My dad died five days ago -- it is strange indeed to type the words "My dad died." And now that the dust is beginning to settle, I'm realizing the degree to which the presence of three little children helped all of us through the past week.
My dad's three youngest great-grandchildren -- Noah, 12, Greta, 10, and Jonah, 9 -- could make him smile like no one else. Greta, especially, was a favorite, much like my daughter, Caroline, had been back in her younger days. And throughout my dad's most recent ordeal, they were the steadiest of presences, visiting him at the hospital, in skilled care, and finally in his hospice facility to give him a little something to hang on to.
Children view death in a way that should be the model for all of us. One night about a week ago, I was walking with Jonah to the dining room in Kavanagh House so he could grab a drink and a cookie. Dad was having a pretty good day -- sitting up in a chair, eating, talking. Nothing was indicating that he'd be gone within a few days. And Jonah asked, seemingly out of nowhere: "Is Pops going to die?"
I thought for just a second before I responded: "Yes, I think he is."
Jonah nodded. "I thought so," he said. And that was it.
Thanks to the dedication and wisdom of their mom and dad, Amy and Kevin, the three kids watched Pops die in a way that helped them understand the way the life cycle is supposed to work. They would sit by his bed and he would tease them and smile at them, grabbing one or two of them into a long hug every once in a while.
As he grew weaker and could no longer speak, he still managed to smile at them and to whisper "Thank you" or "I love you." And the night before Dad died, Greta watched him with tears in her eyes, but still, she held fast to his hand.
Late on Thursday, Greta, unprompted, wrote a story about Dad, and today, she read it to him -- at his funeral. My son, Scott, had read the first Scripture reading, and Caroline, bless her, somehow managed to sing a beautiful "Ave, Maria" for her grandfather. I was bursting with pride at the way they had stepped up to the plate, but Greta's 10-year-old poise and grace were admirable as well. With her soft voice cracking ever so slightly, she read:
"I loved my Pops. I saw him eat three scoops of ice cream at 10 o'clock. And he smiled at me when he was very sick and about to die."
Really, that summed things up. He ate ice cream on Wednesday night. At 3 p.m. Thursday, he took his last breath. But in between -- while he was, indeed, about to die -- he said goodbye, in the only way he was able, to the grandchildren and great-grandchildren around his bedside. And they had made him smile.
I have a lot left to process about the last few days. I'd never seen someone die, and the event was larger than I have the ability to assign words to. My parents are dead; the most direct part of my history is gone, and I'm living inside my own head and trying to redetermine my place in the world.
But as I do that, I'm comforted by Greta's 10-year-old take on this odyssey: ice cream and a smile. If I'm going to choose something to hang on to, I'll pick that, hands-down.