Monday, July 21, 2003

My grandfather died last week. The peaceful circumstances of his death undermine my protests over his absence. He woke up last Wednesday as usual, had breakfast with my grandma before she went to work, lay down on the couch for his morning nap, pulled the blanket over his chest, and never woke up. He was mostly homebound the last few years, spending his days reading, reflecting, pausing to listen to the quietness--no doubt treasuring the peace at times, no doubt exasperated at others with the lack of sound around him. I spend much of my time these days the same way--though I am in a downtown apartment and he was in a sleepy condominium community, I have the climactic chapters of my life ahead of me while his were behind him--and I wonder what went through his mind all those hours, what memories drew a smile on his face while he sat, what regrets pricked him in the side, how much the silence soothed him and how much the loneliness was intolerable (while leaving no option but to tolerate it). He wanted to go back to Iowa, where he was born, one last time, and that's what he did with my grandma this month for a family reunion. So there were no glaringly blank pages of his life waiting to be filled, it seemed, save for the milestones of his 80th birthday (in October) and 55th wedding anniversary next month. I'm grateful that he attended my wedding and visited us here in Chicago a couple of times, and took a special interest in the start of what appears to be my writing career. I believe it to be no accident that, with his love of reading and of words, this son of a self-educated farmer-scholar was himself the father of a seminary professor and grandfather of a journalist. One of my least forgettable childhood memories is the sound of his voice as he read to me--its cadence, modulation, and reverence. He also taught me to play checkers, chess, and golf--the latter of which I would not have inherited from my father and will be a lifelong passion.

But while his departure does not, mercifully, release a flood of regrets, his absence still sticks like a pin. He is possibly the most gentle and gracious man I have ever known well, and it seems unjust for that to end. Grandpa was one of those teachers who didn't teach people what to know as effectively as he taught how to be, how to carry yourself, how to treat people. He carried himself with dignity and self-assurance without a single ounce of superiority or sanctimony. He was a missionary (to Africa) who shared his faith without pomposity, without oratory. We tried this past weekend to remember him saying something harsh about anyone at all--at funerals, it can be healthy to acknowledge someone's faults or less flattering moments--and we couldn't do it. One colleague scrounged up the memory of the time a particularly unruly student caused my grandpa to shove open the window and fling the contents of his coffee mug toward the trees. That was about it. It's ironic that he died of a weak heart; his entire life was evidence to the contrary.

Grandpa's death--this paradox of peace and injustice--reminds me why I believe in life after death, in the resurrection of the body through Christ. Eternity, as I've been guided to see, is implicit in the present: the love--for people, for God, for his creation--we come to know in this life is stronger than death, and thus must logically continue in perpetuity. As so the interruption of my grandpa's life last week is not the destruction of a person, because it would be impossible to destroy who he was, how he was, how deeply he knew God. His fellowship with God was unstoppable, irreversible, inevitable. It continues now, in between the already and the not yet, and will be complete when death is finally evicted from the created order. With love and gratitude for his life, I dedicate the words Grandpa wrote about his father, over twenty years ago, to him: "He combined a warm piety with a kingdom vision that was remarkable. ... He saw God's world as just that. ...[His] life [was] one whose experiences were one continuous demonstration of how the Lord can use gifts that are His in the first place, not to be hoarded, but to be used, not to glory in, but to give Him all the glory."

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