Thursday, January 02, 2014

What a family does. {Part One.}

... We realize Christ's presence in the faces of these people God has given us as kin. And these unchosen ones are also your future. Through the years we all will be together. Of that we can be certain; God has ordained it to be this way for us... I will be at your funeral; you will come to the hospital when I am critically ill... I carry your name; I will be the executor of your will; I favor you in ways people notice... You'll stand near my grave. 

We really will be together - and so we might as well be patient, and tender, and love as best we can. And when we do, there is room for Christ to come. 
- Rev. Dr. James C. Howell 


It is Saturday. Two weeks ago, my 86-year-old grandfather suffered a stroke. Today, he is spending his first full day in hospice care.

My current plan is to drive the 250 miles home next weekend and see him then. After all, he may linger for days or weeks, and this upcoming week is my busiest of the year at work. Next weekend it will be the Christmas holiday, and I can be with him as much as possible. My brain approves of this plan.  

But this morning, my brother and cousins start texting. Leaving after work... Coming in this afternoon... Heading out now... From scattered points on the map, they are all driving towards Atlanta to see him. My stomach starts to twist. My pulse goes double time. And I know that I can't stay.

I glance out the window at the rain. Don't go, it says, gathering strength.

I look at my fiancé across the room. "You should go," he says, eyes sure.

I cancel my lunch date, pack a bag, kiss my love, call my parents, fill up on gas, hit the slick lanes of I-85.

It's good to remind myself that I can be brave. That my soul can calm the fear of pounding rain and whooshing wipers. That my heart can push my brain out of the way.

I barely notice the fizz and steam of perpetual 18-wheeler fog. I simply drive. Home.


My cousin walks down the hospice center hallway to greet us. Her lovely round face looks tired, her bright eyes a little less bright. We give her hugs, ask, "How are you?"

She shrugs and sighs. "Sad," she says.

She is nine years old. She tells it like it is.


His room is lovely, lamplit, with flowers on the table and a few photos that my grandmother brought from home. One shows him in a raincoat and waders, proudly holding up two fish as long and thick as his own arms. Glass doors show the way out to a private terrace; if it were springtime, we could wheel his bed out so he could hear the birds.

I go to my grandmother, hug her. Then I come into his line of sight, and his good hand jerks to grab mine. (Hey, Pop Pop! Hey, Claire Claire!) He can't speak, can't swallow, but he knows me, it's clear. His half-open eyes still sparkle. I switch places with my aunt to sit down by his bed. I hold onto his hand. He squeezes.

His room is full, full of us, people he and my grandmother created, and their people, and all of us are his. Not simply thanks to genetic or marital claim, but thanks to who he is. He is stubborn, playful, funny, God fashioned his bones from laughter and wit. He is faithful and generous, God made his hands for giving, for holding, for helping.

God gave him to us, and now we must slowly begin to learn how to give him back.


We surround his bed and sing old hymns, the ones he grew up on and then sang to his daughter, my aunt, at night. We sing songs from the '30s and '40s, and songs we used to sing on beach vacations. I went to the animal fair, the birds and the beasts were there, the big baboon by the light of the moon was combing his auburn hair... It feels good to do something, to be loud, immersed in voices I have known since birth. But it's strange, he's right here, he should be joining us on the bass line. There's an emptiness without his low murmur. And yet a couple of times his left hand waves up, down, up, down, conducting his family, his songs of faith, his life's work.

He drifts back into sleep, and we begin to drift out into the dark and cold. My father gently combs his still-brown hair into its regular style. We kiss his forehead and adjust his sheets, whisper that we'll be back tomorrow. We put on a CD of soothing hymns. Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling... My aunt and I, the last two in the room, hold each other and try to sing along. See, on the portals, he's waiting and watching... We look down at him, the man who has filled our lives with music in so many ways. We hear the wheeze of the oxygen tubes in his nose.

Just two weeks ago he marveled at her Thanksgiving carrot cake and ate like a horse, full of his usual banter. He slipped me a twenty and jokingly requested an expense report. I spent it on Thor tickets. I'd trade it for even one more joke.

Come home, come home; you who are weary, come home...

Our voices fade, but the music continues to play.


It is Sunday. The church gleams with Advent, but I can't seem to get through the joyous hymns without tears, without him singing along.

He comes with succor speedy to those who suffer wrong;
to help the poor and needy, and bid the weak be strong;
to give them songs for sighing, their darkness turn to light,
whose souls, condemned and dying, are precious in his sight.

Do I cry because I doubt the words? Because I sense their hope? Or because I know that even believing with my whole heart cannot keep him here with us?

Read Part Two here.

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