Last night we got word that Papa Joe passed away. Papa Joe was my husband’s grandfather and the reason that my little blond-haired blue-eyed children have a Mexican last name. He was five foot four inches of pure hispanic heart. From the moment I met him, shortly after Mike and I married, he wrapped me in love, laughing and hugging me tightly with his bony arthritic hands. Papa Joe held my first baby before my own mother did. He was the patriarch of the family and also it’s mascot. Even in his nineties he could be seen tooling through York Harbor, Maine, picking up mail for the family inn. He lived in an apartment in one of the bed and breakfasts and took great pride in waking at 6:00am to put out muffins, coffee and juice for the guests. He was something of a local celebrity, and being related to him made me feel part of a specially selected clan.
Papa Joe fought in World War II and told stories of walking into a decimated French village whose only occupant was a chicken, completely bare but for one tail feather. He told stories of meeting and marrying his bride, Irma, and not speaking Spanish in his home for forty years; the America of the 1940s would not have approved. He told stories about raising four children in New Jersey while working as a television repair man; how proud he was of his children’s accomplishments, how bewildered by their failures. Though my husband’s parents had been divorced for nearly forty years, Papa Joe still had a framed photo of my mother-in-law, in her high school majorette uniform, on his living room wall. He was loyal: once family, always family.
Papa Joe told stories primarily with his hands, his sweetly accented voice just an extra embellishment. And he told stories ALL.THE.TIME. See, he was mostly deaf, and instead of hiding himself away to avoid struggling through conversations, he preferred the approach of “Don’t let them get a word in edgewise and it won’t matter what they are saying.” Papa Joe was the only person that I ever allowed to call me “Jenny.” In his mouth it was “Yenny,” exotic and special. He loved his pictures, his Catholic church, his rotisserie, and “The New York Jankees,” but most of all, he loved his family. And we loved him right back. So, we will miss him very, very much. But Papa Joe was ninety-eight years old. He lived a good life, a long life, and he was surrounded, not just at the end, but always, by people who adored and valued him. He wasn’t ill for very long, and I’ve heard that as his sons sat vigil at his bedside, Papa Joe talked to Irma, gone nearly twenty-years, as if his wife were there at the end of the bed, waiting to lead him through some doorway. So yes, we are sad to see him leave, but I can’t help but think it was a great way to go.
The news of Papa Joe’s passing was strangely timed. Not thirty-minutes before, I’d taken my first deep breath of the day.
A mama friend of mine has a two-year-old at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital. This sweet baby went in for open heart surgery in late December and suffered complications. Yesterday morning she was taken back to the OR for exploratory surgery. The conditions were not ideal, and it was very uncertain that she’d return. I’d been praying (or my version of praying which mostly goes, ‘pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease…’) since 7am. I don’t know the family well, the older sister is a friend and classmate of Juliette’s, but I’ve spent enough time with the mama to not be able to hide from the horror of her situation. Motherhood is a kinship and our hearts hold one another with no regard to our will.
I’d watched as her baby’s condition worsened over the last few days, and I’d struggled to find a way to make it okay. It seemed so unfair. The suffering of a child is always unfair, but in this particular case it seemed even more so. This baby was adopted just a few months ago. Her parents knew she had serious issues and they brought her home anyway. They brought her home to give her a chance, a chance she never would have had otherwise. Shouldn’t that kind of courage be rewarded? What kind of universe lets people open themselves up like that and be disappointed? So, yesterday afternoon I was greatly relieved to hear that Baby Girl had come through the surgery successfully, and if everything was not resolved, at least some hope had been restored.
But then Papa Joe.
It was hard not to feel like one had been traded for another. That’s ridiculous, of course. I don’t actually believe that there is some cosmic scale of life and death, good luck and bad. I shudder to think which we’d have coming to us if there was. But we all struggle to make sense of things, especially painful things, as if by understanding them we can exert some feeble control. It’s reflexive, but knowing we have reflexes doesn’t stop our knee from leaping or our minds from jumping to conclusions.
But as I watched my son weep at the news of his great-grandfather, I realized that I’d had it all backwards. The thing that had been bothering me most about my friend’s situation was how vulnerable she’d allowed herself to be, and how much the universe, or God, or whoever, seemed to be exploiting that vulnerability. But there is no exploitation of vulnerability. Vulnerability gives itself freely. It is, by it’s very nature, an acknowledgment of heartbreak. And yet, it’s the price of admission to a full and joyful life. Loving means losing eventually. None of us are here forever. We will have to leave, or we will be left. But it’s best to go, since go we must, surrounded by those we’ve allowed to love us, those we’ve allowed ourselves to love.
We aren’t promised ninety-eight years. We’re simply given this moment. We can choose to make it count, to fill it, as Papa Joe did, with stories and laughter and even open-hearted bewilderment. We can’t spare ourselves the losing, but we can make sure the loving made it worth it.