The sun is sparkling on the Mississippi and my Papa has his shorts pulled up to his hip so that the tops of his legs get tan. His arms and half his chest are exposed in his white undershirt.
He isn’t smiling, but I know he’s happy.
The fish are biting.
And somehow the topic of death comes up, of unexpected death specifically. “What if…?” I ask him, something about an accident or lightning striking while he’s on the river.
“Well then it’s my time to go,” he shrugs.
I laugh. “And that’s it?”
“Listen,” and he gets his serious face on, “if the Good Lord says it’s my time then it’s my time and that’s all there is to it.”
You do not question the Good Lord.
“So you’re not scared at all?” I ask.
And then he tells me his Truth.
“I’ve had a good life.”
Sitting on his throne, the captain’s chair of his fishing boat, with a wife and grandkids waiting on shore for him to return, he was the picture of contentment.
The night he arrived at the hospital by ambulance, in pain and far away from his favorite fishing spots, he told his wife and two kids the same thing he’d told me on the river years ago. “I’ve had a good life.”
His aorta was torn. The paperwork said no extreme measures.
You don’t question the Good Lord.
He died Sunday December 15, and they tell me he didn’t look like himself at all. I’ve watched strong men die before so I’m certain this is true, but I’ve no doubt that he was still – at least in the ways that count – the picture of contentment.
My Papa was not a saint.
He gave up his favorite brand of whiskey for Lent each year and was giddy when he got to crack the bottle open again after Easter Mass.
He hollered at the “busted assholes” who drove too fast on the roads where his grandkids played, and he still referred to the people he served at the Salvation Army as “colored”.
He insisted that I could be as thin as Mother if I got up and did 6am workouts like she did, nevermind that my grandmother and I don’t actually share any genetic material and that I was 13 when he started telling me this.
He used an aluminum sleeve and a shotgun to protect his yard from squirrels – in town.
I’m sure he was expecting to spend a little time in purgatory, as most good Catholic boys do.
But he was also certain that he’d make his way to Heaven eventually, and he’d see not only God but the Blessed Mother, whom he adored.
His entire life was about loving his family, his God, and his Church. He doted on his wife, and let us know he “chased her around the house” long after any of us wanted to picture such a thing. He loved to fish, and so he made time for it whenever possible in between volunteering and keeping his garden going.
I never had any doubt what my Papa believed or that he loved me, even when those two things seemed like they should be in conflict.
He didn’t scold me when I showed up unwed and pregnant, but hugged me and told me he and Grammy would do everything they could to help me.
He loved my mother thirty years after she divorced my dad, and told me so every time he saw me. “How is your mom? Tell her we said hi.”
His wake and his funeral will be overrun, I know, by people whose lives he touched. His absence will be felt. He will be mourned. He will be missed.
He will also be remembered. The stories about his life will make us laugh. He will be quoted, and some of the lessons he taught us will be passed on to future generations. He will still be loved.
That is a good life.