I don’t know what to call this post, and I don’t even know how to start. In the span of one day, I do know that after having lost both a beautiful friend, Charity Sunshine Tilleman-Dick, and one of my absolute favorite people in the world all my life, my Pop-Pop William Wright, I can think of nowhere to turn but here. While I live my life in a way to prepare myself for change, losing these lovely sparks of joy hurts.
As a child, I’m not sure what endeared my Pop-Pop to me more – the fact that he gleefully and lovingly argued with my Grammy (who insisted I was an angel) that I was a “‘lil devil,” or that he used to prop his hand up for me in the pool as a springboard and then would throw me in the air into a frontflip or backflip. He was fun. When he moved to Florida and let me drive his golf cart, that really sealed it.
As I became an adult, he became my friend. A really good one. I’m sad I didn’t call more, but for many years, I’d spend almost every vacation with him at his home in Florida. I sang for him almost every time I saw him, first for him and Edie, then later in concerts for his assisted living facility. As for his wives, Grammy and Edie, my grandfather loved them fiercely, loyally, and fully.
Although only twelve when my Grammy passed, I know (partly because he confided in me often as an adult) that it tore him apart to watch her die from a stroke and feel helpless to stop it. A strange type of folklore for my family, his father died not long before that (I actually somewhat remember my great-grandfather), and he began to take care of Edie, my step-great-grandmother. Although his step-mother, Edie married his father after he’d already left the family home, and his father really had robbed the cradle.
Two years younger than my grandfather, Edie had a sweet and simple heart. When they helped and comforted each other, they fell in love, and my Pop-Pop married his step-mother when I was barely a teenager. Suffice it to say, this led to a lot of funny memories and moments, as my extended family processed this union for years. Although I found her a bit off-putting at first, Edie grew on me during my visits later in her life. With a simple love of the organ, her belief in God, and the birds who would feed at the little houses they’d built for them, Edie won my heart, despite her idiosyncrasies and her eventual outbursts or fixations brought on by Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Before her diseases really progressed, my grandfather almost passed once, while I was attending graduate school for opera performance at the University of Maryland. While weirdly reassured that he had the same “Rolls-Royce of pacemakers” also installed in Dick Cheney (he’s still kicking), this scare only increased my frequency and length of visits to Florida. Eventually, with my Pop-Pop already experiencing much bodily pain himself in addition to Congestive Heart Failure, Edie’s condition worsened exponentially.
Without going into too much detail, I’ll just say that his dear second wife’s terrible decline came extremely close to killing him a second time. He simply could not cope with the idea that he was powerless to give her the care she needed, without help, in her final days. In the hospital himself during the last week of Edie’s life, he was able to visit her and lovingly tell her it was ok to go. She died the next day. On a lighter sidenote, while a bit loopy in the hospital, Pop-Pop insisted on voting and had determined that he wanted to vote for the sake of his children. Although he’d always voted Republican, this time, he knew he wanted to vote against Mitt Romney. And so he did, along with every other presidential candidate on the ballot in 2012, including Roseanne Barr, who managed to make the ballot that year in Florida.
Six and a half years have passed since then. In that time, we’ve shared visits, I’ve sung for him, and we’ve shared deep and meaningful, if not always happy, conversations in a pretty good assisted living facility to which he moved. I’ve watched him call bingo for lots of folks who relied on his sociability, and I witnessed a surprising heartbreak he again suffered, when a woman he considered a great companion moved away with family in Ohio. With some hearing loss from working as a mechanical manager for Northrop Grumman, he didn’t always hear me, but he always listened.
On several occasions, Pop-Pop shared his disinterest in living any longer. Although he often found ways to cheer himself and others, his pain, loneliness, and unhappiness began to usurp this wonderful man’s joy and purpose, and that trend continued for the last few years. Independent at heart, he never wanted to live in a wheelchair or require someone else to shower him for the remainder of his life. He said if he ever got to that point, he’d really want to die.
Sometimes I think I called him and visited him not just because I love him and wanted to see and hear from him, but also because I knew how much he loved me, and I selfishly needed him to have reasons to live. Earlier this week, I sent him a get well card, then a birthday card (thanks to my super mom for the reminder). He never calls me, but I have two missed calls from him this week – one on Easter, and one today, just a few hours before he died, and they turned off his pacemaker. Thankfully, I had a chance to call him and tell him I love him tonight. He couldn’t really hear me when, feeling bad about not having returned his call yet, I also said, “Happy Easter,” but he told me he loved me too. I hope he received my cards, as I’ve received so many from him over the decades, along with his love and care.
Oh, how I will miss that man whose smirk, deep capacity for love, playfulness, seriousness, and sociability I have definitely inherited. I couldn’t possibly have more gratitude for his lesson that a little devilishness can make life more interesting, for his encouragement of my singing, and for his love and friendship over the many years I have been so fortunate to have such a beautiful, if sometimes complicated presence for a grandfather.
This change is sad, but for now my dear Pop-Pop, you have your peace. To wherever your souls may have traveled, I imagine my incredible friend, Charity, would love to sing for you sometime. Who knows? Maybe she’d even join you for a round of golf.
Life is absurd. That any of us exist at all makes no sense, and nobody can truly know why, or what happens next. Although in my self-interest, I’d love to meet Pop-Pop and Charity again in the future, the fact I ever met either of them at all and had the impossibly rare fortune to know them both fills me with deep joy and gratitude. As for change, although I would have loved to see and talk with both of them more, the most important transformation in my life occurred before their passing. I’ve learned to tell people I love that I value them, and that lesson continues. More than anything tonight, I can rest because they are at rest and knew I loved them.
Goodbye, and thank you for your life and love. I love you, William Wright and Charity Sunshine Tilleman-Dick. ❤️