My grandfather Pop-Pop fell today and he could not stand up.
I speed-walked upstairs to help. Pop-Pop was inadvertently planking in his closet, breathing heavily after attempts to pull himself to his feet. He and my grandmother Kicki have lived in a second-floor apartment at my house for the last decade, and lately Pop-Pop has regressed. Cancer has invaded his face. A tumor the size of a softball eats at his left jaw. Most days, he cannot close or blink his left eye. It remains open instead, the color of a stop sign. His legs, once muscular, resemble toothpicks. His lifestyle, once self-sufficient, now relies on everyone else. He cannot read, his favorite hobby, without a powerful magnifying glass. He cannot walk to the car without someone to lean on. He cannot urinate without someone to help him balance.
I carried Pop-Pop to his feet and led him to his bed. He sat on the edge and held me in his hands.
“Thank you,” he said, panting from all the exertion it took to hold me while I lifted him. “What’s your name again?”
Then he cried and hugged me tighter than he ever has.
Eighteen years ago today, Reggie Lewis was 27 years old when he collapsed at Brandeis University and passed away two and a half hours later at Boston’s New England Baptist Hospital. He died doing what he presumably loved to do. He did not have any tumors growing from his face. He did not need someone to help him piss or someone to be his crutch whenever he walked to the car. He never forgot the names of his loved ones or looked into the mirror to see an eye the color of a Chicago Bulls away jersey staring right back at him.
Lewis missed all the good stuff.
Pop-Pop flew dozens of missions in World War II. He played in a golf league every Thursday night. He sold used cars in Springfield, MA, coached his only son’s CYO basketball team to a 44-1 record one season, read more books than any other person I have met, and once scored an own goal to lose a playoff game for his high school hockey team.
When my mom returned home after a night of partying, Pop-Pop would be sleeping, but his arm would hang over the edge of the couch to make her stop and say goodnight. No sneaking into his house.
When my uncle Kelly was young, he once slept over a friend’s house but told Pop-Pop he was attending a MacDuffie School dance. The next day, Pop-Pop picked Kelly up and asked how the dance had been.
“It was fun,” Kelly responded. But Pop-Pop knew.
“There was no dance,” he said. He had sold a car to MacDuffie’s headmaster earlier that day. When Pop-Pop asked, the headmaster knew nothing about his school’s alleged dance. No lying to Pop-Pop, either.
Now, my aunts and uncles take shifts to take care of Pop-Pop. They make him meals. They help change his clothes. They drive him to radiation. They chat with him, or, when he doesn’t feel well enough to chat, they sit and keep him company. Pop-Pop hasn’t been alone since the day he married Kicki.
“It’s Jay,” I told Pop-Pop.
He looked at me once more and said, ”I love you, Jay.”
I love you too, Pop-Pop. I love you too.