Yet, he looked comfortable. I talked to him the whole time and although his eyes were closed, he occasionally moved his eye brows like he was listening.
I talked to him anyway. About the traffic, the weather. I told him about each one of my girlfriends; “The Nurse,” “The Ballerina,” “The one who eats the Pizza Bagels.” I’ve been friends with these women for almost 20 years but Pop had his only little playful names for them. At the end, I told him I wouldn't come up tomorrow because we are getting a snowstorm. I took a deep breath and I said to him that it was okay for him to take a long rest and go to sleep. “You can finally sleep in Pop.”
I knew he knew what I meant.
He absolved me of my guilt to the go to the beach that weekend and if he had any feelings of guilt, I wanted to offer him the same piece of absolution. I told him I loved him and he moved his eyebrows like he heard me again.
As we walked out, my dad asked me why I talked to him. "He can't hear you, you know" he said. But I told my dad that two years ago, when he himself was in a comma in the ICU, I talked to him on every visit. I told my father that I saw Pop move his eyebrows like he heard me; just how my dad lightly squeezed my hand when he was in the coma. "He does hear me dad” I said. I wasn't sure of much, but I was sure of that.
I noticed my dad was timid to touch Pop. They’d always had a strained relationship. A lot of history, I’ll never fully or never need to fully understand. So maybe my dad was hesitate because they were never really affectionate anyway, or maybe because the beeping and the smells of the hospital scared him like it used to scare me. It's just... I learned to block the hospital out and focus on something that reminded me my Pop was still there. I stared at his forehead and thought about how his white hair was still thick and beautiful at 87. I kissed Pops forehead and told him I loved him.
It was the saddest visit thus far and for some reason it felt like something was different. We were the last two visitors he had last night and we got news that he passed in his sleep at 3am.
I like to think that my conversation with Pop gave him peaceful vibes. But I yearn for the 7 year old version of myself who was so sure that he would come back a baby in someone else’s house. A version of myself that didn’t make death feel so hollow and definitive. That didn’t make death, in someway, about myself. But as we become adults and grown it’s almost human nature to equate things with ourselves.
So, I can’t help but think of the Lyrics from a John Mayer Song…
One generation's length away
From fighting life out on my own’
From fighting life out on my own’
I am adult, not a child. My Pop is gone. I have no grandparents left. It’s like we’re all moving up on this infinite timeline whether we like it or not. It’s scary and ironic that death is the aspect of life that makes life feel real and precious and brief. It makes you want to stop the clock and just be in the moment. But time ticks and children grow older and adults do too. We transition from phase to phase in life effortlessly without convocation. Which is why sometimes I think we don’t notice that time just happens and life just happens. And death is part of life, no matter how much effort we put into ignoring it.
And if my grandfather were reading this right now, he’d remind me that sometimes in life there is nothing you can do but keep moving forward. “We’re all getting older, so what can you do? You get mad or sad you’ll get happy again. So live your life and stop being a jackass.” Besides, he never slept in, so now he gets his chance.
In Loving Memory of Anthony Carl Morelli Jr.
Short and Sweet…AKA…Moral of the Blog
Hug your family tight. Tell people you love them. People get mad, but they get happy again...so don't worry about it. Try, even when you think you can’t. Don’t be a statistic, be an exception. Always work and work hard dammit. But only do what makes you happy and screw em, if they don't like it. Take a hold of life’s opportunities, don’t be a victim of lifes circumstances. Most importantly, find the humor, always channel your inner wise guy. Life's too short not to laugh a little.
I love you Pop-Pop
“Can the child within my heart rise above?
Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?
But time makes you bolder
Even children get older
And I'm getting older too” –Fleetwood Mac