He said, “Doc, I want to live long enough to see the Eagles win another championship.”
My grandfather winced. He said this for my benefit. I knew the Eagles weren’t top on his list of favorite sports teams, but he had remembered I covered the team. It sounded like the right thing to say for a Philadelphia sports fan battling age and science.
He asked the doctor for two more years. He got three weeks. He sucked the marrow out of 96 years of living.
Jerome J. Bilbee of Fox Chase, Philadelphia died May 30, 2012. The end wasn’t befitting a man that towered both literally and figuratively over my life. He wasn’t especially tall by today’s standards, but 6-foot-2 was for his era and for a young boy who idolized his Pop-Pop.
He was lean and dashing – a cross between Jimmy Stewart and Ted Williams. He was Stewart’s George Bailey, a man that could have been anything, but was best a family man and community pillar. He was Williams the conversationalist and lover of baseball.
Pop-Pop coached Fox-Rok, an amateur summer team that drew the hottest prospects in Philly. Ruben Amaro Jr., Mark Gubicza and Jim Poole played for him. He didn’t think Amaro was very good. He saw the players for how they played for him, not for what they might become. Still, close to a dozen would go on to play in the big leagues.
Sports were our connective tissue. We bonded over the Phillies, debated Joe Louis vs. Muhammad Ali, and golfed 18 holes. He taught me how to throw a curveball.
My grandfather was your typical overly optimistic Notre Dame follower. He was your typical pessimistic Philly fan. The Phils repaid his loyalty with titles in 1980 and 2008.
He witnessed the Eagles’ first NFL championship in 1948. To earn a few extra bucks and watch the games for free, my grandfather was an usher at Shibe Park. On the morning of the title game a snowstorm blanketed the city. He helped shovel the snow off the field. The Birds won, 7-0. Two titles followed in 1949 and 1960, but not one since.
As I got older the sports stories meant less, overtaken by the life lessons. Pop-Pop was an avid storyteller. A hard life begot many tales. He left his family when he was 12, old enough to know his mother wasn’t living right.
The stock market crashed soon after. He worked odd job after odd job during the depression. I used to imagine Pop-Pop hopping freight trains with a knapsack over his back, but he stayed in the area for all his life.
When he was 16 he met my grandmother. He proposed a few days later. They wouldn’t marry for six more years because she couldn’t wed until her older sisters had. They were together for over 70 years until Mom-Mom passed away seven years ago. After she died Pop-Pop told me he spent only one night away from her in all the years they were married.
Long before anyone called his generation the greatest, my grandfather survived and prevailed because of what he had endured. Eight children were born. One daughter was struck by a car and killed at 18. Life continued. Grandchildren came – 22 of them. I was his favorite. I’m sure the others thought the same.
My grandparents never missed a birthday, never skipped a graduation. Their home was a communal meetinghouse. Mom-Mom cooked Thanksgiving dinner. Pop-Pop made the Christmas tree out of twigs and cotton. She played the piano. He belted out tunes on the harmonica.
His children’s children had children – 34 at last count. When Mom-Mom died he lost a bit of himself, but didn’t slow down. He still hung the Christmas lights. He drove to and from Florida by himself. He golfed his age.
When we last played together he leaned on me until he steadied himself. He managed two birdies. Still, he mostly complained about the bad shots. For 90-plus years he knew no bounds, so the physical restrictions he faced late in life were maddening.
He was unconscious for most of his last stay in the hospital. One day I arrived and he awoke. He didn’t know who I was at first but the sharp memory showed glimpses.
“Where’s your brother the reporter?”
“I’m the reporter, Pop-Pop.”
A long-time subscriber of The Inquirer, he clipped my first articles and showed them to the priests at Saint Cecilia.
“Do the Eagles respect you?”
For a man that had found his calling at 40 when he became an insurance salesman, I knew what he meant. My grandfather was fair, he was honest and he was respected.
“Yeah, I think so.”
Later, after the doctor had left, he asked me if I thought the Eagles had a shot this year.
He gripped my hand until he fell asleep.
It was the last time we spoke.