I had a curriculum meeting at Ella’s school tonight, so I stopped in at MawMaw and Pop’s in the middle of the afternoon. Pop was lying in bed, sleeping, and MawMaw was visiting with my cousin Chasity. Pop looked better, but only because he had his glasses on and his teeth in; apparently, he woke up this morning determined to feel normal, and MawMaw was happy to oblige.
The feeling didn’t last, however, and he quickly returned to his now-normal status of near-constant sleep. His breathing is constant, interrupted by the occasional snore or hand gesture, and every once in a while you can see his mouth move, as if he’s having conversations with people we can’t see.
MawMaw sat back in her recliner to rest for a bit, and I began to tell her about the pictures I’ve been scanning onto my hard drive. She had given me complete access to all of her pictures, and I’ve been trying to comb through the massive albums to find pictures that best represent Pop, or that reflect memories that are important to our entire family. Some have been funny; others, revelatory; and still others have been the bitterest pill – seeing my grandfather so full of life, so opposite of his current condition, swells the eyes with tears of all kinds: happiness, regret, sadness, joy, and on and on.
There was one picture in particular that caught my attention, because it was of my grandfather and the preacher who was his best friend for many, many years, Mr. Sonny Drummond. Here it is:
I told MawMaw about the picture because I thought it was a perfect representation of Pop: his innate goofiness, his love of friends, and his long-time eschewance of sunscreen.
She knew exactly the picture I was talking about, and she smiled. “I remember that picture because I took it. Have you ever heard the story behind it?”
“No,” I said. “Didn’t really know there was one.”
“Well,” she began, “one night Preacher Sonny called Pop and said, ‘Harold, I can’t see.'”
Apparently something was wrong with Preacher Sonny’s eyes; he was having trouble focusing and none of the remedies he’d tried worked. Desperate, he called my grandfather and explained his plan: he wanted to drive down to Florida and get in the ocean.
“I just know if I can get in the water in Florida, everything will be fine.”
I stopped my grandmother here. “Was this something he felt that God had told him or something?”
I was thinking about the Bible story of Naaman the leper (see 2 Kings 5:1-15) who was told to dip in the river Jordan seven times, and when he obeyed, Naaman was cleansed of his leprosy. I’ve heard some cool stories, but this seemed like it had the potential to take the cake.
“No,” she said, “nothing like that. He just knew that if we went down to Pensacola and he got in the water, his eyes would clear up. So we went.”
My grandparents went to bed early after getting that call, and set the alarm for 2:00 AM. By three in the morning, they had their Ford Crown Victoria loaded up with Preacher Sonny and his wife, Miss Tessie, and they were on their way through the Georgia darkness towards the salt water shores of Florida. My grandfather drove, Preacher Sonny rode shotgun, and MawMaw and Miss Tessie sat in the back, worrying and praying non-stop.
They rocketed through the quiet Southern plains, barely speaking, the early morning stillness only upset by the hum of the Crown Vic’s tires. MawMaw didn’t say this, of course, but I know that she and Pop had to be worried sick about their friend; I knew Preacher Sonny, and he was a good man, a good preacher, and certainly one of the closest friends Pop ever had. They were buddies from the start, and Pop loved him as dearly as any man ever loved a friend.
And so, as they sped through the dawn, MawMaw and Miss Tessie fell asleep, and probably Preacher Sonny did too, leaving Pop alone behind the wheel, driving for his friend’s life.
They reached the beaches of Pensacola by 10:00 AM. As soon as they arrived, Pop found his way to a public beach access, parked the car, and while Miss Tessie and MawMaw watched, he and his best friend went racing into the ocean. After an hour in the salt water (an hour that cleared up Sonny’s vision), they joined their wives on a nearby bench and waited beneath the sun until their three o’clock check-in at a nearby hotel.
There’s another picture from that trip, taken by MawMaw shortly after they checked into the hotel. Pop is sitting on the edge of the hotel bed in his boxer shorts with dark dress socks pulled halfway up his calves. His thighs, knees, and lower legs are beet red from sunburn, and he’s grinning like a kid who just skipped school to spend the day at the beach with his best girl. There’s a matching shot of Sonny, too. Both are smiling, showing off the kind of war wounds you collect only for best friends. MawMaw laughed at the memory.
“We stayed three days,” MawMaw said, “just to make sure Sonny was okay. Then, he wanted to drive over to Daytona Beach for a little while, so we drove clear across to there and stayed.”
“Wait a minute,” I said, “you mean you guys just took an impromptu Florida vacation with no more than a few hours notice?”
“Yes,” she said, looking at Pop. “But that was back when we were strong. Pop was in good health; Sonny, with his bad knees, used to watch Harold climb ladders and do other things with ease and Sonny’d just say, ‘Boy! Look at ‘im go. I sure do wish I could do that.'”
She paused and looked away. “Those were good days.”
Pop’s breathing got loud, so the story ended there, but it’s stayed in my mind all night. It’s a simple story, really – nothing too grand about it, until you start to imagine what must have been going through their minds as they drove towards a beach, hoping for a miracle. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’m left staggered by the incredible selflessness of that kind of love; I mean, we’re not talking about making this drive for a family member or a grandchild. We’re talking about a friend.
What kind of person has that much love? Whose heart is really that big? It’s not just the fact that they packed up and left with little notice – it’s that they did it completely on faith. No one called the doctor to ask if the gamble would work. No one double-checked with WebMD.
My grandparents never even asked the most natural of questions: Are you sure about this?
They just said “Yes.”
They packed their clothes, got in their own car, and put their lives at risk for the life of a friend. Amazing. Mind-blowing. Inconceivable.
And yet, that’s who my grandparents are. As long as they have breath and strength and time and money, if you are in need, they are going to help you. I mean, why else would two retirees plant God-knows-how-many acres of corn, tomatoes, beans, peppers, squash, collards, turnips, peas, and other assorted vegetables? It might have been part of their Depression-era ethic, but the quantities that they gave away to friends and family and neighbors tells me otherwise. They were relentless on the dinner-for-the-bereaved circuit, the dinner-for-the-sick circuit, and the dinner-for-the-recently-pregnant circuit. They visited shut ins, hospice, hospital and all others who needed a smiling face.
They essentially gave away their lives to people who needed hope.
MawMaw and I talked about a lot more after that story. I asked her questions about her and Pop, about family history I’ve never been clear on, and we spent a good bit of time talking about the death of my uncle Terry. At one point, MawMaw teared up and said, “So many memories.”
She took a breath and continued, “We’ve been together 61 years, and have never really been apart. We’ve done everything together, and even these last years, when he couldn’t do like he used to, at least he was still able to talk to me.”
Pop shifted in his bed and we both turned to look at him. He took a moment, but finally got settled, and when I looked back at MawMaw, her eyes were still fixed on him.
“I just don’t know what I’ll do when he’s gone,” she said, as much to herself as to me.
The time passed quickly, so much so that my phone buzzed with a text from Rachel wondering if everything was OK. By that time my aunt Pat had walked in and I knew that MawMaw wouldn’t be alone. I gave her a kiss and promised to check in on her and Pop in the morning, since I wouldn’t be able to come back for an evening visit due to a work obligation.
“That’s alright hon,” she said, kissing me on the lips. “You come back when you can.”
I said I would, and as I walked through the door towards my car, I heard her call out, like always, “You come see MawMaw, now!”
Right now, every visit counts. One day soon, they’ll count all the more.