Perhaps the hardest lesson to ever learn is that those that we love will die. For death is hardest on the living. I learned this lesson at the young age of 11. And while, it was an incredibly difficult lesson at the time - it was actually a gift. For, when you experience grief and death at 11 - you become accustomed to dealing with the deaths of those that you love. Death never becomes “easy”, it just becomes “expected”. What you are not prepared for; is the sorrow your children will feel when they lose someone they love. Because you know grief and hurt; you cannot protect them from the truths of this life. It is often hard to see beyond your grief; to understand the lessons the life, now gone, has taught you.
My father in law, Bob Blessman, died last month. My husband's father, my children's grandfather, and the man I called "Dad". He lived a long, full, purposeful life and died at the age of 88. He was a man of integrity and honor; and I loved him as much as I love my own father and my many “father figures”. He was kind and generous and accepted me as his own. I had known him for 24 years. I laughed at his jokes and challenged his anecdotes. I often told him that I was his favorite daughter in law (he never agreed with my statements but would often let go a heart felt laugh).
He had battled with (and beat) cancer. The Parkinson’s, which challenged his ambulation and articulation, finally won. He fought for his country in World War II and was an eyewitness to Pearl Harbor. He was a soldier, father, husband, teacher, advocate, wood carver, a man of great faith. Given his life's hurdles; I often thought he faced those obstacles with the faith and honor of 1000 men.
Perhaps the greatest gift he gave me was the gift of saying goodbye. I went to see him in the hospital and he asked that I sit with him for a while. I knew he was dying. I don't know how I knew, but I could just tell. And I knew that he knew he was dying. As I held his hand, and tried to decipher his words, he said "you don't realize how important these visits are" and I agreed. Lying in that hospital bed he was a shell of the man he once was. By his appearance, you would not know that he lived in Hawaii when Pearl Harbor was bombed, or that he fought in the Pacific Theater during WWII, or that he struck the fear of God in hundreds of elementary school kids as the principal of Longfellow Elementary in Hazel Park for 30 years. When I left him, for the final time, I kissed him on the forehead and said "I love you Dad" and he said "love you Pam". I left and he died the next day.
I'm still processing what I have learned from the legacy of his life and death. For he is not the first person whom I have known and loved to die. The grief I feel upon his passing is familiar. I understand this grief, this sorrow. I am trying to be a good spouse to comfort my husband, his son. And my children, for their grandfather was a huge presence in our life, from the day we brought them home from the hospital - until the day he entered the same hospital to die. He and my mother-in-law were our number one babysitters for many years, until my mother-in-law's dementia forced her into a nursing home. He was a constant presence at our Thanksgiving and Christmas tables. Every milestone, from birthdays to graduations - he was present. Each year, he accompanied us to the Royal Oak Memorial Day Parade, where he would stand and place his hand over his heart each time the United States Flag paraded by.
His funeral was a true celebration of his life. All four of his grandchildren, both of his sons and I all took part in saying goodbye. My heart broke as I watched my kids, stricken with grief try to struggle through the celebration of his life. At the end of the service, my daughter, through sobs was able to perform a strong and honorable tribute to her Grandpa as she played "taps". As I looked out into the church that day, I was touched by the people who knew and loved our family came to pay their respects to a man they had never met. Many of our friends had heard stories and tales about "Grandpa Bob" - but few knew him. Our friends, Tom, Laura and Dan generously offered to provide special music for the service. As did, Michael, a long lost childhood friend of mine with whom I have been recently re-acquainted. The four of them gave up their Saturday to perform beautiful music for a man whom we loved dearly, and a man they had never met. It's good to have those types of friends, who show up and deliver out of no other obligation than the love they have for you.
I think he would have been proud of his tribute. He would have been proud of the bravery of his grandchildren. And his sons; these grown graying men paying accolades to a wonderful father; who in turn saw them grow into wonderful fathers. He would have been proud of all of us; that our friends and family showed up out of love for us and for him. He would have loved the music played in his honor and the talent of the musicians who graciously offered to play that day. He would have criticized the telling of his jokes; that our timing was a little off compared to his (the master joke teller).
And while our grief is still raw, his life had great purpose and in turn gives us great hope and resolve. I see his life and love reflected in my husband, our children and our nieces. Loss is only made endurable by love. Love was there that day at his funeral, everywhere I looked, I saw love. Our love for him and for each other. We should all be so lucky to leave such a legacy.