Friday, February 14, 2014


You'll know what to say.

I knew Pop was sick.  When I lived in Kansas I lived in fear of the phone call telling me he didn't wake up that morning.  Pop lived life large, full-speed always.  I always figured one day he'd just stop. 

That's why I was thankful he still hadn't stopped by the time I made it back to Kentucky.  And that's why once I got back home I soaked up time with him. 

I could see him getting worse during his last year.  His bad days were outnumbering his good ones.  His abilities, while still impressive, were subtly shrinking.  The first time I saw him walk with a limp I went home and cried.  My big strong Pop was breaking.

My heart knew our time couldn't be too long and I wanted to write words to honor him.  I wrestled with many that were never quite right.  I paid silent tribute to him when I quoted him in columns and speeches.  The audience and the speaker would never know from where those words came.  But I knew and I made sure Pop knew.  It was my way of spreading him out and sharing him with my world.

I kept wanting to write about Pop and how much he meant to me, but I'd give up in frustration each time I tried.  In the hospital his last month, after one of the sweetest (classic Pop) jokes I've ever heard, he asked me to write something to be read at his funeral.  We all knew it wouldn't be long.

And with that simple request I felt like I had been given a privilege I was all too unworthy of.  Me? Are you sure? And he nodded.  It would be an honor.  What do you want me to say?

"You'll know what to say," he said.

Our last Valentine's Day together for awhile.
I share with you today what I wrote back then as a tribute to my life-long Valentine, my Pop.  For me, I never really understood the romance wrapped up in today.  For me, this holiday always celebrated a different kind of love.  Pop showered me with love every day, but Valentine's Day was always special for us.  No matter where I was or where he was, he made sure I got my valentine.

Last year I didn't know it would be our last one together.  He was sick and I was swamped at work.  I didn't have time to drive up on Valentine's day, and I wasn't even sure he felt much like celebrating anyway.  I so wanted another holiday like the ones I remembered as a child.  But I told myself that love isn't expressed through chocolate on February 14th, and knew that I could go visit him later in the month for a make-shift celebration.  He didn't bring Valentine's Day up last year, and I tried not to make a big deal out of it.  Myself, I chose silence over the possibility of a vocal let down: "Not this year."

But off work that night, I turned left on my street and saw his red Impala.  And the tears just flowed.  Such a beautiful gift.  I opened my door and we hugged and we cried.  What are you doing here?

"I had to bring my baby her valentine," he said.  What a beautiful last Valentine's Day we had together.

And to honor him again now, I share this excerpt from his eulogy:

When I was twelve years old, Poppaw baptized me.  It was significant as all baptisms are, but especially that he was the one to do it.  Several years earlier I had made the decision that when that day came for me I wanted to be baptized by Jesus.

When it was explained that someone else would have to fill in for Jesus, I picked Poppaw.  It wasn't the first time he did the work of Jesus in my life and it wouldn't be the last.

I didn't always understand Poppaw -- and maybe in some ways I still don't.

I used to think he was a spoil-sport.  He'd cut trips short just to get back home.  Too many people stressed him out, even if they were people he loved.  And he wasn't ever very eager to spend his money on fun things.  He wasn't really very eager to spend his money on anything, actually.  Except maybe a car.

And then only if he could get a bargain.  Poppaw could wheel and deal like no one else I know.  He was still making trades from his hospital bed in his final weeks.

He'd walk around the house turning off lights and picking up pop cans, shaking them to see how much was left.  He'd find their owners and remind them to finish their first drink before opening another.

But I've come to realize -- and appreciate -- his strength and resilience.  I've even come to love his quirks, born from a hard life of making do and getting by -- beautifully and gracefully -- with barely enough.

He parented children in his home for six consecutive decades.  As an adult, I've wondered where he learned to be a father.  His own dad died when he was nine and he spent much of his childhood being an adult.

The ones who came those first few decades would probably say he learned through trial and error.  From the stories I hear I wouldn't argue.  He wasn't perfect, but he did the best he could.  The best he knew how.  And all of us who came from him and granny -- children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and now the great-great grandchildren -- can be sure of one thing above all else: He loved us.  He loved his family.

Even more than he loved to fish.

Pop was stubborn.  Actually, stubborn isn't a strong enough word to describe it.  If something didn't work, he made it work however he could.

And you can't talk about Pop without talking about how hard he worked.

If he could get out of bed and wasn't at the river, you could guarantee he was doing one of three things: Working -- full throttle, sweat-dripping work.  Talking on the phone.  Or worrying.  Sometimes he managed to do all three at once.

But when I think about Pop, the thing uppermost in my mind -- other than the love and devotion and service to the Lord that colored the last half of his life -- is the way he loved people.  The way he helped and served.

Poppaw means different things to all of us.  But if there was one thing we could all come together on, it's this: If you needed him, he was there.  If you called him, he would come.  If you asked for help, he would give it.  Each one of us here could think of a time when he made things better for us.  It might have been a mess of green beans, a ride, a home repair, new shoes, or maybe a hug, a prayer, a good word.

And I think that's the legacy he leaves behind.

We learned from him -- and from granny -- how to love the Lord and do what we know to be right.

And I think Pop will live on in our hearts and in our actions, too.  When we stop on the side of the road to help a stranger.  When we plant a garden and share our harvest.  When we admire the mountains and the trees and the flowers and show care to animals.  When we cast our poles in the water.  When we make a good trade.  Or a quick fix with duct tape.  When we put in a hard day's work.  We saw him do those things so many times...

Happy Valentine's Day, Pop!