What the Heart Hopes For

This was at Christmas, over 20 years ago - an eerie foreshadowing.

A heartbeat. A breath.

That’s the line. And as fine as it is, most of us never realize how close we walk it.

Tonight, my grandfather performs a high-wire act from a hospice bed, precariously teetering over the Great Beyond like a lunatic daredevil. It’s a dance, almost, a back-and-forth between here and eternity, and the music plays only for him. His breathing is so shallow as to be nearly imperceptible; his eyes struggle to focus on even the closest objects.

In every way, he looks like someone who is dying.

To stand there and look at him is to be aware of the mortality we all share. Tonight, nearly everyone’s eyes swelled with tears just from watching him breathe, seeing his chest work hard against the force of gravity to take in even the tiniest bit of air. I watched my father, sitting stoically in Pop’s old chair, suddenly overcome with the reality of the situation: that we are sitting around, watching my grandfather die. His eyes turned red and then the tears flowed, and he buried his face into his left hand. Not out of shame or embarrassment, I think, but out of exhaustion.

Death does not come quickly. Despite how it may appear in the movies or on TV, the timeline for the end of human life doesn’t move briskly along or come to a neat end on the hour. It drags. There is a lot of waiting. There is a lot of standing. There is a lot of thinking.

There is a lot of nothing, and yet simultaneously each moment, every second, carries everything inside. Because you don’t know when that last moment, that final breath, is going to come. And that unknown, that deranged x-factor, plays havoc with your mind and heart. I see my father and grandmother and aunt and uncle battling exhaustion and I witness the struggle between the body’s need for sleep and the heart’s need to be present just in case that next second, that upcoming moment, is the one. It is a war of wills, waged within each of them, and there is not a moment when they do not fight it.

But how deep the remorse, how fragrant the grief, if they were to go to sleep and miss Pop’s death? How brutal would their own imagination treat them if they were somehow asleep, or bathing, or eating, or whatever when the barrier between time and eternity came down for Pop?

So they push. They fight. They themselves walk the edge with Pop, holding his hand, not wanting to let go. Not because they want him to stay, but because they don’t want him to leave without their being able to wish him well on the journey.

It’s unfathomable how deep love can run between human beings. We glamorize it by making it all about sex, but love, true love, is the stank of human fear mixed with the confusion of human emotion, and it bleeds out wherever men and women patiently sit at the bedside of a loved one walking that fine line. It is unattractive in the Madison Avenue sense because it calls us beyond ourselves; it forces us to tap into reserves we don’t often know we have, and don’t particularly wish to discover.

But in the sense of what the heart hopes for and believes and longs for, it is breathtaking in its beauty. It’s subtle and powerful and immense and frail, and it can be found in something as profoundly simple as a wife and a son and a daughter, standing next to a hospice bed, their own lives intertwined with the rise and fall of a very sick man’s chest.

A heartbeat. A breath.

Right now, we all live or die by them.

A Heart So Big

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 knew there was a story here...I just didn't expect it to be so good.

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.

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?

A Day in the Life of a Wounded Soldier’s Wife

A few weeks ago I wrote about SFC Mark Allen and his wife, Shannon, and their daughter, Journey, for Veteran’s Day. I went to high school with Shannon and go to church with her grandparents, so Mark’s story of recovery has struck close to home. I wrote the piece hoping to honor the family, and got nothing but warm feedback from Shannon and others. It felt like the right thing to do.

Today, I spied a note from Shannon on Facebook titled “A Day in the Life“. I clicked on it and ended up in tears. She also posted the note on Mark’s CaringBridge site, but I’m going to paste the text of it here on my blog, because I think it needs to be read by everyone during this holiday season. If you are caring for a loved one who is critically injured or ill, or going through regular rehabilitation or therapy, a lot of this note will sound familiar. It sure did to me.

But if you’re blessed enough to have no experience with caring for someone who can’t care for themselves, then read this and know once again that the men and women who fight for our country in faraway places aren’t nameless automatons or political pawns or faceless figures manuevered about some unseen country. I want you read this and remember the names Mark and Shannon Allen–because they’re the people who sacrificed so you could have all that you do.

With special thanks to Shannon for her permission to post.

“I wanted to offer everyone a glimpse into my daily life. Please read this in the lighthearted spirit in which it’s intended, not as a genuine complaint or as a ‘poor me’ sentiment.


Up by 7:00, shower, (while Journey pokes her head around the shower curtain ever 38 seconds), get ready (while J cries because the hairdryer scares her), get J ready, fix her lunch, get us downstairs for breakfast by 8:10, leave hotel by 8:45 to drop J off at 9:00. Head to hospital, straight to the 5th floor for Speech Therapy ’till 10:00, then directly to the 2nd floor for Physical Therapy ’till 11:00. (Vision Therapy and Occupation Therapy are at 7:30 and 8:00, so I can’t be there for those). Back up to the 5th floor to Mark’s room to look him over (check ears, eyes, wash his face, wet and fix his hair, check his skin for breakdown, check his feeding tube for cleanliness and function) and brush his teeth (takes way more time than you’d imagine). 12:00 breathing treatment and meds.

12:30 – Here’s where we actually have two whole hours to do what we want. But wait!! (infomercial style)! There are non-stop doctors and nurses and liasons and advocates and representatives and social workers and volunteers and that other guy (a year and a half and I still don’t know what he does) stopping in (closed door or not) to check on us. And there goes our alone time. Don’t get me wrong. These people are GREAT and I don’t know what we’d do without them, it just gets a little overwhelming at times.

Where was I? Oh yeah, leave hospital by 2:45 to pick up Journey. Load her up and drive back to the hospital. Unload her and focus her attention enough to actually walk up to the hospital (takes twice as long when she’s with me : ) ), and back up to Mark’s room around 3:30. Chase her around (try to keep her in the room, fetch juice and snacks, etc) and try to focus attention on both her and Mark, which isn’t always easy.

Oops. Now it’s 5:00 and Journey and I have to trek back out to the van, load up and head to the grocery store. Yep. Grocery store nearly every day because our hotel room has one of those tiny ‘dorm’ refrigerators which doesn’t store much besides the essentials. Then back to the hotel to make dinner with a microwave, George Forman Grill and an electric skillet and no counter space. Scarf said dinner. Clean up, dunk her in the bath tub, then put her in bed by 7:30. Then, I’m physically and emotionally fried and confined to my room for the next 12 hours. Fun, huh?

Tuesdays and Thursdays are even a little more hectic because I drag J all around the hospital with us and we’re back and forth for naps.

I’m not complaining. Not even a little. Just trying to give some insight into our daily life and understanding about why I’m not the best at updating CaringBridge or evening phone calls.”

Whatever your holiday traditions this year, take a moment and remember Mark, Shannon, Journey, Cody and the rest of their family. Honor isn’t just given through parades and monuments, but by real people thinking of and appreciating the military families who bless us with their selfless service.

Merry Christmas, Shannon and Mark – and may this new year be one of unimaginable happy endings.