I rarely discuss my personal or family lives here, but there’s one story that has to be told. I’ve mentioned that my family recently suffered the huge loss of my Pop Pop after a very long, very emotional battle with Alzheimer’s Disease. I’ve been bouncing ideas around as to how I could describe what our family went through and the man he was. I’ll do the best I can to tell the story the way I’ve understood, interpreted, and personally remember it.
My grandparents have the kind of love story you would see in a movie. In their younger days, Pop Pop (Eddie) was in the Army and Nana (Marge) sang for RCA and the USO. At that time, if you walked the
much different streets of Newark, NJ, you would hear her beautiful voice being broadcast to the public. One night at a USO dance, Eddie asked Marge to dance. Even though she bashfully thought he was asking the girl behind her, the two danced and the pen was raised to write a love story that would span 70 years.
When Eddie asked Marge’s father for her hand in marriage, he replied, “You either take all of her or none of her!” And so it was.
When Eddie was deployed to the Philippines during WWII, Marge would write him a letter every day and twice on Sundays. Then, she would take the bus past the church in their town to go to mass at the church where they were married, several towns away. When he came home for good, the two had three amazing children. This was later to be followed by 10 grandchildren (that would be me, my brother, and our fabulous cousins!) and, much later, by 11 great-grandchildren.
Times were not always wonderful for Eddie and Marge. Despite the strength of their love, they had difficulty that stemmed from alcoholism. Eddie was a bartender for two decades, and wrestled with his demons in such a way that it nearly drove the family apart. But, Marge stuck with Eddie and Eddie eventually stuck it out. They were involved for many years with both Al-Anon and AA and helped countless others with their story, faith, patience and love. By the time Eddie passed away, he had been sober for 43 phenomenal years. Eddie and Marge would have celebrated their 68th wedding anniversary this October. When people asked how long they were married, he’d wink his famous wink and tell them the number of years, followed by, “I thought a title fight only went 15 rounds!”
I have many fantastic memories of my Nana and Pop Pop. We used to visit their home in Harwich Port, Cape Cod, MA every Thanksgiving and summer. My Pop Pop always had sparkling blue eyes, an infectious smile, that beautiful wavy hair, and the ability to make nearly anyone laugh. He was silly when it was time to be silly (as he had clearly been in the top picture, when he had me in a hysterical laughing fit) and serious when it was time to be serious.
One summer when I was very small, we went to a grocery store. Pop Pop and my dad stood me in front of the lobster tank and I was delighted to choose my very own lobster! However, there was a bit of a communication breakdown… When Pop Pop placed what I thought was going to be my new pet in front of me on the picnic table in their backyard, looking an awful lot more red and dead than I remembered him, I screamed and ran away in tears while everyone else erupted in laughter. To this day, I cannot take a lobster apart!
Later, as a teenager, Pop Pop had to find ways to entertain my brother and I during our visits. He would wake us when it was still dark and we would drive down to Bank Street Beach, head down to the jetty, and walk among the crashing waves, around the bend, all to the way to the end to go fishing. You’d think someone who grew up at the shore like me would know how to fish, but definitely not. Pop Pop and my dad were patient with me, though – They took turns holding my hand as we walked across the slippery rocks where I was sure I’d slip into the ocean, they baited my hook with squid, and they taught me how to cast. When I attempted my very first cast, they watched proudly as we found that I was so good at fishing, I managed to catch something before my hook even hit the waves: A seagull. I caught a seagull, mid-cast, who was thrashing around at the end of my line as I watched on, completely horrified. But Pop Pop and my dad were patient, unhooked the poor little guy, and cheered me on as we fished together throughout many more of those mornings.
If you’re not familiar with Alzheimer’s Disease, it’s a despicable and ugly disease. It slowly steals people’s lives and dignity. Towards the end, my grandparents moved to Jersey to be closer to family and lived in the same building – Nana in an apartment and Pop Pop in a hospital bed in skilled nursing. She spent time with him every morning, afternoon, and night. I was fortunate enough to live close by. Although I waited too long to start, I began visiting two-three times a week. By the end I made sure I was there every day. I’d sit by myself with Pop Pop… Hold his hand, stroke his hair, listen to music, watch TV. I’d introduce myself to him every 5 minutes or so, otherwise he could get startled or nervous because he didn’t know who I was. I’d tell him my name, remind him it was the same name as his mother, remind him I was his granddaughter and he was my Pop Pop, point out that I had inherited his blue eyes and they were exactly the same. I told him stories to remind him about things that happened when I was little and shared things that were currently happening in my life.
There were days his eyes would be alive and he’d wink at me in response to things I’d say, and there were days he seemed to look through me as I spoke to him. Just a few months ago, Nana, Pop Pop and I were able to have dinner at a table together in the dining room of skilled nursing – A fantastic memory. One evening I told Pop Pop how much I looked forward to seeing him every day, telling him, “This is MY happy hour now – Coming to see you!” A huge smile crossed his face and he belly laughed… Something I hadn’t heard in a long time. A week before he passed, he reached for my hand, winked, and I made jokes about how I might let him win if we arm wrestled. But through all of that, I was still introducing myself every five minutes, making sure he felt safe – A man who had always made me feel safe when we were together.
One day I went to my regular visit with Pop Pop and Nana, and a nurse told us that time was winding down. The next day I went back and some of the family sat together for a bit. The hospice nurse had told Nana that morning that it could be days; it could be hours. She wouldn’t leave his side. She held his hand the entire day. When they brought her dinner to the room, I watched as she held his hand with her left hand and ate her dinner with her right. Twenty five minutes after I left that evening, Nana was alone with Pop Pop in his room, holding his hand, when he slowly and peacefully stopped breathing. And then, she continued to hold his hand and sing him a song – Just her and the man she lovingly referred to as her “OAO” (One And Only) – The last sweet moments of the kind of love most people would do anything to find.
In this love story, so many people loved my Pop Pop, but no one more than Nana. That, my friends, is the kind of love that lives forever. I hope you find yours.