Hey Pop, It’s Been a Crazy 100 Days Since You Left
It’s been 100 days since you quietly left us.
The world since has been mostly quiet, but not in the way you might think. It’s been quietly intense.
I’m writing for two reasons: because there hasn’t been a day since your passing that I haven’t thought of you; and to share just how batshit-crazy these COVID-mired, Pop-less last 100 days have been.
It’s been a century of days like no other; unlike anything you witnessed in your almost-88 years. I can’t help but think some of the public reaction, law changes, orders and unrest we’ve seen in the past three months would both concern and bemuse you.
I got the news first thing on March 12. A Thursday morning. I awoke to my 7:00am alarm and noticed two missed calls from Mum. I instantly knew that you’d passed away overnight and my heart sank – the return call to your eldest daughter only confirming it.
I was in a daze for the rest of the day. It wasn’t unexpected, as you’d been sick for a while, but it still felt very sudden.
Five days later – a blinking passage of time in which the coronavirus juggernaut gained momentum across Australia – I was in Ouyen, the town that would be emptier for your passing; the town that, for all the places I’ve lived on both sides of the world, has always felt more like home than any other.
I underestimated how tough your church service would be. I thought I was holding it together OK until I got inside and saw that youthful, handsome, slick-haired photo of you, framed and lightly candlelit, in front of your coffin. Reality bit hard. I was a blubbering mess delivering your eulogy, while baby-sister Kate managed to hold it together – making me look all the more a sook!
The tears continued – and I certainly wasn’t the only one – as Slim Dusty’s “Looking Forward Looking Back” soundtracked a video of your life, and as six of your grandsons carried you out of the church.
Outside, I stood near Nan and your three daughters as we watched you being loaded into the hearse. “We just all loved him so much,” I overheard Mum say.
After swatting away the flies while saying our final goodbyes at the cemetery – where you were buried close to Nan and Pop Lewis, a touching symmetry given you lived across the road from each other for decades – I’m sure you wouldn’t be surprised to know that the beers flowed freely at the footy clubrooms, where the procession of cars earlier did an honorary lap of your beloved Blackburn Oval. I chatted for quite some time to your brother Geoff: the likeness of you two I’d never properly appreciated; I had to blink to remind myself I wasn’t talking to you! The immediate family kicked on back at your son’s house. On the whole it was a fitting celebration.
But for all the familial warmth in Ouyen, the atmosphere back in Melbourne the next day was vastly different – and it wasn’t just my hungover-fragile, long drive-sapped state. The city air was taut. We’d been occupied with sending you off for the previous 48 hours, but so much had happened in the world in that short space of time. Things were about to change forever.
Panic-buying, which had begun in your final days, was now in full flight; you couldn’t get toilet paper anywhere (people’s excuse for bulk-buying? “Because everyone else is”), and restrictions were quickly placed on the number of items one person could purchase.
A whole host of iso-themed memes did the rounds on social media.
The term “social distancing”, meanwhile, became commonplace. Introduced by public health officials at the end of February, by March 12 it had passed “Taylor Swift” as the top Google search term.
First, it meant no hugs. Then, no handshakes. Soon it was no large gatherings. Then no small gatherings. We got your funeral in by the skin of our teeth; had we waited two more days you would only have had five people at your service instead of 200.
Fleeting trips to the supermarket provided a much-needed break from the house but were also anxiety-fuelled exercises, as you wondered whether you could even get the supplies you needed, while fearing you might catch the virus. Cases were growing rapidly: on March 27, Australia topped 3,000, having doubled in just three days.
Exercise remained permitted, however. In your honour, and as some form of rebellion to the virus, I committed myself to a running streak, and got to 50 days before my crumbling body decided enough was enough. (As I write this, I’m nursing a knee injury and not able to run; a consequence, no doubt of the streak.)
Back at work after your funeral, things got hectic in my communications role. Within days everyone was managing the chaos from their homes as going into the office became a no-no. School followed suit; in this house, home-schooling started and fizzled out.
With 95% of life between these four walls my mental health swung up and down – a situation experienced by even the calmest, most glass-half-full people. I’m sure you would have handled it OK, though.
It’s been a time that has dredged up all manner of emotions and odd fixations. Nostalgia has crept in frequently, and I’ve found myself digging up old movies, books, photos, journals and scraps of writings. I’ve done a lot of thinking about a range of things, including what life means to me – something I’ve often put in the too-hard-basket.
