For a man so great, it is impossible to craft a worthy tribute, but in my attempt to come to grips with reality I’ll do my best.
Never has a man seemed so immortal as Pop. It wasn’t just his age and permanent presence in my life, but the way he lived his life and the fight and love he exhibited every single day. He refused to waste a day, working up until his hospitalization despite barely being able to stand or walk.
As long as I can remember, I’ve felt out of place in my own family. That’s not to say that I ever felt unloved or unwanted; I felt very much loved and appreciated by everyone. I was just the only one on my Mom’s side of the family not to be from Warren or down South. My brothers, cousins, aunts, and uncle all grew up working in fields, working on cars, building houses, and growing up in a small, rural Arkansas town.
I grew up in the capital city in a gated neighborhood going to private school. There was nothing wrong with that, and my family never looked down on me for it, but I always felt… different.
I never knew what to talk about or how to contribute to any conversation. Front porch talks centered around car repairs, cattle, tractors, town gossip, distant relatives I had never met, and anything about local commerce or the road my grandparents lived on. My sense of humor was even different. I’ve mastered the art of fake laughing now, but growing up I had to endure some awkward situations over jokes I didn’t really understand or even find funny.
Pop knew all of this, though, and always tried to engage with me and talk to me about things I knew about, even if he had absolutely no clue himself. Sometimes it would be basketball, other times about how school was going, grilling. He made the effort.
Most of our conversations took place on the back porch with Pop in his chair at the perfect spot where he could look out over the vast acreage of forest to gaze upon God’s creation, while still being at the perfect angle to see anyone who entered or left his road.
He’d say almost every time I saw him: “There ain’t nowhere in the world with this good a view.” Pop would often philosophize his road in Bradley County and his whole way of life.
“I know everything that goes on ’round here just by watching who comes and goes. I can tell you who it is, why they’re here, and how long they’ll be just by seeing them come in.” An overwhelming number of times, he was spot on.
“There ain’t a millionaire who eats as good as I do every day or sleeps as warm as I do in that bed back there every night.” A two-part philosophy on the beauty of a modest life, while also functioning as a way to praise his wife for being an incredible cook. She made thousands of his meals in their lifetime together, and he never once grew tired of her cooking. He savored every bite throughout all the years. He had another phrase for modest living and saving money that I still follow and will follow for the rest of my life.
“If I can live off $100, then I can live off $95, and if I can live off $95, then I can live off $90.” No doubt that stemmed from growing up in the Depression and living off rations in the war. Pop saved money until the day he died.
As Pop got older, he became more open with his affection towards everyone. No one ever questioned Pop’s love for them, but he was never one to vocalize it or show it. I always assumed it was him becoming more aware of his own mortality, but he never went into detail. I just remember Christmas in 2016 he started saying another line that would be repeated at every family gathering.
“Years ago I won the lottery,” he’d say as he pointed at Memaw. “I just want you all to know that I love each and every one of you.”
Hugs became more frequent than handshakes. Group and individual pictures were taken at every holiday and family gathering. Pop smiled more in his pictures the older he got, and he NEVER stopped telling jokes or pushing Memaw’s buttons.
Memaw and Pop had a routine where Pop would make some side comment about Memaw – normally about how tight of a ship she ran and how she kept Pop in line – just loud enough so she could hear but quiet enough where she thought she wasn’t supposed to hear it. She would respond with a sarcastic threat, and Pop would look at whoever was there to witness it, wink, and keep going at it with Memaw until he busted out laughing.
His laugh was always so pure and as joyful as a child. He epitomized never growing up, and while he was plenty serious when he needed to be, always made time for laughter.
Over the years Pop took on a number of different hobbies: he had doves and chickens at different times, tried his hand at beekeeping, built birdhouses, and in general just never stopped tinkering in his shop. That doesn’t even include the constant mowing and planting he did.
A few years ago, I surprised Memaw and Pop by driving down for a quick visit on a Thursday after classes were done. I wasn’t working at the time and had free time. When I got there, I went inside and chatted with Memaw for a bit before asking where Pop was.
“He’s down at the shop getting into something,” Memaw said. So I went down there to find Pop and surprise him. I ended up being more surprised than he was.
I walked down there to see Pop, at 92 years old, using a pole saw with his right hand while he held himself up on his walker with his left hand. I can’t think of any better way to sum up Pop and his desire to always work than that scene. He greeted me with a big, hearty, “Hey!” that he strung out for a few seconds.
I asked him if he should be doing that and if he needed help, and he just said, “Nah, I got it. It needed to be done!” He did end up letting me help him pile stuff on the burn pile and light it for him, though.
All of that was such a farcry from his state in the last month of his life. He spent time in four different hospitals and a rehab facility before he ultimately died. He was connected to so many different machines and tubes that the immortal pillar of my life had been reduced to a frail human.
Whenever I went to see him, he couldn’t respond to me. He was heavily sedated and at the very end even intubated, but I never stopped talking to him. I wasn’t sure he could hear me, but I hoped he could.
The last time I got to see him, just two days before he passed, I held his hand and talked with him for an hour. I completely opened up; I told him how much I loved him, how much I appreciated everything he did for me, told him some secrets that he’ll be the only person to know for just a little bit, and for a little bit I tried to keep it lighthearted.
One of the last things I said to him was: “Pop, I know you love jokes, and I can’t really think of any right now, but I can at least joke around with you for a little bit. It’s so funny to see you with all that facial hair. I know you shaved every single day, and I know that if you woke up right now you’d ask for a shave and Memaw in that order, because you’ve gotta look good to see your woman!”
He wiggled his finger a little bit and fluttered his eyes, and I like to think that’s because he heard me.
Pop came from a generation that knew nothing but hard work, and in a generation that produced those types of people on the regular, even then he was exceptional. His life was not easy, and he never stopped working a day in his life. He fought on the frontlines of World War II, built dams, built houses, raised a family, and became the patriarch to a big, loving family. If anyone deserved to rest, it was Pop, and he finally can now.