Editor’s note: This is first in a two part series.
It’s been one month since I lost my Pop Pop, the Bernie in my blog Arthur & Bernie. He was 96, so it’s hard to say it came as a shock, but somehow, it did.
He is finally at peace after months of struggle, and for that, I am thankful. It’s difficult, though, moving on with life as usual, when I’ve never known it without him. For 30 years, Pop Pop was my grandfather, my pen pal, my friend.
One thing people say when you’re grieving is, “He lives on in you.” Or, “He will always be in your heart.” It’s supposed to be comforting. He’s not gone completely. But here’s the thing: I have a terrible memory. What if, slowly, he starts to slip away?
So I’ve put together a list of important lessons I never want to forget — things he taught me, things our relationship taught me. My hope is that some might sound familiar to my fellow grandchildren out there. And aren’t we all?
1) Never feel old. Pop Pop would shake his head at the “old people” in his nursing home. It never occurred to him that maybe he was one of them.
2) Answer the phone. I play phone tag with friends for weeks, but Pop Pop? He never let it go to voicemail. If he was around to hear the call, he’d answer.
3) Friendship is generation-less. Pop Pop never talked to me like a kid. I never talked to him like a senior. I think we both appreciated that equally.
4) Be the “other.” Within approximately 10 minutes of meeting Bernie, he’d tell you that his family was the first Jewish family to settle in his hometown. He was proud of that. Being different is good, he taught us. It’s about identity.
5) Love arrives when you least expect it… For Pop Pop, it turned up on a blind date.
6) … And when it’s right, it never leaves. The blind date turned into 68 years of marriage with Ruth, my Dibi.
7) Wear blue, black and gray. Browns and tans, they come and go. But these classics withstand the test of time, he told me. And I believe him. He owned a fine clothing store, after all — and donned skinny ties long before Don Draper.
8) Follow and lead. Dibi was a ballet dancer so, naturally, she led on the dance floor. She also carried conversations, organized meals and arranged their social calendar. When Alzheimer’s disease stole her away, though, Pop Pop stepped up to the plate, strong silent type be damned. It was his turn.
9) Watch (and rewatch) “Fiddler on the Roof.” L’chaim, l’chaim! To life!
10) Find your routine. Make rituals for yourself, and keep them. But remember: Friday nights are for pizza (Penn Gables, if you’re in the neighborhood), and Sunday mornings are for Meet the Press.
11) Have a signature drink. I ordered Penn Gables for us once, with two Heinekens. I put my name on the order (just “Laura”), but when I got there, they said, “Bernie Covitch?” I asked how they knew. “Heinekens? It’s got to be Bernie.”
12) Family IS everything. Pop Pop anticipated family visits for months and months. Nothing made him happier than seeing us all together. When I was there in August, I asked if he ever wished that we all lived in town, that we weren’t so spread out. “No,” he said without missing a beat. “You visit.”
13) Invite newcomers. Family is everything, yes, but it should be open to everyone. Case in point: Michele, Pop Pop’s caregiver. She was so much a part of the family by the end, thanks to Pop Pop’s affection, I programmed her in my phone with our last name.
14) Bananas are for splitting. He’d take one half, I’d take the other, and then we’d slice over cereal. One small cup of coffee, one piece of toast with jelly. Breakfast, done.
15) Make the bed. Also part of the morning routine. No question. The day will be better.
16) Run. Or find the thing that gets you moving. It’s never too late. Pop Pop started running in his 60s,and acquired more than a few “oldest finisher” plaques, which he displayed proudly.
17) Take off your headphones. Granted, Pop Pop ran in the days before iPods, but still. Jog or walk or drive without music once and a while. You might find you like what you hear.
18) Surprises are the best gifts. Especially when they involve masks, costumes or homemade T-shirts.
19) Surround yourself with encouragement. On the shelf by Bernie’s living room chair, he kept a 5×7 pillow with the following message stitched in: “Old age is not for sissies.” Right on.
20) Share your history. Also next to the living room chair: stacks of photo albums sorted by trips, special occasions and eras (“The War Years,” “The Store”). It was his way of organizing memories, and being able to relive them whenever he wanted. We spent hours together walking through his past.
21) Cry. Whenever you feel like it. Especially when you’re with other people, so you can laugh together afterwards.
22) Savings are for travel. My grandparents used their retirement to see the world — Portugal, Peru, China, Turkey, and the list goes on. They loved their small Pennsylvania community, but they understood the value of discovering a local and global perspective.
23) When in Rome, buy art. Or a tablecloth, or a leather bag that will never go out of style. The point: When you travel, don’t come home with tchotchkes. (Or, only tchotchkes. Pick up some funny things!)
24) Look away. Choose your battles, and the ones you leave out? Don’t let them get you down. It was probably Pop Pop’s favorite family expression: “Just look away.”
25) Make lists. And not just of to-dos. Keep lists of anything and everything significant, preferably in chronological order with dates, but that’s not mandatory. I have a feeling he would have loved this one.
Come back next week for the last 25 lessons and in the meantime, tweet me what you learned from your grandparents or parents at #50lessons. And visit AARP Foundation to see how they’re working to combat and prevent isolation in people age 50 and over.