WARNING: This is going to be a very sad post about the brevity of life. Those who are triggered by such things, please proceed with caution.
Every year since 2010, I have made a “100 Things to Do in the New Year” post, and, in the past, have blogged about it by listing the entire 100 things at the beginning of the year, and then reviewing the entire list at the end of the year.
It made for a very cumbersome, hard to read post. So I decided recently that this year I’m going to identify one thing on my list and write about it each month. Unfortunately, even though it’s only the end of March, I already have one that I definitely won’t be able to complete. I never got around to starting it, and now it’s too late.
My plan had been to take my father-in-law, affectionately known as Poppie, to breakfast on the 6th of each month. His birthday was October 6, and so I thought using the date of his birth would be a nice reminder for me.
Poppie was 91. His parents had died when he was young, and his siblings, although older, were still young and just starting their families and couldn’t care for him, so he bounced around the foster care system until he was 17 and his older sister signed a letter so that he could enlist in the miltary. I was aware that what time he had left would be shorter rather than longer, but he didn’t seem to have any imminent health issues, so when January, February, and March went by and I neglected our breakfast dates, and he was still calling weekly, and sounding chipper, I wasn’t worried.
Until Sunday, March 19.
My sister-in-law called to let me know that Poppie was in the hospital, in acute kidney failure, that the risks outweighed the benefits of dialysis for him, and that he was dying. Four days later, with my husband and sister-in-law by his side, Poppie died.
Poppie moved to an assisted living facility a little less than two years ago. It is a spectacular place. The staff there does a great job taking care of their residents. Being there was good for Poppie; even though we kept him in his home as long as we could, after we moved out three years ago, he was there by himself. He never got out and did things, and rarely saw friends other than the neighbors. When he moved into the assisted living facility, suddenly, he had friends – four Navy buddies that he ate breakfast with every day, workout buddies (at 89! workout buddies!), even lady friends. He also had the staff wrapped right around his little finger. The nurses would let him know when their shifts were ending and when their days off were, so he would know to expect a different nurse the next time he had to have meds or be checked on.
He was good for the other residents too. During the calling hour, a resident came through with his daughter, and told us that her dad had pretty much decided, because of the way old age was affecting his speech and memory, to be more of a fly on the wall, a listener rather than a talker. I was shocked. Whenever we went to visit Poppie, this man was always one of the first ones to greet us with a big smile. And he loved the kids. Boy, did he love the kids. All the residents did.
After we moved out, our little family didn’t spend anywhere near as much time with Poppie as we would have liked. As much as we missed being able to see Poppie every day (when we moved to this area eight years ago, we lived with him for five years), the culture shock, I’m sure, was much worse for him. We knew that he was well taken care of, but I know that when people get old, it’s those connections with family that bring them the most joy. We didn’t visit enough. Now it’s too late, and for that, I’m sad.
There had been talk on the day before Poppie died of transferring him to the VA hospital an hour away for hospice care. So that night, before he was scheduled to leave, my son and I made our way to the hospital to say goodbye to Poppie. My sister-in-law, husband, and I had agreed not to take the kids with us to say our goodbyes, but my precious five-year-old boy, wise beyond his years, had refused to take no for an answer. I went in, touched Poppie’s hand, blew him kisses, said my goodbyes and my sorries, and told him it was OK to go and be with his beloved Nonnie, who had passed away back in 2011. I was at peace with letting him go, but I started crying my eyes out as soon as we left the room. Crying for the smiles we’d no longer see, the jokes and tall tales that we would no longer hear, and most of all, for the three little ones (8, 5, and 3 at this time) who would never again have the joy of having a grandparent.
His funeral was one of the most impressive I’ve ever seen. My sister Cheryl has a friend named Kris who had told Cheryl when our father died that you can tell how important a Catholic person was by how many priests concelebrate their funeral. Both Cheryl and Kris were impressed that there had been 3 priests at my dad’s funeral. It paled in comparison. Daddy had a lot of people there, and, of course, the 3 priests, plus a member of the Air Force, a State Police escort, and the entire church choir singing.
His funeral achieved a dignity and sense of patriotic ceremony the likes of which I’ve never seen. Poppie, one of those responsible for building up the military honors corps in Chemung County, would have loved it.
The Chemung County Honor Guard Veterans, mostly Vietnam guys now, stood guard quietly outside the funeral home with flags. I had had to sit in the hallway with the kids, who, after a calling hour for which we arrived about half an hour early, were starting to get a bit unruly. Just before the service was to begin, they all came in to pay their respects. As they filed out, I thanked as many of them for coming as I could, and each and every one said, “It’s our honor, ma’am.”
The honor guard headed up the funeral procession so that Poppie was led to our local National Cemetery by flag bearing vehicles. He was interred with full military honors. My five-year-old son kept one of the shells from the honor corps salute. Taps was played. It was beautiful and reverent and well fitting for the war hero that our Poppie was.
I am heartbroken that I will not be able to follow through on my promise to take Poppie out to breakfast each month. Even though he was old by most people’s standards, I didn’t expect his death to happen so quickly. What I’ve learned from this wake-up call is that the 100 things list has to be reviewed weekly rather than monthly, and that if I have things scheduled for a certain date, to do them right away rather than waiting. Who cared if we had gone to breakfast on the 6th or 26th of the month? Of course, now there will never be a breakfast with Poppie on the 6th of any month or any other day. I really screwed this one up. So I need to review the list more frequently, and make the things on it a priority.
Here’s to John W. Shook (who absolutely hated to be referred to as John W. Shook, Sr.), born October 6, 1925, and died March 22, 2017, aged 91. A Navy man, civil servant, tireless veteran, hard worker, beloved husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. Now gone to his eternal rest with his beloved Barbara.