It’s been several months since my grandfather, Sid Moye, passed away. I’ve been meaning to write about it ever since, but the wound has been too raw and it has taken me a while to figure out what I want to say about it. It seems like I think about him every day, miss him every day, in some way or another. Sometimes I will come across something that reminds me of him and I will find myself momentarily debilitated with grief. For me, it has mostly been an internal suffering. I’m not good at talking about such things, and most people don’t know what to say anyway when you say, seemingly out of the blue, that you miss a deceased loved one. I know I’ve been in that situation before. What do you say? Do you express your condolences? Do you tell them you understand, even though you really can’t know what that person is going through?
And so, it has been a struggle to find the words. If I just told you all about him, and I could surely write a book on that topic, it would be a good story. It would be a worthy story. But that would be only his story, and what I need to tell is a story of my own, a story intertwined with his story. I am still not sure that I am ready to tell this story, but it has been aching inside of me for too long. Now is the time.
Let’s start at the beginning. I never called him “grandpa” or “Sid,” I called him “Poppy.” It always reminded me of the red flowers, and he lived up to that name. He was always full of life and grew strong and vibrant in the sunshine. He called me “Annie” instead of Rachel, because of my middle name, Anne. He said it was because of the “e” on the end, which he claimed should be pronounced instead of silent. But he always spelled it with an “i” on birthday cards and Christmas presents. This, he told me, was so that other people didn’t get confused. He was, and remains, the only person to ever call me Annie.
Although he was often humorous and kind, he was just as often stern and too serious. He was prone to black moods, much the same as myself, when he could not quite express to the rest of us how he needed things to go in his life. His frustrations were always visible in his face, but he seldom shared them. If he did share them, he would find a way to do it in some comical or philosophical manner that detached them from himself, and often somehow brought everything back to growing beans and potatoes.
He loved everything to do with nature. Never once did he let a walk in the woods go to waste. It was always an opportunity to express to his walking companion how beautiful everything around us was, how in love with all of it he was. We would hike to some high spot that overlooked the valley and he would pause, resting against a fence post or a tree, and usually he would quote some famous author or poet, or he would look out with wonder and ask aloud if I could see how pretty it all was. Often, I said very little during these exchanges. It was more profitable to keep quiet and listen. He was a sage imparting his wisdom to me and I was his keen disciple.
Sometimes these musings would be about people instead of nature. He would talk about my grandmother, my Nana, and tell me how pretty she was. He would say that he was still in love with her after all these years. Whether she liked it or not, he would sometimes add, which was always funny because anyone with eyes and ears knows that Nana was, and is, plenty in love with him. He knew it too, of course, but I think some part of him needed reassurance on occasion, because he always loved people so completely and passionately, but perhaps none so much as his Dana.
On several occasions, he told me the story of how he and my Nana met, how they decided to build a family together and be happy, and how glad he was for it. Then he would say, “now don’t tell your Nana I said that.” And Nana would tell me the same story, almost word for word, when she and I were off together somewhere and she would follow it up with, “now don’t tell Bud that I said that.”
Bud was her name for him, another endearment gone by the wayside with Annie and Poppy. Sid, Bud, Daddy. Poppy – he had a lot of names. But he was just Poppy to me.
Poppy gave me books, wild flowers, garden plants and once, a little gosling I named Feather, who was a dreadful creature but I did love the silly thing. He gave me a pair of rabbits when I decided I wanted to start raising them. Most of all, he gave me inspiration. If my well ran dry, it only took a visit to the valley to fill me full of mirth and wonder again.
Evenings with my grandparents were the best. We would sit on the back porch until the sun went down, just talking. He would tell me to take care of my brothers and cousins, to be their steady rock in the world, because family was important to him. He felt it was the oldest child’s duty to care for the younger children. We would talk about which seeds to plant in the garden, or whether or not he should invest in a milk cow. He loved Jersey cows. Sometimes he would tell stories about his life, or about distant family relations who may or may not have ever existed. Or he might tell me a joke he’d told me a hundred times before, or bring up something interesting he’d heard on NPR that he thought was worthy of discussion.
When it was dark out, we would retire to the living room. Nana would fix us each a bourbon and coke, which we would sip while watching BBC on the television. If Monty Python and the Holy Grail came on, we would watch it all the way through, no matter that we’d seen it many times before, and he would laugh and laugh as though it was the first time.
Nana would be doing the dishes on the kitchen and yell something at us that didn’t quite hear. Poppy would look at me and ask, “what did she say?” And I would shrug my shoulders and we would turn back to our program and go back to laughing.
