(This I Believe, 2011)
At 85 years old he lay on a gurney, stuck with needles and aspirated by tubes, waiting to be taken to an operating room. Born Francis Xavier Schmitt—Frank to his wife, and “Poppy” to me and his other two grandchildren—he lay with the same calm and quiet, strong presence that he held throughout his life. Looking at each other in silence, I felt a deep familial bond that will link us for eternity. Poppy’s approach to life was always so steady— meeting his responsibilities and creating a life filled with warmth and love with little to no drama whatsoever. I loved this man and marveled at how he provided so much, gave whatever he could whenever he could, and asked for nothing but for the opportunities to give again. As he lay there, prone and vulnerable, I was scared. Would he survive the operation? Would we ever share another moment or have another chance to speak again? These thoughts jolted me from the peace of our gaze. If I was feeling this way, perhaps he was too! Perhaps he was staring at his own mortality and feeling isolated or alone.
I broke our silence: “Poppy.” He shifted his eyes and looked at me square. My voice quivered and I dug deep to find the nerve to reveal what I was thinking. “Poppy, are you afraid to die?” This not-so-articulate phrasing of my inner anxiety had barely left my lips when Frank broke his gaze, squinted his eyes, and a hearty German “HA” burst from his mouth. Smiling, almost chuckling, and with a gleam of love in his eyes, he responded. “Kevin, I don’t worry about that. You live a good life, that’s all you can do, and the rest takes care of itself.”
I was stunned, confused, and relieved. Within seconds of this interchange, hospital staff arrived to wheel him away and into the operating room. We locked eyes again briefly, he squeezed my hand, and as the rest of my family gathered we all expressed our love, promising to see him when the operation was complete.
This simple interchange remains one of the seminal moments in my life. My grandfather’s extraordinary confidence in his morality, at a moment when he stood face to face with his mortality, is awe-inspiring to me, even today. No small part of this inspiration is drawn from what my grandfather did not say. He did not say, “Put your faith in God,” or “My baptism has promised me a place in heaven.” And I might have expected that he would. My grandfather was devoutly Roman Catholic his entire life. He married a Catholic woman and raised a fervently Catholic daughter, my mother. I have no doubt whatsoever that the morality indicated in my grandfather’s message to me about “living a good life” came directly from the morals and ethics of Catholicism. I am also clear that he held close and dear the Catholic theology of salvation and the promise of an afterlife.
And yet, with all of this, a truth that was at the ready for him in response to his middle grandchild’s awkward emotional question, was that it is what takes place on Earth, person to person, that holds the most importance in life. In that moment, I heard the expression of a basic tenet of morality—“Treat your neighbor as you wish to be treated”—and, with his omission of theological proclamations, I heard Rabbi Hillel’s rejoinder: “The rest is just commentary.”
And so this is the morality in which I believe. It is this commitment to doing good work in daily life that has guided me as a husband, as a father, and as a social worker. It is this focus on how one person relates to another that has led me to feel more at home in a Secular Humanistic Jewish community than in the Catholic parishes of my birth. It is this that pushes me to give what I can, wherever I can, and to rejoice when my efforts create opportunities to do it again.
While Poppy survived that operation, he would end up in a nursing home and, three months later, would die there quietly one morning between being awakened and being brought his breakfast. A close friend of mine once told me that you die the way you lived. So Francis, Frank, Poppy, left this world in the same dignified, unassuming manner in which he lived in it. While I do hope that he has met with the afterlife he anticipated, I can say with certainty that his spirit lives on here among us through me.