He sits, his feet gently dangling above the porch decking, his knees exposed to the sunlight, waiting to be burned. And as his friends approach he waves a welcoming hand and offers them a seat on the porch.
“How’re you doin’, Harold?” the visitors inquire.
“I’m doin’ just wonderful. Couldn’t be better.” He smiles, his grin as crooked as the baseball cap on top of his head. “In fact, the Good Lord coulda seen fit to take me years ago, back when I was still in my sins. But instead he saw fit to leave me and claim me as his own.”
He stretches a toe to just scrape the deck and push the swing into a slow arc.
“And because of that,” Pop says, smiling, “how could I complain? I’m blessed beyond measure.”
The little boy is frightened. The door of his hospital room is open, but there are no familiar faces to be found. Doctors and nurses scurry in and out of his sight. The room, small, pale green, and smelling of antiseptic, gets smaller by the minute as some contraption he doesn’t quite understand pulls on his legs to help make them stronger. The pain, in his legs and in his heart, is hard to bear.
It has been decided that the wing he is on is not open to visitors. No mom. No dad. No one that might bring him a moments comfort or peace. Instead, his legs strapped into some kind of machine, he stares out the window, wishing for things to be different.
The window, an old transom-style number that pushes outward from the top to open, suddenly moves and a man’s face appears. He smiles and offers the boy a gift: a boxed set of Cowboy and Indian gear, complete with badge and pistols. The boy smiles with delight, and the smile grows wider because the man stays around to talk for a few minutes, breaking the solitude and offering a salve to a frightened boy’s heart.
The boy would later learn as an adult that my grandfather and grandmother, after being turned away by the nurses and doctors, walked around the exterior of the hospital looking in windows until they found his room.
“As long as I have a mind for remembering, I will always remember what he did. It was an example of Christian love I’ll never forget.”
MawMaw and Pop, 1949.
My grandfather is going to die. I’ve known that for a while, but this week the reality of it has really settled in. The first wave crashed down on Sunday night when, after Pop didn’t really interact with me or my family during our visit, my father looked at me and said, “You have to remember, this [meaning hopsice] was never about him getting better. It was always about making his transition as smooth and painless as possible.”
It was a simple, devastating statement. We brought him home to die in peace, my father was saying. Don’t lose sight of that.
That rolled around in my gut for a long time Sunday night; it took all of the sentimentality of the past few weeks and shoved it into harsh daylight, the ugliness of the truth suddenly on full display.
The second wave came this morning. I stopped in to check on Pop before heading to a testimony service at the church where I grew up. His eyes were closed, his skin slack and translucent. He didn’t respond to my voice or my touch, and my grandmother said softly, “He’s been like that since last night. Hasn’t opened his eyes at all.”
My cousin, Chasity, was there, standing near me at the foot of Pop’s bed. She caressed his feet, which were spotted with purplish splotches. I just stared, marveling at the sudden downturn.
Then Chasity said, “Have you seen the book?”
It was a small, blue book, the size of a standard piece of copy paper folded in half. The outer cover was blue, and it was stapled down the center. Nondescript, almost laughably crude, but the title stopped me cold.
Gone From My Sight.
In roughly six brief pages this little book documented the signs of impending death. It gave a rough estimate of when each sign should appear, beginning six months out and going to as close as two to three days. It was as straightforward and earnest as an Amish tax audit; in plain language that wretched booklet told me just how close my grandfather is to death.
Two to three days, according to the symptoms. “But, the timing is different for every person. The information in this book is only intended as a guide.”
MawMaw and Pop. Wedding Day, 1949.
I left MawMaw and Pop’s saddened, confused, and thoroughly unprepared to go to a church service, let alone a church service in the place that has so much meaning and resonance for my family, and certainly not a church service in the very church behind which my grandfather will be laid to rest next to his oldest son. But I went.
I went because God told me to, and because there are places in everyone’s life that have meaning, however confusing and unclear that meaning may be. Touchstones, some people call them. I grew up hearing people call them something else, something much more poetic and mysterious and satisfying: ebenezers.
I first heard this term in a song, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, and as a child I thought it particularly odd that someone would wish to sing about the nasty old man from Dickens’ Christmas Carol. Turns out, it’s a reference to a biblical story found in 1 Samuel 7:23, where the prophet of God built an altar of stone as a way of remembering God’s provision during a battle with the Philistines. The word, a compound of two Hebrew words (even and hazaar) literally means “Stone of Help.”
This morning, drowning in the future, I sought help from one of the rocks of my childhood. It didn’t disappoint.
The church hasn’t changed much, if at all, in the seventeen years since I left it. The smell of freon, cool and sweet and very much like the summers of my youth, wafted up from the crawlspace air vents. The baptismal pool was still a 70’s green and backed by an acrylic mural of a running river; my eyes immediately went to the same spot they did when I was younger: a strange rock formation that looked like a partially submerged skull.
