But What Will I Do When He’s Gone?

Photo "sunset" used under the Creative Commons License of Flickr.

My brother wrote a blog today about my grandfather, entitled, When the Journey’s Over. Inspired by Pop’s rather precipitous decline, it fanned into flame something that’s been lingering since Saturday. Then, when I talked to my wife on the phone this evening, she said something that turned that flame into a forest fire.

“You know,” she said, “I think your grandfather will live until you get home.”

That’s been on the back of my mind all week while I’ve been out of town. I saw my grandfather before I left on this trip, at a family cookout on Saturday at MawMaw and Pop’s house. They have turned the front room into Pop’s new bedroom, and he spends every minute of his day huddled beneath blankets of varying sizes, sleeping most of those minutes and looking closer to whatever lies beyond this world than this world itself. I was not prepared for this sight when it greeted me, and I had to work hard to keep my emotions in check before my family. I wanted to run to Pop’s side, fling my arms around his neck, and just weep. Instead, I ushered my kids into the TV room and tried to find something to keep me busy.

It was only later, after my father and his siblings had changed and fed Pop, that I ventured into his new room to talk. His eyes, vacuous and rheumy, had trouble focusing on me, and he couldn’t follow my words. While I was talking to him, his eyes simply closed and like that – he was off to sleep. Losing him like that, even to a catnap that would end as quickly as it began, made me think: what will I do when he’s gone? I couldn’t think of an answer, so I did what all men do: I found something else to think about. The rest of the evening passed without so much as a sad thought.

But when we left Saturday, after I had kissed him on his forehead, I turned to MawMaw.

“I don’t care what time it is,” I said, fighting tears, “if something happens, call. I’ll be home.”

I meant it, too. Even though I’m leading a group of students on a mission trip here in Brunswick, Georgia, and I am responsible for keeping the mission work on schedule and keeping the kids on the forefront of my mind, everyday as I sweat through the heat, humidity and other, ever-present challenges of leadership, I find myself thinking/praying, “Please, if the phone rings, don’t let it be my dad.”

Because I know it won’t be MawMaw that calls to tell me Pop is dead. It will be my father.

It wouldn’t be anyone else.

In fact, I got to thinking about my dad having to make that call. Having to stare at his father’s body, overcome with emotion, his heart disintegrating in his chest, even as he forces his fingers to dial a number that’s usually reserved for phone calls of a far less serious nature. I thought about how his heart will be racing, and how his throat will close on him in the seconds that that God-awful ringing noise bounces across the phone line, and how, when I finally answer, the best my dad will likely be able to muster will be a choked and sobbing, “He’s gone, Jason. He’s gone.”

I know this because that’s exactly how I made that phone call to my dad seven years ago. Only it was over Ruthanne. I remember, standing there in that tiny hospital room, my soul melting out through the soles of my feet, that I couldn’t believe I had to make that call. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how to begin. How would he respond? My father, so stoic and quiet in almost every aspect of life, would he handle this news like everything else? Or would he burst into tears? Or maybe let out a guttural moan of exquisite pain?

I remember feeling a sense of shame, as though my daughter’s death was somehow my fault. I worried, irrationally, that my father might tear off a pound of flesh and blame me for the death of his first grandchild. I worried that my dad might die from a heart attack brought on by pure shock, and I would have to deal with two deaths. Mostly, I just couldn’t comprehend what I was having to call and tell him.

I, so good with words in so many ways, was truly at a loss. And when the ringing finally stopped, and my dad said his groggy hello, the only thing that I could think to do was forget everything else and seek solace in the strongest, bravest person I know.

“She’s gone, Daddy! She’s gone!”

It was a garbled cry, the plea of a confused son looking to his father to make everything better. Dad misunderstood me and thought I was talking about Rachel, and before he could even ask I corrected him.

“No! It’s not her! It’s Ruthanne! She’s dead, Daddy! She’s dead!”

He didn’t cry. He didn’t moan. And he certainly didn’t tear off a pound of flesh. Instead, in a voice as gentle as a slight breeze, he said, “Oh son – I’m sorry.”

It will be my turn to say those words soon. Sooner than I’m ready to admit, I’m afraid, my father’s voice will come to me and I will hear in it the anguish and pain and fear that I felt that night so long ago. Unlike my father, I will cry. I will moan. I will weep at the simultaneous loss of a good and lovely man and the ending of that good and lovely man’s suffering. And I will do all of this in a matter of seconds; then I will compose myself, and I will speak the only words of comfort that I’ve ever known to work in a situation like this:

“Oh dad – I’m sorry.”

I dread that call, not just for the sorrow of my grandfather’s death or my own father’s pain, but for the reality that will immediately follow it: this phone call will be repeated, this communication between father and son, only I will assume my dad’s role, and, I imagine, Jonathan, my son, will assume mine.

And my dad will assume Pop’s.

It’s a horrifying thought: what will I do when he’s gone?

But this is the way of all fathers and sons. Just as dad will lose Pop, I will lose him, and one day, hopefully after many, many happy memories, Jonathan will lose me. I will close my eyes and pass from his life, and he will feel the sting in his eyes that I’m feeling right now.

And when that first tear falls from his face, and makes a splashing contact with his new father-less world, I pray that the years of love and laughter and memories I believe we’ll create together will sustain him and give him the courage we all need to face death. I pray that he’ll find strength in his faith. I pray that he’ll be as strong then as my dad will be whenever the time comes to make that call.

But mostly I pray that his son will be able to put his arm around my son, and say, in the tradition of our family, those beautiful yet simple words of comfort:

“Oh dad – I’m sorry.”

That’s not too much for a father to ask, is it?