But through all of it, you were a constant. While we were blessed to send you off so beautifully, there was no cushioning afterwards as the virus took over everything.
But I’m working hard to be more grateful in life, and to have you for my first 43 years is something I’m certainly grateful for.
Indeed, many people lose their grandparents before they themselves become adults.
And many people don’t have such strong relationships with their grandparents.
While we were blessed to send you off so beautifully, there was no cushioning afterwards as the virus took over everything.
Father of four, grandfather of 14, great-grandfather to 27. You were a giant of all our childhoods. Always an older man to us, clad in dust-streaked flannels and farmers’ hat, and in your later years, a cardigan and Collingwood or Ouyen United cap. In reality, you were only a few years old than I am now when I was born. That’s certainly food for thought!
You were a true gentleman: a loving and gentle father and husband; a proud grandfather; a reliable friend to many. Like most men of your era you weren’t outward with your feelings, but there was no denying your wry smile every time we visited – or your love of a practical joke. Remember at Melbourne Zoo, when you grabbed a kangaroo’s tail while your grandson Adam was feeding it?
Or when your love of fishing was such that it was every man – or boy – for himself when a bite ensued? “As soon as you got a bite he would reel in and drop straight on top of where you were fishing,” your grandson Tim recalls.
Then there were your creature comforts. The morning newspaper. An afternoon nap. A quiet (light) beer.
And your recliner chair. If one of us boys made the mistake of sitting in it we’d be gently chided with a pinch: “Alright, Muscles, off!” The girls, your granddaughter Cindy remembers, “Would get their hair pulled and called Sally”.
We grandsons respected you so much that we could only play a straight bat to your backyard-cricket leggies – also known as “pies” in cricketing parlance.
And yet, there was one time that sticks out when I wasn’t straight with you. It was Easter 2009, when Tash and I came up to visit you and Nan. You asked how work was going. I didn’t have the heart to tell you I’d quit my office job to become a writer and was on government benefits. I wish I’d told you my plans; perhaps I may have been surprised by your reaction.
I asked the question during your eulogy: how can such a gentle man be so powerful; leave such an endearing mark? It’s a simple case of actions speaking louder than words. You let those around you lead the conversation, always putting others first, and chime in when the time was right.
You might have been quiet, you mightn’t have been able to hear very well, but you were always engaged. You were calm. Even-keeled. All the time. Even with crippling Mallee droughts to contend with on the farm. You had resilience, until the end. You nailed “GEM” – Gratitude, Empathy and Mindfulness – long before it became a thing.
For many people, life is about competing; one-upping your work peers, neighbours and even family when it comes to jobs, money, status. You were a shining opposite to that. You were a simple man who knew what was important: working hard to provide but without making a show of it; and the three Fs: Family, Friends and Fun.
I said at the eulogy how much you and Nan complemented each other; you being the quiet one and she the life of the party. It starts with your infectious, throaty snigger: one of your most endearing attributes – and it complemented Nan’s magpie laughter more than anything has ever complemented anything else!
Nan and Pop, Frank and Verna. You completed each other in every way and as a couple; a wonderful lesson to all of us, even if that lesson isn’t retained as much as it could be as we carve our own paths and deal with our own issues.
So, what else? Recently one of my best mates, Chris, became a dad for the first time, to a little girl – Frankie. Nice name, eh? As one beautiful life ends, another one begins.
And some normality has returned to Australia after we did a good job of containing the virus. While there’s been more than 7,500 cases, and 100 deaths, our numbers are dwarfed by the likes of America, China and many other countries. But the virus is still around, and as I write this, Victoria is back on alert again – and, again perplexingly, toilet paper is in shortage again.
There’s other issues in the world, some spawned from the virus, others that have festered for some time, but I won’t get into those here. Let’s just say that the comment that your brother-in-law Barry and others have attributed to you – “We have lived in the best of times” – is ringing true at the moment.
Rest assured though mate, the family are all keeping well. Nan is doing OK; she is missing you each day, as I’m sure you’re missing her: 66 years of blissful marriage will do that. The family are checking in on her regularly. We all miss you, but you’re never too far away in our thoughts, and we have a lifetime of memories to treasure.
When times are challenging, memories are sometimes all we can hang on to. And, sometimes, that’s enough.
Your loving eldest grandson,
Daniel Lewis is the editor and co-founder of The Dad Website.
Thanks Daniel, that was a terrific story. Like you I have had Frank in my thoughts every day, and have so many memories of our young lives together.