I’m not afraid of dying, I’m afraid of living. – Jack Dodson
My grandfather had SO many sayings, but this one has always stuck with me. His message was simple: he wanted to be living life – like really living it – until the very end.
Looks like he got his wish.
Last Thursday, I was on my way to the dentist office. The kids were holding down the fort at home and I had just finished loving on my parents a couple hours before. So, when my mom called, I thought it was odd. Because I was driving, I let it go to voicemail, thinking I could call her back in a few minutes. Then, the text message.
Call me. Emergency.
I squealed into the parking lot and frantically dialed my mom’s number.
Then the words I was never prepared to hear. “Papa died this morning.”
Y’all. Two weeks ago, we were rocked with news from people who are close to us. As in, I’ve spent the last 14 days crying/sobbing at the injustice, pain and horror of it all. Then, the final dagger with my grandfather’s unexpected passing. It was more than I could bear. I doubled over and sobbed in that parking lot for a good 20 minutes. It was crushing.
We delivered the news to the kids – horribly painful – and then Scott looked at me and said, “Go to the chapel.” And so I did. For nearly 45 minutes I sobbed in the Sister’s convent chapel. They prayed over and with me, handed me tissues and hugged me until I couldn’t cry anymore. And all this on Holy Thursday. For a tiny moment, I had a glimpse of Mary’s pain and how much she must’ve been comforted by the promise of the resurrection.
But I don’t really want this post to be remembered for my pain or my suffering, but about the legacy of my grandfather. He was born on the farm in Perryton, Texas (that’s the tippy top right-hand corner of the state), got shipped off to WWII and flew an impressive 35 missions on a B-17 as a tailgunner. To put that into perspective, the average tail gunner flew 8 mission and had a 75% mortality rate. My grandfather is a walking miracle. And a handsome one at that (top row, second from right).
He came home, started college at Texas Tech and just before graduation, quit and began his own homebuilding business, The House That Jack Built. For the next 50 years, he was involved in some aspect of construction. He was the handiest, most creative woodworker I ever met. He could build and engineer anything.
He married my grandmother, and while their marriage wasn’t perfect, they produced two great kids, one of which is my mom. He remarried my step-grandmother, Mimi, in the late 1980s and after her death in 1999, he remarried a few years later to Great Betty and they lived a beautiful life until she passed away last April.
No person is perfect. No life is perfect. But as we gathered for his funeral and burial in the Texas panhandle over the Easter weekend, I was reminded how life experience has a way of refining us. We all swore my grandfather started looking younger, not older, as he aged. He was active, playing bridge, dancing, cooking, gardening and enjoying coffee with friends. At age 91, he was living on his own without oxygen, without a walker and just a handful of medicine. He had found joy and was always a treasure to be around.
He was living. Really, really living.
His calendar above his desk bore the dates of all the great-grandkid’s birthdays. He never missed calling a one. He was here for sports games and baptisms, family holidays and just because. As I look back on my time with him, I bear no regrets. There wasn’t a single “I love you” I forgot to say, a conversation we didn’t have or a hug we didn’t share. We always want more time with the people we love. There’s never enough. But I know I lived all the moments we did have with big love. I can’t ask more than that.
On Valentine’s Day this year, he traveled here to be with family. During dinner, he leaned over, with tears in his eyes, and said, “I sure do miss Betty.” And I squeezed his hand, hugged him and told him I was honored to be his Valentine date. That was the last time I saw him. Doesn’t God write the most beautiful love stories?
Today, I was scrolling through my voicemails and I found a birthday message he’d left for one of the kids. I had forgotten to delete it. I listened to it three times and cried harder with each “I love you” ending.
I can still hear him saying, “Well, hello! Is this my Kathryn?” when I’d call. I can still feel his big arms hug me tight and not let me go. I can still see his beautiful blue eyes twinkle as we’d open the door to welcome him in.
When you love big, it hurts big.
The day before his funeral, I was feeling anxious. Just unsettled, I think. Then, the pain started in my abdomen and Scott and I thought it best that I visit urgent care. It was posing as some classic signs of appendicitis. As we hopped in the van, we stopped for a Dr Pepper and I got a text from the funeral home. They had a question about the photos I’d sent. On a whim, I asked if they were still open. Just 30 more minutes, they replied. Scott and I looked at one another and decided to stop there first. We walked into that room and I saw him lying there in the casket, and the tears began to flow. Scott and I knelt before him and prayed a decade of the rosary. As soon as the first “Hail Mary” escaped my lips, my abdomen pain vanished and never returned.
That ten minutes brought me the peace and closure I was desperately seeking. As I stood beside him and whispered one last “I love you” I felt so much love for a man that had lived such a beautifully hard life. It wasn’t without heartache or suffering, yet he found the joy in it all.
What a tremendous gift it was to be his granddaughter. See you in paradise, Papa.