I took a seat on the back row of my childhood and let it wash over me.
The service was already in progress when I walked in, and Mr. Harvey, the same man who had led singing when I was a boy, was just setting his song book on the communion table. I closed my eyes and went back in time to those days when I would ride to the services with MawMaw and Pop, sit in between them, and listen to people much older than me talk about things that I either didn’t understand or would’ve been too embarrassed to say in public. I could smell MawMaw’s powder and Pop’s Old Spice. I could hear the tiny whine of the air coming up out of the vents, straining to beat back the Georgia summertime heat. I could hear the throats clearing, the peppermints being unwrapped, the distinct sound of a Church Hymnal as someone pulled it from the pew rack and it’s canvas hide zzzzzzzzzzzipped across the wood grain.
Suddenly, for a man whose world had been marching intolerably forward, I was caught up in a vision of beauty, a vision from another time. And I very much wanted to be there, where my grandfather was standing, tall and humble, still many years removed from a tiny hospice bed stationed in his front gathering room.
I came back to the service when Mrs. Edna stood and testified. Then Mrs. Rita. I think Mrs. Trish went next, and the theme was well-established: memories of back when. I walked backwards in time with these people from my childhood, recalling as best I could the faces and places that they mentioned. I felt at home in their memories, much more at home than I could’ve hoped for, and when Mrs. Myrtle stood up I was unprepared for how much at home I was going to be.
Pop's baptism, 1969. (I think.)
Mrs. Myrtle spoke of her own salvation and baptism in 1969, and how my grandfather got saved around the same time as her. She mentioned his deteriorating health and said that the church should pray for him, because he was a good man who had contributed much to the church when he was a member. I was grateful for her words.
Then, she told the story that opened the blog, about going to visit my grandfather while he was still in his health, about his gratitude for being able to simply be alive. She didn’t fill in the details as specifically as I did, but in my mind’s eye I could see him, sitting in his swing in the afternoon sun, chatting with old friends come by for a spell. My eyes swam.
Mr. Philip spoke next, and then the preacher, Mr. Terry. Once he sat down I knew it was my turn to speak, and I rose, my voice catching, my knees shaking, and I said the only thing that I could think of:
I said far more, but the gist of it all was my gratitude, for both my past and my present.
When I sat down, a young man only a few years older than me stood up and spoke from his heart. As he was concluding his testimony, he told the second story from the blog opening, about my grandparents’ persistence in the name of love and compassion. Then he sat down.
There are times in life when you don’t go looking for the very thing you need and it finds you anyway. Today, when my own memories only served as signposts for the inevitability of Pop’s death, other people gave me new memories to savor, memories from which I could draw strength. I am grateful.
Tonight, I went back over to MawMaw and Pop’s with my son. I’d forgotten to retrieve some pictures from my cousin after the church service, so Jon and I went back to get them.
When we came around the corner, the driveway was full of cars. My aunt’s. My mom’s. Four of my cousins’. I added mine and went inside with my son.
For almost an hour my family gathered around the kitchen, laughing about my cousin Meagan making the biscuits for dinner. Meagan is not, shall we say, overly domestic. But she and MawMaw walked through the biscuit making process from ingredients (flour, buttermilk, Crisco, and really, really clean hands) to oven rack, and dang if they weren’t fantastic. Standing there, eating hot biscuits (some of which people ruined with tomato slices) we were able to put aside the painful future and recapture a glimpse of our glorious past.
I didn’t want to leave. Part of me wanted to remain in the world of illusion, in the world of my past, where my family isn’t threatened by death or sadness or grief. And another part of me felt keenly that this moment, this beautiful moment in which the power of family transcended the immediacy and staggering power of death, might be our last such one. As soon as tomorrow, tonight could be our last family meal together. Who would ever want that to end?
Things will not get easier. Pop will not get better. What was is no longer; what is will only last just a little more. Soon, perhaps very soon, I’ll return to the little church where I grew up and my family will lower Pop’s body into its final resting place. I know exactly which plot it will be, right next to the granite marker for my late uncle Terry, gone from this world much too early in April 1976. MawMaw, whenever God decides, will one day rest next to Pop. And sometime after that my parents, and my aunts and uncles, and eventually myself. That is the way of all mankind.
For now, we hang on every breath of a dear and tired man, hoping for just a little bit longer with him, momentarily blinding ourselves to the truth that we are merely saying goodbye as long as we possibly can. For now, it is enough. We will continue to gather at Pop’s side and tell the old stories while also creating new ones because that’s what we do. We make memories while we are still able.
One day all I will have are those memories. Thank God they are good ones.