The sun is not shining as I walk from my apartment to the metro station. The bright mornings of early autumn have given way the dim grayness of November. The brisk morning air, so invigorating just last week, has grown icy cold fingers that reach through clothing and touch me with an uncomfortable chill. The birds are leaving. The trees are shedding their beauty, preparing for the long sleep of winter.
My memory goes back to the family gathering from which I have just returned. Aunts, Uncles, Cousins, Second Cousins, Sisters, Parents. A rowdy crowd, packed into a small house, laughing, singing, eating, telling stories. It’s difficult to imagine that such a gathering could feel empty given the amount of genuine love we have for one another, but this one did. My grandfather was not there. He had taken his leave of this world a few days earlier, and we had come together from all over the world to say a final farewell. His chair sat, and sits, right where it always had. The paper nearby. The reading lamp ready. It looks for all the world like he has gotten up simply to walk into the next room. All weekend long I found myself expecting him to come around the corner, perhaps suggesting that we eat a bowl of ice cream, probably singing a jolly song. But he never returned to the room.
We spent these days hearing and telling stories about him, at the funeral, during the visitation, and in quiet family conversations. He was a good man who lived a good life. He served faithfully whenever the call came, even when it wasn’t glamorous. During the Second World War he was called to serve, but this call did not send him to the front. He performed the thankless (yet important) bureaucratic task of filling out reports in an office on a base in North Carolina. After the war, and after many hours in college and seminary spent studying the words of Jesus, he with his wife (my Grandmother) and infant son (my Dad) boarded a ship for a country that many people at the time may not have been able to easily find on a map. They went to Pakistan because they took seriously the charge given by Christ to go to the ends of the earth and make disciples. They served faithfully and humbly for 35 years, distant from family, facing physical, emotional, and spiritual challenges, and forgoing earthly riches (the book is available here. It’s a great read).
They returned to the U.S., continued to be active in lots of ministries, and spent a lot of time loving their kids and grand kids. Their nuclear family has given the world pastors, professors, medical professionals, aid-workers, writers, poets, musicians (amateur as well as professional), entrepreneurs, and artists. It is a hard-working, humble, optimistic, and passionate group of people who make the world brighter, and who love their kids and nieces and nephews with a love that has been deeply influenced by the devotion that my grandparents gave to their kids and grand kids. Through their humble faithfulness to callings both big and small my grandparents have constructed the foundation of a truly remarkable building.
My grandfather died at home, after many months of illness, and after having recently spent time with each of his children, and having just met two of his youngest great grand children in recent weeks. We believe, as he did, that death is a door, and that he has passed through that door into the loving arms of Jesus. We look forward to seeing him again when the time comes.
These are just some the pieces of the story that we have heard repeated over and over again in different ways over the past week, and that we celebrated. We laughed almost as much as we cried. We celebrated even as we mourned.
And yet, I still feel sad. The sky remains gray. Because, as good a life as my grandfather lived, and even though his impact will continue to echo through the years, and as much as I truly do believe in eternal life, he is still gone. I won’t see him smile as I tell him stories about my latest overseas adventure. He won’t tell me any more stories about his adventures. I won’t hear him sing about the old family toothbrush, or tell me how “Fuzzy-Wuzzy was a bear” (Fuzzy-Wuzzy had no hair. Fuzzy-Wuzzy wasn’t fuzzy, was he?). He won’t meet my daughter, or be someone who my son remembers. And that hurts like the dickens.
Christianity teaches me that death will not have the final word. But death still hurts terribly, both for those who experience its approach and for those who remain in its wake. It’s an awful thing. So we need not dismiss the pain by saying that death is inevitable so we shouldn’t be upset by it, or by claiming that the reality of eternal life somehow takes the sting away. Death hurts, and sometimes there is nothing to do but look up at the gray sky that reflects our mood and let the tears flow.
And how do we go forward? How do we keep getting up in the morning in the face of so much inevitable pain and loss? My Uncle Stan shared during the funeral that as a young man at boarding school he had faced some challenges. He wrote about it to my grandpa, who replied to Stan with words of encouragement, advising him to stick it out and not become discouraged. To faithfully stay the course, doing what he knew to be right. My grandpa knew a thing or two about faithfully staying the course. So for today, and tomorrow, I will stay the course as well, continuing to put one foot in front of the other, and doing so with a song on my lips and a joke at the ready.
And it just so happens that Grampa left us with a poem that is perfect encouragement on days that are hard to face. Many thanks to my dear sister Melanie for reminding me of it earlier this week. In my mind I will always hear it in my Grandpa’s voice, and I now share it with you:
It Couldn’t Be Done
By Edgar Albert Guest