One year ago today, I was sitting in section 221 with my husband and his best friend. We were freezing, teeth-chattering, watching the Eagles get absolutely crushed by the Seattle Seahawks. My mind was at Riddle Hospital, and my heart might never shake the guilt of being at the stadium when the moment came.
We had the tickets for a while, and Pop-Pop told me to go, they all told me to go. I had spent the night with him in the hospital the night before. It was a sleepless night for me, a restful and peaceful night for him. He looked beautiful when he slept. I watched the machine help him breathe, and I prayed for him and watched my Uncle Steve sleeping on and off from the chair on the other side of the bed. He was not alone on his last night.
The last. I prayed for a miracle, but I knew it was the last. I had a hard time not dwelling on all of those vacation nights in at the beach motels when he was more alive than ever, snoring like a giant throughout the night, sleeping soundly after a long day of riding the wooden roller coaster, getting soaked on the log flume, and spoiling my brother and I rotten. In one of my more dramatic pre-teen moments, I stubbornly slept on the motel bathroom floor because “Seriously, Pop, YOU’RE SNORING SO LOUD I CAN’T EVEN BE IN THE SAME ROOM WITH YOU.”
And as the 6th became the 7th over the dark of night, I was the luckiest girl in the world to be in the same room with him for one last sleepover. I kissed him good morning when the sun rose and I looked out the window and I told him, it’s a beautiful day. He squeezed my hand, eyes still closed, body still sleeping.
And just like that, one year has passed. And it’s just been a really, really tough year. My family, the family that he created, has had mountaintop moments this year, together. But we have seen some dark and desperate valleys just the same. Grief looks different for everyone, and if we’re not careful, it can push people away. There is no right or wrong. No prescribed formula, no perfect prescription of depression medications to make it feel alright. But we must be careful, must be intentional, must stick together and remind each other every day of the beautiful truth of Heaven. It is still a beautiful day.
There are times still when I miss him so much for no reason at all that I surprise myself and weep. I have cried over a Wendy’s Frosty and I have cried over the sticky note-to-self on which he wrote “Exercise” when he knew he was getting weaker.
But, more than the bad, I have times full of so much joy – not happiness, but joy – knowing he is safe and loved and perfectly complete in Heaven.
These days, there are just times when I hope I got my time with him right. I just hope he knew how much I loved him. I hope he knew how much I missed him on my wedding day and I hope he knew that his heart was so good and his soul so strong that there’s a Steve-shaped hole in everything that my family does. I hope he saw right through that eye-roll in the motel room between his snores. I hope, and I pray, but above all – I have amazing peace knowing where he is, and knowing that just in case he forgot – one day I’ll get to tell him he was loved, even when I didn’t get it right.
I’ll get to tell him it’s a beautiful day.
Remembering Stephen Strazdus, December 12th, 2014
Thank you all so much for coming to remember the life of my sweet Pop–Pop today. It’s great to see so many of you, and to meet new friends of Pop Pop‘s, too…each of you are a reminder that Pop–Pop lived a big and extraordinary life that reached a lot of people… And seeing you today is a reminder that he was incredibly loved and treasured. I’m so glad to be with you today and although I can’t promise that I won’t get through this without any tears or a quivering voice, I’m honored to get to speak about the man who was my best friend and greatest teacher.
Pop–Pop did so much in his life, so many things that will always make me proud to be his granddaughter.
