There are so many things that fill your head when you watch someone you love pass away – fears; hopes; prayers. Your mind is aflame with a thousand different thoughts, a thousand different emotions, until you’re suddenly jerked back from within yourself and into the moment at hand.
It was that way for me this morning. I found myself battling an almost overwhelming fear that watching Pop’s death would override every other memory I had of him. I wrestled with the knowledge that I would have to stand and speak in his honor, to somehow find the words and stories that best encapsulate his life. I worried over how MawMaw would respond – not just to his death, but to life without him. Scanning the faces of my father, my aunt Pat, my uncle Greg, and all of the assembled family, I wondered what would become of all of us without Pop.
All of this vanished when the moment came.
The day started, for me, around 4:30 AM. I woke up for the third or fourth time since going to bed around midnight. My mind was a mess of nightmares and incomprehensible dreams, so not being able to sleep was a bit of a blessing. I spent the next hour and a half either praying or crying, wondering if today was going to be the day, or if Pop might hang on another day or so. Eventually I dozed back off around 5:50.
My phone rang at 6:00. The caller id read, simply, Dad.
“Hello,” I managed.
“Jason,” my dad said, his voice composed for a moment. “It’s…”
Dad fought back tears. So did I.
“…it’s close. He’s close.”
“Okay,” I said, “let me get dressed and tell Rachel what’s going on, and I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“Okay,” dad said. “See you in a bit.”
I jumped out of bed and tried to get my brain to work. Clothes were a necessity, as were my wallet and phone. I fumbled in the dark for my glasses, and hastily got dressed. Rachel stirred, and I told her what was going on.
“I’ll call you,” I said, then kissed her goodbye.
The morning air came in cool through my car windows, hinting that summer was nearing its end. It was hard for me to stay in a decent frame of mind; I was in a hurry to reach my grandfather’s bedside before he slipped away from me, but the rest of the world went on as if nothing were happening. I got trapped behind a school bus that didn’t seem overly concerned with getting to school on time, as well as three or four cars that had difficulty navigating in the pre-dawn darkness.
That was a moment of real anger for me, of deep insult at the world’s callousness. I felt slighted by the fact that every other human being on the planet didn’t defer to me and my grief, didn’t stop to acknowledge that one of its finest inhabitants was preparing to exit. I wanted cars to pull over to the side of the road, for flags to be flown at half-mast; I wanted people to stand along the road, hats over their hearts, out of respect for one more member of The Greatest Generation gone. Instead, I got slow buses and directionally-challenged people, and the end result was that I wanted to scream. I felt a rage in my chest that needed out, but couldn’t be allowed to roam free.
I think what I really felt was the smallness of being human; despite how it feels to our own minds, we are not the center of the universe. It was hard to accept that, as my world seemed to be falling apart, the real world kept right on spinning. Driving down the road this morning, that truth simply would not go down easy.
I got to MawMaw and Pop’s just as the sun was starting to rise. There were already several cars in the driveway – my dad’s; Greg and Marcia’s; Pat’s; my grandfather’s brother, Weyman, and his wife, Opal, were there too. And when I walked in and saw everyone’s faces, I knew: it wouldn’t be long.
My grandfather’s chest was rising and falling so shallowly and so fast. His mouth was wide open as his stomach struggled to pull in the air his body needed, as his lungs were long past working. The fluid that had been building up in his throat (the result of his digestive system shutting down) was now visible in his mouth, bubbling up and over his tongue with every slight exhale. It seemed very much as if Pop were drowning.
MawMaw was hunched over, holding the hand of Pop’s niece, Shurba, so I sat down beside her and simply rubbed her back. She turned, her eyes dark with grief and fear and sorrow, and let out a small moan.
“Oh, Jason,” she said, “they won’t let me help him.”
The truth of the matter was that she could do nothing more for him. But having been a faithful wife for so many years, having nursed him in these final days with the kind of love and dedication that seems beyond human capacity, she felt – and her eyes revealed how deeply this feeling ran – that if she could just do something, he’d turn around, get better, return to her. Instead, she simply watched as every breath took him further from her than he’d ever been.
My brother Ryan soon arrived, as did my cousin Chasity. I’m not sure who else was there when the moment finally came, but the room was full and we stood surrounding Pop’s bed, a human wall of love and adoration and hope and hurt. We moved so MawMaw could be near him, and she rubbed his chest and spoke lovingly to him, trying to reassure him, trying to hold on to him as long as she could. She spoke to him, and called him the most precious of names, one that certainly fit.
“Daddy,” she called him.
His breathing grew shallower, and then, as if each one of them shared some sort of unspoken spiritual connection, MawMaw, dad, Pat and Greg leaned in, their hearts pounding out of their chests, their eyes red with tears and expectancy. His head moved slightly, his chest drawing in, and then the miracle happened.
As the sun broke through the trees outside his window, Pop Harold opened his eyes, looked at his beloved MawMaw and then at his family; then he turned his eyes as if looking above him to the left. His last conscious act in this world was to look towards home.
And with that, he was gone.
My grandfather left this world on the same day my father entered it 57 years ago. Surrounded by his faithful wife, his loving children and grandchildren, he slipped into our memories and eternity.
We stayed right there beside him until the funeral director, Tim Stewart, and his assistant, Todd Burton, came to take Pop’s body for burial preparations. I was amazed at how small the gurney for Pop’s body was; roughly 24-inches wide, it seemed far too small to handle a man as big as Pop. But when they lovingly wrapped him up in his sheets and transferred his body over, it fit with room to spare. And standing there, staring at someone who for so long had been larger than life, I was struck by this thought:
It is the soul of a person that gives them size, gives them weight, in the physical world. It is the soul that contains their essence and gives life and presence to the body. Absent the soul, the body shrinks to an almost unfathomable size; I know this because that’s twice now two men whom I’ve held so dear – Pop Harold and Pop Emmette – have left this world, and in both cases their bodies, which once seemed so massive to me, seemed incredibly small in death.
We followed Pop’s body outside, and before they could load it into the hearse, the nurse’s assistant who’d been Pop’s primary caregiver, who had bathed him and helped change him, came walking down the driveway. And if we had ever doubted the sheer goodness of the man, those doubts were forever put to rest when Ms. Marie, who’d known him only so briefly and only in his lowest state, put her head on his chest and wept as one weeps for their own. MawMaw draped an arm around her in comfort, and then we all stood back as Pop’s body went into the hearse and disappeared behind its closed door.
I can say, without hesitation, that on behalf of my family, we are grateful for the many prayers and sentiments shared with us over the past few weeks and again today. Pop, for as much as he will be missed, is now in a far, far better place of hope, restoration and peace.
Tomorrow afternoon at Tim Stewart’s Funeral Home in Snellville, we’ll receive what is likely to be a considerable number of visitors from 2-4 PM, and then again from 6-8. On Wednesday afternoon, in the little church he loved so much, we’ll remember Pop and celebrate his life, just before we lay him to rest next to his son, Terry.
Who knows what Thursday will bring.
Much like Pop’s body, the world is now a smaller from his absence. But one day, in a world much larger than this one, we’ll see Pop again, unbound by time or illness or the restrictions of this life, and we’ll fall into each others arms, laughing, rejoicing and praising the God who gave us life that there will be no more goodbyes. We’ll pull Terry, and Ruthie, and whomever else we loved into the fold and we’ll give thanks that finally, we’ll always be together.
Until that day, we wait. Until that day, our eyes, like Pop’s, will look towards heaven and home.