That he was an activist almost goes without saying. He always did what he felt was right, even if it made life harder. He never shirked what he felt was his duty. So it didn’t surprise me, really, when he wanted to join in acts of civil disobedience against Mountaintop Removal coal mining. What could possibly be worse for him to endure than the destruction of a mountain? The mountain was the high point where he stopped for a rest and surveyed all the joys of his life. The mountain represented the pinnacle of happiness and growth and love. It was a divine figure for him. Of course he was willing to walk across an invisible line and get arrested in defense of the mountains.
But he was worried about it as he and I drove to the action where he would ultimately be arrested for an act of nonviolent, symbolic civil disobedience. He wondered if it was the wrong thing to do. He worried that the worst case scenario would happen, somehow, and he would make things hard for the rest of us. I did the only thing that I could think of to do. I assured him that I had a good feeling about it, and that I thought he needed to do it.
So he did, and then I was stuck by myself in the midst of a crowd of people I didn’t know from Adam as my Poppy was driven to jail in Beckley, and strangers kept hugging me and asking if I was “Sid’s granddaughter.” For the next several hours until my stepfather met up with me in Beckley, where a couple of caring folks drove me, I was a nervous wreck. I’d never been a social person and crowds scared me. Being lost with so many people I didn’t know was terrifying.
And then it seemed like everyone knew who Poppy was, and all of these new and wonderful people thought he was great. They were inspired by him. They came to visit the valley just to see him, to gain a little of his kindness and wisdom, to walk in the woods with him for a little while and learn what he was all about. I was so very proud of him. He encouraged the rest of our family to take a stand against Mountaintop Removal. We were unified in a common cause.
Needless to say, this was all a catalyst for the metamorphosis my life would undertake in the next few years. I started attending college with a cause, a reason to take a stand, an identity. I slowly, painfully came out of my shell. I participated in actions with my fellow activists. I made dozens of new friends. Poppy was at the center of it all.
Watching him as he grew ill and lost his old vim and vigor was one of the most painful experiences of my life. It hurt him so much when he was no longer capable of working all day in his garden or keeping up with his little farm. It hurt him when he was too sick to go to actions and festivals and gatherings. He wanted to one day just walk up to his garden and die there, at peace, looking out over the valley with wonder in his blue, blue eyes.
That’s not how it goes when you’re sick like he was – when you can hardly breathe, when the lack of oxygen and the pain medication slowly eats away at your consciousness. He sat in his chair, attached to an oxygen tank, and sometimes he had good days when he knew where he was and was happy to be with us. But a lot of the time he had bad days as he very gradually suffocated, his lungs losing strength every day.
It wasn’t in the hospital, at least. He was in his home, which was a minor miracle. He was in his bed when he passed away, with all of us standing around him, all of us wishing for one last joke or story, but all of us hoping he wouldn’t be in pain anymore. And then he wasn’t in pain. He wasn’t there at all. And the enormity of it all hit me and I couldn’t take it. I snapped, and I screamed and cried and failed to form any coherent words until I was just too tired to be distraught anymore. But all I could think was, I don’t have him anymore and that doesn’t make sense. Where is he? Why isn’t he here with me, telling me to “dry it up” and knuckle down? No more sage words, no more stories, no more wrinkly, sunny smiles. No more tobacco smoke and black coffee on the back porch. No more bourbon and BBC. No more walks in the woods.
It’s still running through my head, even now. It hardly ever let’s up. I am surrounded by people missing him, grieving for him, and I am selfish in my own grief. I want to scream at friends who knew him, “stop it, you didn’t know him like I did! How can you be sad like I am? It wasn’t part of you that died with him. You still have all of your soul, all yourself, but mine is torn in half now. There is me and Poppy, and there is just me. All I have now is just me. The other half is gone and how dare you say that you understand?”
But that’s not fair and it’s just my grief talking. I should be proud of the legacy that he left behind, all of the people he touched, and I am. I am so proud of him. But I am too much like him, and sometimes it is hard for me to express my frustrations, just like it was for him. Most of the time, it hurts too much to hear someone else talk about him and how wonderful he was, but it’s impossible to explain it out loud. Sometimes I just end up screaming and venting about it to some unfortunate family member, someone else who is grieving and doesn’t know what to do any more than I do.
What is the conclusion to this story? I still don’t know. I’m still raw with sadness, a quivering mess. One day, I hope that I am healed enough to tell his story to everyone who will listen. I hope I will be glad to hear someone else speak his name, to admire him and look up to him like I always did. I think that when that day comes, I will know that everything he was and did meant something on a grander scale than I could have imagined. But I think that he would want someone to always keep the story grounded, to keep the sadness and the stubbornness and the humanity. He was a strong man, but he was only a man. And this story I have written here is the part of that man that belonged to me.