Of all his hard work and achievements, no one will argue that the best, and most beautiful accomplishment, was loving and serving his wife and family. I am so grateful to have grown up with my Pop–Pop and to have witnessed his unconditional love and amazing sacrifice to my Nana on a daily basis. He loved her so much, he still does, he always will. Some of my favorite memories from childhood are when I would spend the day with Pop–Pop, and somewhere in between the great adventures and day trips that he had planned for us, he would always find a way to make a pit stop to bring lunch to Nana at her work, whether at Verizon, Curves, or here at St. John’s … just to kiss her, feed her, and wish her a good day. It was simple, it was generous, and it was Pop–Pop. That’s exactly the kind of man that he was. And speaking of how much he loved Nana, if you’ve never heard the pizza proposal story, please find me at the luncheon and I’ll give you a good laugh. 🙂
Nana & Pop–Pop raised two amazing children together, my mom, Kathy, and my godfather and favorite Uncle Steve. I have heard so many stories of how he loved them and did anything for them. He was so proud of them, and I know he will be for the rest of their lives. His love for them continued to grow when the grandchildren came; first me, then my brother and his workshop buddy Tyler, and Karen and Steve’s twins, Kelsey and Kyle, who he loved to spoil and cheer for from the bleachers of ice skating rinks and wrestling matches.
Pop–Pop was many different things to many different people. He was a husband, a father, a brother to David, Tony, Helen, and Margaret, an Uncle, a grandfather, a driving instructor (to a lot of us), and a camping trip captain, but in all ways, in all roles…he was a humble servant and a loving leader. To me though, he was so much that I will never be able to adequately put in to words. I have had the amazing privilege of being closer with my Pop–Pop than anyone else I have known, a quiet but strong bond that would often find us sitting next to each other in a corner at a loud family party, on a farm taking care of the horses, watching the Eagles in the basement, practicing driving out in the very lot that your cars are parked right now, or sharing stories over Frostys at Wendy’s. I’m so grateful that he had such a strong role in raising me…my life is forever better because of his. As I said earlier, Pop–Pop was and always will be my best friend and greatest teacher. And because he taught so many valuable life lessons to each of us here today, I’d love to share with you just some of the things that he taught me.
Lesson 1. Serve God; Serve Family
– Pop Pop put his faith and his family before anything else in life. He truly lived this out every day, and through tagging along with him almost every time, I got to witness some everyday miracles right here, all over Chichester, in his acts of love for The Lord and for his family. If he wasn’t found taking care of and visiting his brother, Tony, in the little house behind Andrews Plaza, he’d be just up the road, right here in this church, changing any lightbulb that started to flicker, climbing a ladder to repair something, or staying late after mass to count that week’s offering. In some recent years, he even through on the red and white suit and the long beard to play Santa Claus and spread joy to not only his own grandchildren, but to the children of this church. And without a doubt, every year, he made it a priority to do whatever he had to get to the family reunion in upstate PA. (And he was always phenomenal at the egg toss). The thing about all of these little visits and odd jobs is that he never had to be asked; he just did it, he just showed up, quietly and without hesitation. That’s the way that he lived- present, reliable, loving, and generous…to any family member or any repair job that needed a little extra TLC. You could always count on Pop–Pop, for absolutely anything.
Lesson 2. Don’t Use the Calculator
– Now this one might seem a bit silly, but bear with me. I have many not-so-fond memories of sitting at Nana and Pop Pop‘s dining room table after school, trying to finish my math homework (which I hated) and failing horribly. Pop–Pop, the math wiz that he was, would always help me with it and explain everything to me, but then he would leave the room, saying, “I know you can do this on your own. I’ll be back to check your work in a few minutes.” In my slick elementary school ways, I would sneak the calculator out from his junk drawer in the kitchen when he wasn’t looking, and use that to get all the right answers – it didn’t matter if I didn’t know how to do it myself…as long as it was finished so I could go play outside, right?! Wrong. Pop–Pop would come back, see that I cheated with the little machine, and explain to me the importance of not only learning how to do long division in my head, but why the shortcuts in life are never worth it. And there I would sit, for what felt like hours longer, the calculator surrendered to Pop Pop and figuring it out, the long way, the right way, on my own. Pop–Poptaught me that the hard work is always worth it. The short cuts are never sustainable, and that life is all about doing the right thing, even when it’s the hard thing. He taught me this not only with my math homework, but just in the way that he lived out his life. He always did the right thing.
