Thursday, September 4, 2014

My First Family Funeral

Until Friday, August 29th, 2014 I had all four of my grandparents. Pop-pop, my dad's dad, passed away that evening following a surgical procedure that morning. He was surrounded by his wife (one day short of being married 67 years), two children, their spouses, and my cousin Josh. He had lived with Parkinson's Disease for years, and over the past month or so had very rapidly declined in health. We were aware of the fact that his life on earth would not be much longer, but that doesn't ease the sorrow very much. 

Yesterday we celebrated Pop-pop. He served in WWII (his unit was wiped out on Omaha Beach on D-Day, he was held back in the states because of broken eyeglasses!), spent decades working with the Gideons (the group that puts Bibles in hotel rooms, as well as many other hands), and lived his life to the glory of God. I never once felt like we were saying "good-bye," but rather "see you soon." I knew it would not be easy but the day was much harder than I was prepared for. 

The whole family was there, minus my children. We decided it would be less disruptive if they stayed in school. My brother, Jordan, took the red-eye flight from LA yesterday morning, and my youngest brother, Jake, drove in from eastern PA the night before. My cousin Josh and his wife and daughter live here, so they were in attendance, and even my cousin Sarah was able to fly in from NYC for the week.

The viewing was at 12:30pm. I've been to two funerals before, but never for someone this close to me, and definitely not an open casket. Pop-pop was laying there, and he looked strangely better than he did the last time I saw him a couple months ago. His face wasn't as sunken in, he wasn't shaking, his hands were folded on his abdomen in a way that he used to hold them when sitting in a chair. He looked so peaceful. He even had his glasses on. The strange part was him wearing a tie and jacket- I can't remember the last time I saw him dressed up so fancy! Maybe my brother's wedding? 

Pop-pop loved African Violet plants. In lieu of flowers, my Nana requested that people send monetary gifts to the Gideons. I, however, knew I needed to bring a violet. I found a store that had a few varieties available, and I couldn't decide so I bought four plants and re-potted them all into one planter. I took the leaves that had broken off in the process and put them in water to start new baby plants, just like Pop-pop taught me so many years ago. 

After the private family viewing was over, as everyone was leaving the sanctuary, I plucked one single white blossom from the plant and placed in between his right thumb and finger. That was the moment for me when it got real. Like, REAL real. Pop-pop was no longer here with us. I knew he had gone immediately to heaven when he passed away, but it didn't hit me until just moments before they closed the lid. Just knowing it would be the last time anyone on earth saw his face hit me like a brick wall. 

The 13 of us (Nana, Mom, Dad, Jordan, Jake, myself, Justin, Uncle Stafford, Aunt Margaret, Josh, Erin, Bree, and Sarah) waited together in a room to the side of the sanctuary. Since Pop-pop was a veteran, he was going to be given full military honors at the end of the service. A young man and young woman from the Army National Guard assigned to do the honors came in to speak with us. Dressed in full uniform, they made me proud to be the granddaughter of someone who served so selflessly. 

At 1:30, we all lined up and followed my Nana into the sanctuary. There was quite a turnout, which was not surprising since everyone who knew my Pop-pop loved him. People from church, friends from their retirement community, members of the Gideons, and even my dad's coworkers - to support him in the passing of his father. 

It was a beautiful memorial service. The pastor read the things we had all written about Pop-pop, and it was so special to hear all the different ways we each remembered and loved him. I had written a very long tribute, and had to shorten it for the service. I kept the long one, however, and printed it out for my Nana to read later. Here is the the shorter version from the service:

My very first memory EVER is going to the hospital to see my new baby brother, Jordan. I was 2 ½ years old, and it was my Pop-pop who was there with me. I’m sure Nana was there too, but it’s Pop-pop who I remember holding my tiny hand while walking down that endless hallway to the room where my mom and baby brother were. We left the hospital and drove to a department store where Pop-pop helped me pick out my very own baby doll. I still have her to this day.

I got my green thumb from Pop-pop. He grew African Violet plants in the basement, and I learned from him how to water and prune them, and how to start baby plants. They are still one of my favorite flowers.

Growing up, when my brothers and I got hungry, we would ask for Nana. Pop-pop would tell us “she went on a looooonnnng journey.” We would, of course, be horrified. Turns out, she was really out in the garage or in the next room, but that was his answer every time we asked where she was. Then, during meal time, he would tell us to look out the window at “the Green Horse.” While we were distracted, he would take a piece of food or silverware, and when we noticed it missing he would blame it on that darn Green Horse. We never did catch a glimpse of that elusive creature, though Pop-pop seemed to see it quite often.

After spending time with Pop-pop, no matter if it was all day or a few minutes, he would say good-bye by giving us each a hug, squeeze, kiss and tickle. It’s something that was so special, I will never forget it. Pop-pop, I hope you knew how much I loved you. I can’t wait to see you again.

When the pastor had finished reading our memories and some scripture (Psalm 27), and after we sang Pop-pop's favorite hymn "How Great Thou Art," the room was silent as the National Guardsman approached the casket. He slowly gave a full salute and held it there while Taps was played on the bugle. The young woman, also in full uniform, then joined him, and they took the folded flag off the top of the casket. Together they unfurled it with great flare, and then re-folded it and presented it to Nana. 

Then it was over. 

The casket was wheeled down the center aisle and we followed, once again in line behind Nana. As we waited for Pop-pop to be put in the elevator, I hugged my Nana. She whispered, "He loved you so much!" I am a very emotional person by nature, but this simple comment just destroyed me. I loved Pop-pop so much, and to hear that I was just as important to him (he had 5 grandchildren, after all!) touched me deep in my heart. He was such an amazing man, and I have never seen myself as anything special... but to him, I WAS

There was no greeting time, per Nana's request. My mom and dad said good-bye to the guests as they filtered out while the rest of us waited in the side room. The casket was taken by the hearse to the cemetery, and we followed, just 3 cars full of family, soon after. 

It was a simple interment. The pastor read a few verses from 1 Thessalonians. It is such a great comfort knowing that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. I know that Pop-pop is there, and I'm honestly a little bit envious. I keep wondering what he's doing, and what it's like. Nana did not want to stay and watch the casket be lowered, and honestly I was relieved. We each got to keep a rose from the spray atop the casket, and as we were getting ready to leave I saw my dad gently place one hand on top of the casket, right where Pop-pop's shoulder was hidden underneath. Watching my dad say good-bye to his own dad, who was raised without a father and yet was the perfect example of how to BE a great father, mad me want to bawl my eyes out. To everyone who has had to bury a parent- my heart hurts for you. We can say with joy and thankfulness that we will see Pop-pop again, but I know that not everyone has that confidence and peace. "I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die." (John 11: 25-26) 

My grandparents had picked out this grave site and headstone a little while ago. Both their names are inscribed on the front. As you can see from the date under Pop-pop's name, we were married on his birthday (his 79th, 10 years ago). Even though we didn't plan it that way purposefully, it has been an honor to share our special day with his. 

Here is my rose from his casket, along with the ring I wore to the funeral. Now every time I wear this ring I will remember the love we had for Pop-pop, and the love he had for us. Make sure the people you love KNOW you love them, take time to see them, call them, hug them. Don't wait until their funeral to tell them all the wonderful things you love or remember about them! "Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us." (1 John 4:7 & 12)

Joe H. Miller
Entered into this life July 10, 1925
Entered into Eternal life August 29, 2014
"The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord, and he delighteth in his way." (Psalm 37:23)

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