Three deaths have happened within the past two months. First to go was my grandfather. In order to get back to Texas, I had scheduled my bereavement leave for October when his Celebration of Life was planned. Naturally, crazy family drama sprang up so I backed away from those plans and opted for my own celebration at the beach in South Carolina, where I knew I would have peace and the proper space to honor him. I wasn’t close with my grandfather in the end, so I didn’t think his death would affect me when it happened. However we were close in the past, so I suppose a bit of nostalgia took over and I let the memories trickle in. Surprisingly, what popped up was shame about my behavior in ways I didn’t expect. I had hardened myself against my family years ago, due to the piles of dysfunction I was forced to navigate since childhood. I realized I had projected this same hardness onto Poppy. He was a “good Christian man” as Southerners love to say, as if it is some sort of merit. I cringe whenever I hear it. In my experience, the “good Christians” are the darkest souls with the most devious of intentions. I’ll be honest – I have a complicated relationship with Christianity. After attending a Christian high school that I can only describe as “cult” like, attending a mega-church that I can only describe as insane, and then bearing witness to the various abhorrent actions of other Christians that were done “in the name of God”….well, I got issues. I get that. Something to dig into at another time. But I mention this to provide a little clarity: my hackles are up anytime someone wants to “preach the good Word.” So it only makes sense that I would get irritated when he would want to pray for me, or tell me how much God loves me. I found his constant talk of Jesus unwelcome and incessant. I prefer when people keep their spiritual beliefs to themselves, and this always felt like such an intrusion.
I let these memories simmer a while, until I realized that the turmoil I was battling was due to the fact that I couldn’t reconcile with a dead person. Will he ever know I wish I had been softer? I wish when he wanted to pray for me, or talk about the Bible, I had responded with loving and gentleness. Why did I insist on being so difficult? I fear I came across as cold and dismissive, when my heart is actually warm and welcoming.
I have always loved Wayne Dyer’s quote about choosing to be kind over choosing to be right, so I know this is where I failed. Life is always peeling back my layers, and sometimes looking at what lies beneath can be ugly. It takes courage to not back away from it. When this happens, I try to stand face to face with the ugliness, drop my ego, admit I was wrong, and explore what it will take to change. It took his death to make me question my intentions, and why I fought so hard against something that ultimately didn’t matter. In fact, it wouldn’t have hurt me at all to listen and make an old kind man happy. That’s what he was, you know…..kind. The kindest man I’ve ever known. I don’t say things like this carelessly, like everyone on social media with their “Happy Father’s Day to the BEST Dad ever” bullshit. We all know comments like those are glib. We also know that I don’t say things like that about my family. For example, my grandmother was a total bitch.
But Poppy truly was a man of kindness and loving. He is the only man in my life who had consistently shown me gentleness and acceptance. He never had a cross word; he never yelled. I have never seen Poppy angry. I never doubted his love for me or his raw enthusiasm when he would hear my voice or see my face. I wish I had known how lucky I was to have him as an anchor, steadying me through all the storms I encountered from the men in my life, until I found enough strength to get to the shore on my own. I want him to know he was my northern star, helping me find my way through a family devoted to anger, contention and fear.
A few days before he died I was able to speak to him on the phone. My mom had called to give me an update, and I just had a sudden urge to let him know I was thinking about him. I rang, and my aunt held the phone up to his ear while I talked. His speech was incoherent by this point, but he was still oriented enough to understand what was happening around him. When he heard my voice, he made a sound of such pure primal joy that I started crying. I had to pull the phone away so he wouldn’t hear my voice crack. I felt flooded with love for this man who had always flooded me with love. And in that short, sweet conversation, I was able to say goodbye to the greatest man I’ve ever known.
I had a moment by myself at work the day he died. None of my friends were working that night so I had time to be alone with my thoughts. I thanked him for sharing his light and his love, and apologized for being unavailable in so many ways. I laid down my shame and asked him to forgive me. And knowing him, he isn’t bothered by it, because that’s just the sort of man he was. Hard to offend. Quick to forgive. Generous with love. I hope I carry him with me in all those ways. I want to be soft, kind and generous. I want to overflow with loving and forgiveness. For myself and everyone I encounter. So much of my personal journey involves shining a spotlight on parts of myself that are prickly and unyielding. I didn’t realize these areas existed as they remained undisturbed for years, happy to thrive in the darkness. I am grateful that his death crumbled those hard places in me, and I will be better because of him.
I hope you’re having a ball on the other side, Poppy. I know that light of yours is touching just as many souls now as it did when you had a body. We are all lucky to have you. Keep looking out for me, k?
Joe Lewis 1928-2021 ✨