3. Make Others Laugh Every Day
– Something that makes me crack up, still to this day, is the song “Hot Hot Hot” by Buster Poindexter. See, this song, although ridiculous, is very very special to Tyler and I. For the past 13 years, every time we were in the car with Pop Pop, he would play that tape. He would play Hot Hot Hot every. single. time. We know all of the words by heart, and I can still picture Pop–Pop driving, singing along, and throwing his hands up in the air like he was shaking maracas and tambourines throughout the whole song. When he would drop us off at school in the morning, he would roll down the windows and turn the volume allllllllll the way up, just enough to almost embarrass us but enough for our classmates to say, “oh my gosh, I wish my grandfather was that cool.” He was so goofy, so silly, so full of joy. He could always find the joy in the simplest of things, and he spread that to everyone around him.
– A few weeks ago, it was just Pop–Pop and I in the hospital one night, and we were talking about life, love, family, everything…I asked him what his secret to marriage was…and he said, “Well, it’s simple, every morning when I woke up, I just made it my duty to make your nana laugh and smile that day. That’s been my most important job, every day, for 47 years, to make her laugh.”
4. Show Up.
– Pop–Pop was always there for everyone, in both little and big ways. He always showed up exactly when you needed him, sometimes even before you knew that he was exactly who you needed. He was there to pick us up from school on September 11th, he was there to explain to us the heaviness of what was happening, he was there at every Irish dancing competition, every karate sparring match, at every horse show, at every ice skating competition, at every game for every kid. Even when he couldn’t show up, he was always there, sending letters to me in California, or calling on the phone to see how the first day of every single school year, even through college went. He’d send me Dunkin Donuts coupons and encouraging notes during every finals week to help me through. But I’m not the only one who he showed up for. His love was far too big for only one person. I have had such joy and peace in my heart learning and hearing how much he has meant to all of you, how much he did for everyone long before his kids and grand kids were even alive. To give you just a tiny glimpse of all that my pop popselflessly and generously did for others…I learned that he bought Tina’s wedding dress and that he co-signed for Tommy to buy his first car. He drove people in our community who were too sick to drive to their doctors appointments; he did that for them, even though he did not have to. These are just three things that I learned that he did over the past week, and I had never heard the stories before, but I can’t say I was surprised to hear them. That’s just the kind of man that my pop pop was.
Lastly, the fifth lesson, and perhaps the most important, Carry Each Other.
– If you take a look around at the beautiful photo collages, you’ll see Pop Pop carrying Nana over the threshold on their wedding day, holding Tyler up on his shoulders (probably so that he’s able to see the parade at Disney world), and you’ll see him giving a tandem piggy back ride to Kelsey and Kyle. In fact, you’ll probably see dozens of pictures like these. Pop Pop was always carrying other people, whether that be physically, or lifting them up in a time of need. What’s not pictured in those collages, however, is both Pop Pop and I’s favorite memory.
When I lived with Pop Pop as a kid, after I lived with him, and even up until this past August, when he was feeling strong enough, we would walk down to the crick at the bottom of Colonial Drive together. We would climb down the rocks to the water, pick willow tails, and have stick races. Sometimes, I would ride my Big Wheel down the long hill to the crick, always promising Pop Pop that I could ride it back up on the way back to the house. Well, the honest truth is that my little legs couldn’t make it. After our adventures by the water, he would carry me back up the long, big hill, and he would tie a piece of string to my Big Wheel so that he could pull it up behind us, true to his always innovative ways.
He carried me. Every time. He carried all of us. And now, I believe that because we were blessed enough to love and be loved by Pop–Pop, it’s our responsibility to carry his memory and these lessons with us for the rest of our lives. I challenge each of you today to live like him in every way that you can…serve God, serve your family, don’t use the calculator, make others laugh, show up for the people who need you, and carry each other through the hills and valleys of this life, knowing that there is a promise of a beautiful Heaven, where I’m so glad to know that my Pop Pop is today. I love you Pop Pop, thank you for being the best friend that I could ever ask for.