Before my Pop Pop died, we had a conversation about our conversations.
"I miss our talks," I said one night, sitting by his bed. It was August and, though the doctors said he was in good health, he was miserable. During the day, the pain consumed him and I wondered where my grandfather went, but for an hour or so at bedtime, the Pop Pop I knew came back.
"I know you're hurting, and it's hard to think about anything else, and that's okay. But I want you to know I miss you as a friend."
He squeezed my hand.
"Is there someone who can fill in?"
He was joking - no one could take his place and he knew it - but there was an ounce of seriousness to the question. It turned out the end was near. A few weeks later, with my mom and me at his side, he passed away.
I miss our talks now more than ever, of course, knowing he's not coming back. I can't bring myself to delete my calendar alert to call him at 11:30 a.m. every day. Maybe I should, but I don't know... I still like seeing it flash on my phone. Oh hi, Pop Pop, during my staff meeting. Oh hi, Pop Pop, during my jog.
I haven't found a someone to replace him, and I'm not looking for one, but I have found a something that helps: a tree. It was a gift I never knew I needed, which is really the best kind, isn't it? When I came home to Brooklyn after the funeral, my friends (22 of them!) had pulled together the funds to buy a commemorative tree in Prospect Park, in honor of Pop Pop and my grandmother, Dibi.
I got to pick it out - an Ironwood that sweeps across the running loop - and choose the date for the dedication ceremony, but my friends took care of the rest. The park was quiet on the Sunday of the dedication. We drank Heinekens (Pop Pop's favorite), we ate black Russian cake (Dibi's recipe), and we read a special prayer.
"When we have joy we crave to share / We remember them. When we have decisions that are difficult to make / We remember them," it goes. "As long as we live, they too will live; for they are now a part of us as we remember them."
I've gone to the tree since the dedication, but only a couple of times, if I'm honest. Once recently, I went alone and on my way somewhere else, which was a bad idea. I felt sad and out of sorts the rest of the day. I need to take time there, I learned. Like any visit with someone, I can't rush through. I don't want to. Half of a conversation is listening anyway.
The best part about the tree is just knowing it's there - and it exists because people cared enough, and knew me well enough, to make it happen. I have a place to go where I can talk to him, where I can feel his presence and unconditional love. The next time my mom is in town, we'll go to the tree and we'll sit at his side again, together. And maybe someday I'll even take my kids there, to say hi to their great Pop Pop.