I packed the chili, cornbread, and warm chocolate chip cookies my son had baked for great grandpa into the car. I loaded the three kids and we drove, scanning the roadside for my husband, who in his own manner of coping with our pending loss, was running from our home to the river house—all of us in our separate ways trying to help. Great grandpa (Papu)—home finally from an Easter fall and months of living at rehab--had stopped eating for several days.
He’s at his desk when we arrive, sorting through files. He tells me he’s come across some poems his mother had once recited to the accompaniment of a musician; he wants to send them to an archive in the Midwest.
“No thanks,” he says, to the offer of a cookie, “maybe later,” but gives a faint smile (winner of the 1938 Dipsea race, dubbed the “running diplomat” by the Finnish) when he hears Marko opted to run the twelve miles here.
Several days prior, our middle son said to me at bedtime, “I don’t want Papu to die until he’s 98. Daddy says he might die this week. I don’t want him to.”
“Well, when you see Papu at the river, be sure to tell him you love him. He can take your love with him in his heart.”
“No, I won’t tell him. He already knows that in his heart,” said my son. “But I don’t want him to die, Mom.”
“Maybe he’ll visit you in a dream.”
“He could come in my dream when he was 20,” my son said. “That way I would get to see him run.”
Ubeknownst to us, this Thursday is Papu’s last day on Earth. After spending the afternoon at the house, usually so careful about all saying goodbye, we find ourselves late for our daughter’s Aikido class. The youngest (without a stitch) is circling the property, Mark’s putting away the ladder he used when sanding down the house the last three hours. I’m upstairs with Papu, trying to decide which “Christmas” we should cut from a couple sentences in the manuscript Papu's finished (based on his mother’s diaries).
“See you soon,” I say, kissing him on the forehead. He nods, still bent over the pages spread out before him. Relieved two out of three of the kids are in the van, I neglect to send them back up to kiss Papu goodbye, barely managing to grab the littlest by his sand-crusted gut and plunk him into his car-seat.
I thought I’d be telling you how we talked our children through losing their great grandpa. But death made kids of my husband and I too (lost—could we have done more? a lot sad—we’ll never hear him say to our three year old, “Hey Nik-O, how you doing?” or see him swivel towards us from his grey chair by the desk). Nothing else to do--gripped so firmly by grief late at night--but wonder together about it all.
And survive the myriad things we bump into in a day that remind us of him (the wheel chair waiting to be returned at the top of the stairs, pink post-it notes with editing questions for him on my laptop, a Korbel champagne wire he twisted into a chair for the kids). My husband and I say the right things to strangers and friends, “No need for condolences. He was 92—long, happy life.” And walk away missing him, somewhat reassured by my son’s confidence that even though we didn’t say goodbye, Papu carries our love for him in his heart as we carry his in ours.
Further reading: The Nelson Brothers: Finnish-American Radicals from the Mendocino Coast by Allan Nelson, published by the Mendocino County Historical Society and Mendocino County Museum in association with the Immigration History Research Center, University of Minnesota (this book is based on letters between Allan’s father and Uncle Enoch who had moved to Russia).
The family is also in the process of preparing the completed manuscript, "Helmi’s Story”, (the tale of Papu’s mother’s life, based on her diary entries) for publication.
Bring Me the Rhinoceros And Other Zen Koans to Bring You Joy, by Santa Rosa author John Tarrant (see the chapter “Life With and Without Your Cherished Beliefs”, especially pp. 116-122 in which the author describes “affection's twisting paths” and how to more gracefully accept the mucky process of witnessing, with other family members, a loved one crossing over.)