I got the call late at night that Grandpa George had died. He had lived a hard life. He didn’t have the opportunity to get a good education. He was only 11 when his mother died and he had to quit school to help in the fields and to help care for the other children. He worked hard to get by and managed to scrape together a living. He met a woman – Maize – at the tomato factory where he worked. She says he was throwing tomatoes at her, so she knew he liked her. They were married in less than 3 months. They stayed together “until death did they part” almost 60 years later.
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I drove alongside the cemetery in a rented Ford Focus, admiring the tombstones in the early morning sun. My mind wandered to Grandpa’s last days. He was able to die at home, thanks to Hospice and the care of family, especially his son Geoff (since Grandma was limited in what she could do). Geoff fed him when he was hungry, bathed him to keep him clean, and sought to bring comfort to this man who had rarely tried to comfort others.
Grandpa George had not lived a perfect life, perhaps not even a good one. He was quick to become angry and had been accused of being abusive. He was known to challenge his supervisors to fights. He bullied Grandma and Geoff, who could never seem to please him. He certainly had skills – building his house from the ground up. He could be generous with his time, helping neighbors with necessary fix-up projects. Yet he had a temper that could flare up at the least misunderstanding.
But he could also be playful and gentle with children, rocking them on his knees or playing “Peep – Eye” (his version of “peek-a-boo”). He had pet names for all the grandchildren which were both endearing and practical (as I’m not sure he could remember what our real names were).
I thought of his faith. He went to church regularly for most of his married life. He drove the church bus and took great pride in rounding up children from homes where the parents were just happy to have them off their hands for a few hours. He had a simple faith: child-like even. I wondered if it brought him peace and comfort especially in his last days.
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The sun was full in the sky as I pulled onto the gravel road that led to family plot. I looked at the simple white crosses to the side – the graves of soldiers who died before they could marry, have children, and raise a family. I saw the graves of infants, who escaped suffering as well as joy in their lives. I said a prayer of thanksgiving for the life my Grandpa George got to live, the good and the bad, and prayed that he might be received into a new and better life to come. Later that day, driving the rental Ford Focus back to the airport, I looked out on the Wabash river and I smiled. They say when you die you go “home to God”. I have this hope for Grandpa. At least, I am glad that he was home when he died. I’m glad he got a little taste of heaven before he died.
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(To hear a very nice cover of John Prine’s “He Was In Heaven Before He Died”, click here)