This morning, my son was toying with the buttons on the sleeves of his shirt. I walked over and asked if he needed help. As I was fastening the buttons, I suddenly experienced a flashback.
My great grandfather wore button up shirts almost everyday. Normally, he wore a light blue shirt (short or long sleeve depending on the weather) and navy blue work pants.
I remember watching my Pop-pop do things from a very young age. I remember watching him fix a tricycle. I remember watching him feed the dogs. I distinctly remember as a teenager watching my Pop-pop in his mundane tasks and, one day, perking up at a sign of his needing my help.
My great grandfather was dressed with a mostly buttoned shirt on. I could hear his grumbling at himself. I pushed an already cracked door further open. Pop-pop was so focused on the task that he didn’t even notice me. His massive, muscular hands were trying to wrap themselves around a tiny button on the sleeve. “Do you need some help?” “I can’t get this durn thing buttoned.” He stretched his wrist out toward me and my tiny fingers quickly fastened the button. I reached for the other arm. My Pop-pop lifted his head with a grin and looked at the ceiling. “I can’t get this one buttoned, either.” I buttoned the very top button of his collar, told him that he looked nice, and kissed him on his cheek. “Thank you.” “You’re welcome. I love you.” “I love you, too, Sweet.”
I walked away thinking that my Pop-pop smelled so good. It was his winning combination of Old Spice cologne, Speed Stick deodorant, and this subtle sweetness he always had. It was one of the reasons that I always loved to kiss him on the cheek. I loved the way his whiskers felt on my face and I loved how he smelled. It reminded me that I was always safe and welcome in his presence. “What do you know, Scooderoomp [sp]?” was his own fanfare for me.
I remember having the idea that as strong and massive as my Pop-pop was, he needed something from me. His hands were too big and too strong to fiddle with those pesky buttons. I was the perfect helper for the job. I didn’t think about his knowing that he was getting on in age. In my mind my great grandfather would live forever. I didn’t consider his independence slipping away along with time. To me, he could do anything. I totally forgot that for nearly ninety years prior to that day, he had buttoned his own shirts all the way, by himself. It never crossed my mind that he felt anything except for what he showed in his eyes when he grinned and waited for me to fasten the top button on his collar.
My Pop-pop loved me like God put him on this Earth just to love me. I ask myself as I reflect on an alternative perspective, how could there have been pain in that? How could there have been any hurt in the many times following in which I buttoned the sleeve and collar buttons on his shirt?
It took decades for my great grandfather to retire from his manual labor job. For decades, he resisted sitting at home all day. Once he was forced to retire, he would still go to the job sites and help and train and laugh. Once he retired, he still found reasons to work outside. The clothing line was hanging too low. The leaves needed to be raked. He worked into his eighties, retired, then worked some more. And I watched him. In awe, I watched him.
A lot of the worth that my Pop-pop had attributed to himself was through what he could do. He could break up a concrete floor with one swing of a sledge hammer. He could finish a straight edge of concrete perfectly by eye. But he wasn’t breaking up floors or laying concrete anymore by the time I was helping him button his shirt. There was a lot that my great grandfather “used to do” by that time. And until that time (and even after), he had been protecting me. He had been loving me and taking care of me. And here he was needing my little bit of help. This wasn’t a small deal for that kind of man.
One day, just as I did this morning for my son, his mother buttoned his shirt. He went on to live a full life and had now returned back to that place; to that need. I could tell that he enjoyed that moment we had shared. We were close and this was one of those times that our closeness was undeniable. My Pop-pop loved being close to me just as much as, if not more than, I loved being close to him.
So, now, I ask myself again:
My Pop-pop loved me like God put him on this Earth just to love me. How could there have been pain in that? How could there have been any hurt in his needing the smallest ounce of help from me?
There is a way that undying love knows when it will soon transition to a love that depends wholly on our faith in its existence.
Within five years and through three strokes, my great grandfather had passed away. For those last years, he would say to me repeatedly “I done the best I could.” The last time I saw him, his memory was intermittent and he cried because of it. That day, my Pop-pop couldn’t remember his life from my being about 10 years old to being the 22 year old standing in front of him, and he thought he missed my life. He thought he wasn’t there for me and he couldn’t take that. In telling him that he had been there and staring in his eyes and seeing that grin again, I still didn’t realize what fastening his buttons years before had meant to him.
My great grandfather knew his love for me. He knew that his life’s book was coming to it’s end. His faith in his love for me was soon to be tested. Our love would soon no longer be able to be experienced in long looks and kisses on the cheek. It would depend on our faith in its existence. He didn’t know what he faced on the other side, and many fears came with that. As it pertains to me, he didn’t know if he would miss the rest of my life or if he could watch from some heavenly perch. THAT is how there can be pain in loving like that. THAT is how there can be pain in needing me to help him with his buttons. Or asking one of my brothers to lift something that he was no longer strong enough to lift. As his saw his list of “used to do” grow and faced his life’s ending, I imagine his thinking “Can I love them even after I’m gone? I need to love them even after I’m gone.”
My mother put a lyric on my great grandfather’s funeral program. From As by Stevie Wonder: “For today I know I’m living, but tomorrow might make me the past, but that I mustn’t fear. For I’ll know deep in my mind the love of me I left behind, and I’ll be loving you always.”
I rest my heart on that.
Rest in peace, CCC.