While He Lay Dying…

23 Jul

He looked pitiful, lying there in a hospital gown, his face colorless and sunken from the removal of his teeth. The room was darkened, the curtain half drawn in an attempt to offer some sense of privacy. But when you’re staring at your grandfather’s body in the middle of a crowded emergency room, hurting from the pain of your heart exploding, you don’t need a curtain to feel alone.

You just are.

His hair was matted and slightly out of place for him, the result of paramedics placing oxygen masks and other assorted life-saving torture devices over his face. His eyes were closed, skin graying by the minute. When I arrived at the emergency room to a seating area full of crying relatives, I braced myself for the worst. It didn’t matter. This man, this titan of my youth, now seemed what he was – a frail and sick man whose heart had been slowly dying for years. The cubbie hole that the doctor’s had stuck him in only added to the illusion that he was fading away before my eyes.

I don’t remember what all I said to him. I just know that I spoke from the heart. There was so much to say, so much to praise him for, to share with him, and in the end that the words fell on unhearing ears didn’t matter. I wasn’t speaking to his ears. I was speaking to his heart – as he had spoken to mine countless times over the course of my life. I leaned over and kissed his forehead, a habit I had developed over the last couple of years as a way of preventing him from trying to stand up and hug me. Standing was too hard for him, so I just leaned over and kissed his forehead. He knew it was to prevent him embarrassment, and so did everyone else in the room, but he didn’t care. He’d tell me he loved me and that I needed come back soon.

Standing there for the four or five minutes I had alone with him I could hear the stories he told me, things that he had passed on to me – not because I was special, but because I was the only one who had loved to listen. Jokes, humorous anecdotes from his childhood, stories about my mom and her brother and sister. Stories about baseball games played, regrets long held and a heart too big to hold the love and pain and years of physical abuse.

He smoked like a freight train for years – started when he was just 12 – and kept on smoking until after the second or third heart attack when the doctor told him, “Quit, or I’m not saving your life anymore. If you don’t care to save yourself, I ain’t wasting my time.” He let go of a 50 year addiction overnight.

So many things about him stood out. Even when he got sick and couldn’t work anymore, he sat on the carport watching cars go by, waiting for an opportunity to get out and into the daily grind. He used to count the cars as they passed, and one of his favorite games was for him to count the red ones and me to count the blue ones. The person who counted the most cars in an hour won. There was no prize, and it took me quite a while to realize that it was a trick to keep me quiet and still for an hour.

He swore he was the only one who could grill chicken correctly. No boneless breasts for him – he liked grilling half chickens, bone-in, slow over coals. He wouldn’t even let anyone else turn the danged things. Only him.

He made his wife sort his daily pill regimen for him. Said he couldn’t keep them straight in his mind. The truth is, he liked being doted on, and she liked doting on him. He had two pill boxes, each with seven compartments, every compartment filled. One was for his morning pills. The other for his evening ones. He used to grumble about taking more pills than a “hippie rock star.” Sometimes, he would pretend that he wasn’t taking them, acting as if he threw them across the room. But he knew that without those pills, he couldn’t survive.

He wore hats. Always wore hats, unless he was going to church or to the doctor. His favorite kind of hats were baseball hats, and he usually rotated between an Atlanta Braves hat and a University of Georgia hat. When it came time to select where I would go to college, there was only one choice in his mind – UGA. I graduated from there with a degree in English, something that he was irrepressibly proud of.

He was a car trader, carpenter, leather worker, farmer, and all-around Jack-of-all-trades. He tried to teach some of his skill and know-how to me, hiring me to be his assistant one summer when he had a lot of carpentry work to do. I went gamely along, eager to spend time with him, learn a little bit, and mainly make some under the table tax-free cash. On the second day, I forget what I was doing but I was sucking at it miserably, and he walked over, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Son, go to college. Because if you have to do this for a living, you’ll sure as hell starve to death.”

I stood there in that tiny room staring at the shrinking body of what had been one of the most imposing figures in my life. I kissed his forehead. I said my goodbyes. I made my peace with the fact that he was gone, that I’d never hear his voice, or sit with him on the carport, or eat at the kitchen table with him ever again. And two days later, I stood and preached his funeral. I told many of the stories he’d told me, making the hundreds of people in attendance cry and laugh at the same time. And I realized that he had given me a lot of what makes me who I am.

Today, for some reason, I can’t stop thinking about that sweet man, lying there in that hospital room, gone from my life without ever knowing his great-granddaughter, or any of the other wonderful things that have happened in the five years since his passing. I can’t stop thinking about him, and I can’t hold back the tears, but I can’t stop smiling either.

I miss you, Pop. Five years you’ve been gone, but it seems like forever. You would have loved Ella – she is just your style. I’ll stop by and say hello again when I get a chance, but I hope that you liked the flag that Ella and I put on your grave Memorial Day weekend. She stood on your headstone, pointed at it and asked, “Pop?”

I leaned over and kissed her forehead, much the same as I used to do to you, and said, “Yes. Pop.”

She smiled then said, “Bye-bye, Pop.”

And today, for the umpteenth time in the last five years, I say it again – knowing that I am one day closer to seeing you again.

For Pop Emmette.

For Pop Emmette.

6 Responses to “While He Lay Dying…”

  1. Eric July 23, 2008 at 11:09 am #

    Beautiful. Just beautiful.

  2. Kristi July 26, 2008 at 12:27 am #

    You had me crying like a baby before I was through the first paragraph. Pop Emmette would be so proud and I am sure he would have some joke to tell. He was such a special man and a joy to be around. I was just talking about him the other day. I will never forget that time we went to the Braves game when we were little and he laughed at me because I told him that “girls don’t fart.” Yes, Ella is just his style.

  3. Mom July 28, 2008 at 4:50 pm #

    I was crying, laughing, reading all at the same time. What a beautiful story and the best part is I know it was true. You had him pegged in every aspect. I miss him so much – more now than ever before. The older I get, the more I miss him. I miss his laugh, his smile, his sense of humor, showing up just to see you and Ryan on a whim, coming to watch the Dawgs with us on the big screen, I miss him telling me whatever I cooked was the best he had EVER had, “Whew, daughter, you just get better and better”, I just MISS him every day. It’s hard for me to visit his grave, I wish it wasn’t. I choose to just talk to him like he was sitting beside me. I would LOVE to see him with Ella. She is definitely just his style. I like to believe that he is playing with Ruthie and enjoying her. Couldn’t you just see him meet her with a huge smile on his face? I could only hope to be half the parent and grandparent he was. He was the best ever, hands down. This is a beautiful tribute, Jason, he would be so proud of you, as am I. Love you, son.

  4. Kristi July 29, 2008 at 2:38 pm #

    Oh, wow. . . another Kleenex break for Kristi! (I haven’t had my fix yet today.)

  5. Julie December 29, 2009 at 3:48 am #

    Your story touched me like no other. Granddads are so special in our lives. We buried my grandfather last sunday. He passed away Wed. night, I was holding his hand. I can’t help but think about him all the time. His life then his death. Its just hard to believe that he is really gone. We had great time, he lived on a farm, my dad, uncle and I showded cattle years ago. It was just life and I miss it so now. I also have a son that papa really did’t get to know. I am sorry for your lose, but tonight your story has helped me.

    • Jason December 29, 2009 at 2:21 pm #

      Julie – I’m sorry for your loss, but grateful to be able to help you in some small way. Blessings to you as you grieve.


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