Look Towards Heaven and Home

Today, I lost one of the finest men I’ve ever known. I love you, Pop.

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.

Dancing In The Light Of Fireflies

Hope like firefly light - the gift of my grandfather's generation.I’m going to spend a lot of my time going to funerals over the next five years.

A lot.

I said as much to my brother, Ryan, yesterday before the funeral of one of our former pastors. He agreed with me. And as we looked around the church where we found ourselves, we could count at least four or five likely candidates. It’s not morbid – it’s life.

Now, we will most likely be wrong in our predictions – the people you think are most likely to go usually hang around an extra decade or two – but it doesn’t change the fact that many of the people who populated our childhood will die within the next five years. The Greatest Generation is marching, inexorably, towards their Greatest Adventure.

We will lose a lot when they are gone. An entirely different America, in fact. The nation that they helped to shape, the nation that they represent, will vanish when the last of those WWII-era citizens passes. America as a producer. America as an industrial giant. America as an international power. America as a single nation. All of these truths that I grew up hearing about our country will go to the grave with the generation that held them closest.

Because, let’s face it, we no longer believe in that America. We believe in a nation where opportunity comes with a price tag, where the fix is in, where government, corruption, incompetence and apathy have become synonymous. We live, sadly, in an America that couldn’t rise from the ashes of the Depression and win a World War. We don’t have the collective optimism or hope that is required to do that sort of thing. We would piss and moan about the hardship and struggle, and while we would be right about the challenges, our attitude alone would doom us more than our circumstances.

Which is exactly what I never fully understood about that Greatest Generation, my grandparents’ generation: their attitude. How could they not see the things my generation sees? How could they be so naive? How could they hold onto the American myth and push so stridently for its hoped-for outcomes? It couldn’t have been stupidity – they figured out more challenging problems than that in their sleep, and if you don’t believe me, try keeping a victory garden alive and flourishing for more than three days. I mean, I can’t even keep a plastic plant alive that long.

I could never fathom why my grandparents held the beliefs they did about America. Why they could stand and sing the anthem without shame. Why they could talk about this country as if it had never done anything wrong. Didn’t they understand Watergate? Didn’t they know about Hoover’s FBI?

How could they be so blind?

I’ve been thinking about this for weeks now, as my grandfather has been suddenly confined to a hospice bed in his own home’s front room, and I don’t think they’ve been blind at all. I think they just understood that it’s better to live with hope than whimper in fear. I see this attitude at work in Pop even now.

I’ve been to visit him a few times now, and where I would feel like a fool set on display for the pitying world, he just looks out the window, smiles at the company, and sleeps whenever he needs to. He doesn’t rage against the health care system. He doesn’t rail against the government’s failure to take better care of veterans. He doesn’t even care to hear the latest news, except for weather reports – and even then, why does the weather matter to him? He can’t even go outside!

I’m living through this with him and while my heart sometimes feels like it’s going to explode from the chaos and madness and seeming inequity of it all, he’s never uttered a word of discontent.

I asked him the other day if he was ready to go to Heaven.

“Yep,” he replied. “But I’m not gonna go get a shotgun and rush the trip along.”

“Don’t you get tired?” I asked.

“Yep. But the Lord has me here for a reason. Might as well live for it.”

When he said that to me, I thought, Fatalism. Whatever will be will be. It seemed the coward’s way out, blithely just taking whatever comes your way and not expecting anything more.

But my grandfather is not a coward. You can’t be a coward when your sickbed is the center ring of your last days and everyone comes to see the show and pay their respects. It takes a courage that I don’t possess to let your brokenness be on display and to live each day for itself.

That’s the kind of spirit that overcame a Reich. That’s the kind of spirit that conquered the pitfalls inherent in the American Dream and allowed goodness to shine through. That is the kind of willpower and faith that innovates and imagines and invents solutions to problems that others would run from. That is what led Tom Brokaw and others to coin them the Greatest Generation, and they are dying, one by one.

It’s like when I was a kid, and the fireflies started blinking. You knew the evening time was near, and you only had so long to play before you had to come inside for the night. We danced in that firefly light, savoring every flicker, because we knew that when the night had reached its darkest those fireflies would light the way. As long as we could see one little light in the blackness, we felt safe.

My grandfather’s generation still lights the way, as they have for some fifty years. Long since past the events that defined them, they have been flashing reminders of what is good and beautiful in a darkened world. But soon, the last of those beacons of childhood security will go black and we’ll find ourselves alone in the dark. America will have lost her soul, her spirit, to the passage of time. We will face future events without a large part of who we were as a nation.

And what we do then will define our generation.

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?