Velveeta and Vitalis: Saying Goodbye to Papa

My big brother Gary, Papa and me

Gary, my Nana, me, and Papa (with a killer stache)

I'm tired. No, exhausted. I have a horrible cough and chest congestion. And, my heart. It's still hurting. I feel as if I've been dragged through a field of emotional and physical landmines. But, it's a small price to pay. 

This past weekend, we said goodbye to my grandfather -- Papa -- as we have always called him. He was my mother's daddy.

He was 79 and died from cancer.  Cancer we didn't even know he had a month ago.  I've never seen some one's physical condition deteriorate so quickly.  I think the whole family can agree that he would have wanted it that way. Quick, and without a lot of suffering.

He died at home. With plenty of family around. We were told a few weeks to a few months, but really were left with just a few more days.

I had plans to fly home to see him just one last time. I had a plane ticket. I had a rental car. I was to be flying home the morning of July 26th. A Saturday.

I didn't. Something made me cancel my reservations. I was tired and didn't feel up to traveling after driving home just the weekend before. It just didn't feel right.

My Papa died that very night I was supposed to fly home.  My mom called me with the news just after 9pm. I had just gotten out of the bath tub. I was reading a baby book among the warm suds.

My little brother was there at the house with Papa and the family as he took his last breaths. He said it was the worst things he had ever seen -- Papa gasping for air, mustering to stay alive for just a few minutes more as everyone watched.

He made me understand, through text message, that it was the hardest thing he had ever experienced. And, maybe it was for the best that I wasn't there. My mom also said it would have been too much emotional stress on my pregnant body and soul.

The last time I saw him alive, the weekend before, he still knew who I was. He looked happy to see me. I could see the pride for his grandchildren in his partially glazed-over eyes. As sick as he was, he got so happy when yet another family member would continue to file into his ICU suite. The limit was two at a time. At one point, there were probably 10-12 of us in there. The nurses were giving us the side-eye for sure. We didn't care.

We stayed until we were told otherwise. I held my Papa's hand a whole bunch. I would kiss his forehead. And he loved it. He soaked up all the love. I didn't know if he remembered I was pregnant until he rubbed my belly quickly with his hand, while throwing a quick giggle in my direction. Oh, he remembered.

I'm heart-broken he died just a few months before his first great-grandchild was due to enter the world.  Wish it didn't have to be that way. Similarly, my mother was pregnant with me when her mother's father died. There will be no shortage of stories about Papa, though. Or things he used to do comfort us when we were little. I look forward to singing the same sleepy tunes to baby, rubbing the forehead as little one drifts off to sleep and later, introducing her to Haluski -- a Slovakian dish made of cabbage and noodles. I grew up eating cabbage and noodles at my Papa's house. So much butter. So good.

I will think of Papa whenever I see a block of Velveeta. He made some killer omelets for us during grandparent sleepovers. That was back before I knew that crap could wreck havoc on one's digestive system. Oh, the simpler times. When I see a bottle of the old man hair tonic, Vitalis on the shelf in the grooming aisle of a grocery store -- I will think of him. When I eat graham crackers and peanut butter I will think of him. 

When I hear any Chicago song, I might lose it as I did the other day when one came on at Whole Foods, an unlikely place for such a tune. Elton John songs will always make me think of Papa. He introduced me to Sir Elton when I was little. The same way as my Nana introduced me to the likes of Elvis.

Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me -- the version with George Michael and Elton. I will always, always think of him. And probably always cry.

We had a song we'd slow dance to in the kitchen. Cherish by Kool and The Gang. I'd stand on his feet and he'd dance me around as the radio played our song.  He'd sing along. Such sweet memories.

The silver lining in something like this is that family -- near and far -- gets together to comfort each other. Members of the family whom I haven't seen in years. I got to hug them as we all shared stories about all of the wonderful impact Papa had on us all. We cried together at the funeral.  I will never forget walking, as a family, behind the casket, behind the cross, in an unorganized line as Amazing Grace was played on the piano.

I somehow got through doing a reading up at the podium. I was asked to do this at my Nana's funeral ten years ago. I declined. I was beyond scared of public speaking. I still am, but now, wanting to conquer some of my fears, as little as they may seem. I didn't want to do it, yet I did. 

Jimmy was there with me, by my side. He was even an honorary pallbearer during the service. He knew and loved my Papa well. And my Papa loved Jimmy so much. I'm so glad he came. So, so glad.

As we left the house Saturday, I hugged my Papa's wife, Deanna. She then loved on Jimmy some. She told me to take care of him. In that moment, I worried about her. I worried about when all the family left and she was there by herself. In her home she shared with my grandpa for years. For the second time, she would be left to live alone. I hope the joy and laughter she shared with him throughout the years outweighs the pain and sorrow she is feeling right now.

Life isn't fair.

But we sure are lucky to have known Edward Strichek.  He made our lives better.  We're all better off for having been loved by him.

Love you always, Papa.  


  1. So sorry about your family's loss, Jaimie. This is a beautiful post about his life.

  2. Amazing, touching story and tribute. Thank you for sharing it. My grandchildren call me Papa and I have been sharing the music of Chicago with my grandson recently. My son-in-law was paralyzed by a massive stroke last November, which led me to your story. My youngest daughter was born less than a year after her Papa died (her mother's father). So many parallels, grabbing my heart and emotions. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Such a beautiful post, Jaimie. The love you shared with Papa comes through loud and clear. Hugs to you.

  4. This is written so well...I love the stories the best and all your wonderful memories. What a special Papa!


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