The story below was originally posted on my blog called Sundays with Dad in October 2013. I found out today that Popeye passed away yesterday, so I dug it up and am reposting it here in his honor. Here’s to you Popeye. Love you always and God bless you…
It was one of those incredible fall days that stays with you long after all the colors are gone. The crunch of the leaves, a craving for apples and Carmex are signs that the change of season has arrived. The trees reflected the color of the sun and everything seemed to have a golden hue cast over it. It was Indian Summer.
I had gone to church alone that Sunday because Dad was under the weather. I stopped to get his favorite salad after church and dropped it off. I made him a tray and we talked for a bit but he needed rest. I gave him a kiss on his warm forehead and said I would check back later that day. I don’t deal with my concern very well—it’s aggravating to the one I’m concerned about. I often leave my dad’s feeling like I’ve said too much, fussed about things I didn’t need to, and have worn him out instead of cheered him up.
I made a third stop that Sunday at one of my favorite stores—Beans and Barley. I was parking the car just as a beautiful choir started to sing on the radio. The sun was hovering over my sunroof, looking majestic against the blue background of the sky. Then all of a sudden, I thought I heard Mom’s voice above the singers. I didn’t move. There it was—a single high voice that carried over and above the others. I couldn’t believe my ears—she was singing as clear as a bell— it sounded just like her.
I shook my head not understanding why in this particular choral arrangement there would be one voice standing out above the others. Everyone knows that it’s a choir member’s job to blend in. How many times had that been Mom’s instruction to the choirs she had conducted over the years? I sat mesmerized, and then before I knew it, started to cry. Mom had struggled with her voice in the later years of her life. My sister Joanie had told her not long before she died, “Just think Mom, how you’ll be able to sing in heaven. No more clearing your throat!”
As oddly as this may sound, I sat there listening to what sounded like my mom singing to me and suddenly felt no separation between earth and heaven. It was like Heaven’s door had opened. I looked up into the sun’s brilliance and smiled my thanks. The song ended with the voice high and strong above the others. “Mom…” I said and smiled. Is she with me as I care for Dad? I wondered as I walked into the store.
I picked out my selections for lunch and was waiting in the checkout line. There was a conversation going on in front of me.
“No, he’s not here. I can’t take you home. There’s no one here who can give you a ride right now.”
There was more chatter as the customer in front of me named off more employees’ names.
“No, they aren’t here today either.”
“I’m dying!” He suddenly said. These are pretty dramatic words to ignore and I snapped to attention. “I’ve been to the hospital eight times in the last month!” The man had a distinct voice. “They say they’re worried I’m going to commit suicide! Why would I commit suicide when I’m 90 years old, for god sake ?!”
I knew the voice. I recognized the man—it was Popeye. He sounded just like the cartoon character with the big biceps some of us grew up with. When my son worked at CVS on Downer Avenue years ago, Popeye was often there talking to all the cashiers. He would tell them that young people today had all gone to pot.
“I’ll take him home,” I spoke up. I wasn’t certain if the CVS guys only, called him Popeye behind his back and I didn’t want to offend him, so I was glad for an introduction. The cashier looked at me and smiled, “This is Warren, aka Popeye.”
Anybody that has been up and down Downer Avenue on Milwaukee’s east side knows Warren. He’s a fixture who wears a tweed jacket with a tan sweater underneath. He’s always dressed up. You’ll never see him in blue jeans. He’s usually carrying a bag or two, looking like he’s been shopping. He’ll start talking to you before you realize it, and you’ll soon be drawn into conversation—mostly his—whether you like it or not.
“Hi, Warren. I’m Debbie. I’d be happy to give you a ride.”
“Call me Popeye!” he announced as if to an audience then started to sway backwards like he was going to topple over backwards. I grabbed his arm, and the thought crossed my mind that Popeye really could die.
“Is he okay?” I mouthed to the cashier, remembering the CVS guys saying Popeye was prone to exaggerations.
“He’s fine,” she mouthed back, only slightly reassuring me.
I paid for my groceries while Popeye continued on with his story.
“I was in WWII. I watched all my men die. I can’t eat anymore—I have to drink my food,” he was holding a can of Spirulina—his single purchase. “I have pain in my stomach. It’s a mess.”
I listened and believed everything he said as I gathered up my bag in one arm and took his arm in the other. We walked together to the parking lot east of the store, but not before he took one more big sway backwards, almost pulling me down on top of him. We caught our balance just in time, and continued to the car. “Lord help me,” I prayed to myself, and then pointed out my car to him.
“That’s a Mini Cooper!” he exclaimed.
“Yes, do you like it?”
“Why, that’s a beautiful car! Who makes it?”
“BMW owns the company.” I said.
“Germans! Those Germans know how to make a car!”
“I’m German, too!”
He got into my car pretty well and pointed me in the direction of his home. He repeated the words, “I’m dying,” several more times, which prompted me to ask him if he believed in heaven.
“Why, you have to have faith to believe that.”
“You don’t have faith?” I asked.
“I have a rational mind.”
“You sound like my husband.”
I told him I believed in heaven, that it seems so close to me sometimes that I could almost reach out and touch it. I told him I thought the best was yet to come, as I pulled up in front of his house and parked. There was a big red chair sitting on his porch. He got out just fine and we walked up the steps slowly together. He told me to knock loudly on the window of the door. “If no one comes, I have to walk around to the back.” I knocked.
“That’s not loud enough!”
I pounded, hoping the glass wouldn’t break. No one came. We made our way back down the porch steps. I prepared myself to say goodbye, and asked if I could give him a kiss on his cheek. He nodded, and smiled—the first smile I’d ever seen from him. As I told him goodbye I said, “I love you, Popeye.” Honestly, I don’t know where that comes from sometimes—the words just fly out of my mouth. But I mean it when I say it.
I watched him walk down the sidewalk to the backdoor, cane in hand, feet turned out slightly, taking his carefully, calculated steps—his bald head gleaming in the sun.
So, this is Warren, who I came to find out had been sleeping somewhere by the bike trail until it got too cold outside. Last Sunday’s paper had a story on it with a picture of the house he now lives in—I recognized the red chair. Rachel, the woman who rents the house has been known to take people in—“everyone deserves to have a roof over their head,” she was quoted as saying in the article, and she provides a roof over Popeye’s.
I thought how heaven’s door seemed to have opened up to me that day. You see, Popeye’s house is called the Blessing House.
Who would have thought it would be a cranky old man without faith that would walk me right up to the front door of Heaven…
I haven’t seen Popeye around these last weeks and asked about him on Downer, but no word. So I dropped off a canister of protein powder at the back door of the house with the red chair and left a note: God Bless you, Popeye.