Sunday, January 10, 2016

'Til I Reach You

Been talkin' 'bout the way things change
And my family lives in a different state...

-from "Rivers and Roads" on The Head and the Heart's self-titled album

In this morning's wee hours, my friend Daniel lost his grandmother. I found out right before the bidding prayer during a service that celebrated the Baptism of the Lord. Calling out Daniel's name, I recalled similar prayers of comfort lifted for my own family last January 10.

A year ago today, my dad's family grieved the death of Pop, my 88-year-old grandfather. My parents had been keeping vigil for a long time. On my Aunt April's birthday, Pop breathed his last.

This afternoon, in the midst of chaotic funeral arranging, Daniel and his wife Monica took a little time to attend their young son's first art show. Daniel, proud Papa that he is, texted me an image of a whimsical collage, pointing out that the brightest component - a colorful bird - was created by his son.

I grieve with my friends. Daniel, Monica, and their clan will miss their Granny something fierce. But, as affirmed by an unexpected, happy paper bird, life goes on. Those left facing a new day without their loved one can find that fact almost unbearable at first. Even after a year, I know what it is to occasionally wake with a surprising sense of loss.

Pop and I were always great buddies. I had the good fortune of living close to my grandparents as a baby. And after he was sure I was too sturdy to break when he held me, Pop and I shared a bond that lasted the rest of his life. If I'm being honest, I still believe there's a tie that binds.

Pop and Lindsay on the deck of Pop and Sparky's home.

Pop was a complicated man, born and raised in a hard time. One of my cousins once described him as a "happy-on-the-inside kind of guy." And I suppose that sentiment was fairly accurate. I don't think he ever quite got over the death of his beloved brother in the Korean War. That heartache left him wounded and a bit hard around the edges. Even so, Pop sure was lovable.

In his own little ways, he made us all feel special. There's about a decade gap between the cousins in our family. Amanda, my brother Allyn, and I came first. Pop would make us giggle by randomly popping out his fake teeth. He spent hours regaling us with stories of his and Uncle George's shenanigans in Depression-era West Virginia. When Olivia and Cameron came along, Pop developed a game just for them. Every time he said goodbye to his youngest grandchildren, he would let out a huge sneeze. Dozens of quarters and dimes would magically land on the floor. Their delighted squeals always made his eyes soft.

Not the most demonstrative man outside of those childlike moments, he could seem gruff. But we all knew the truth: Mike Barrick loved his family and friends. He even knew our pals and regularly asked after them. If he met someone once, he remembered them. 

As my brother became a teenager, Pop would 'sell' him something - like an old TV or some forgotten toy - for a dollar bill now and then. When Allyn's best friend AJ would come along to visit, Pop extended the same deal to him. And when AJ died before his 23rd birthday, Pop grieved right alongside us. He knew the pain of a broken heart better than most, and when my dad and I both lost our best friends, Pop's heart broke again with ours.

I'm a keeper of letters and a firm believer in the beauty of handwritten notes. Pop prided himself on having perfect penmanship and a keen ability to choose just the right card for any occasion. I saved the ones he sent over the years: lovely words of sympathy, funny postcards sent from Florida vacations, cheerful cards filled with birthday wishes. In these treasured pieces of paper, I am reminded of his big heart.

My family and friends remember Pop and his love for us in different ways. We think of him when an old Dean Martin song is played. Or when we recreate his famous chocolate chip cookies. Others recall rooting for the Mountaineers with a young, debonair Pop, when dressing up was the fashion on game day. For me, he is inextricably linked to West Virginia and my abiding passion for my home state.

My grandparents' home was always the gathering place for holidays and summer vacations. The happiest moments of my life were spent in north central West Virginia, playing with my cousins and whispering late into the night with my grandmother Sparky or one of my aunts or uncles. We're all scattered from Texas and Indiana to North Carolina and Virginia. And Pop and Sparky's house is now someone else's home. This past Christmas was the first time none of us made the long drive out of state. We didn't exchange gifts around the tree or attend midnight mass or eat gobs of the best Italian food this side of Calabria.

Nothing is as it has been. And I miss the faces of my sweet cousins, aunts, and uncles. I miss the faces of our West Virginia neighbors, priests, and old friends. I certainly miss looking my grandparents in the eyes and kissing their cheeks. But, in the newness of life without Pop and Sparky, our hearts are softened. We can share the gift of empathy. We appreciate rambling stories and the gnarled hands of the aged. We don't take for granted opportunities to gather with loved ones.

On this feast day, at my Aunt Mickey's parish, mass was offered for Mike "Pop" Barrick. I give thanks for the life of the man that did so much to shape mine and honor the ways he demonstrated his love for us.