Category: circle of life


This weekend marked my maternal grandmother’s 97th birthday. Yes, 97. She looks like a spritely 75-year-old, is in excellent health, and until very recently could work circles around anyone half her age. I remember a few years ago when she was in the emergency room with an about-to-rupture gall bladder and the nurse asked her what medications she was currently taking. She said, ‘I don’t take anything’. The nurse turned to my mother and asked the same question, remarking that my grandmother didn’t hear or understand what she had asked. My grandmother, in excruciating pain, fired right back, “I heard you and I understood you. And I will tell you again, I don’t take any medication for anything.”

 My mother didn’t need to say a word.

 This weekend my family also celebrated my youngest son’s 10th birthday. Finally, double digits. My grandmother, his great-grandmother, “Memaw”, 87 years his senior.

 Although we don’t get to spend a tremendous amount of time together, my children adore their great-grandmother. And I’ve been thinking of a few things I hope they have learned from her, passed down generation to generation, reminding them of their roots and the legacy they’ve been given.

1. Family is everything. My earliest memories of my grandmother center around family gatherings. She and my Papa loved nothing more in the world than being surrounded by their children and grandchildren. They loved the churches my grandfather pastored and poured their hearts into the lives of its members, but nothing – and I mean nothing – brought them greater joy than having family around them.

2. Loyalty matters. My grandmother is fiercely loyal. She can correct, rebuke, and even punish a family member who gets out of line, but woe to the outsider who attempts to do the same. My Memaw is one of the sweetest, most gracious and forgiving Southern women you could ever hope to meet. Until you say something unkind about one of her own. Then I would suggest you head for the hills. Fast.

3. Growth is important. My grandmother was a teacher for most of her adult life using a teaching degree she earned in 1934. And at the age of 50, she received her Bachelor of Science degree in Education fromBerryCollege. Yes, going back to college was difficult. Yes, it took time, and energy, and commitment. But she did it. She also learned to drive. And for the record, she was a better student than she was a driver. The roots of my “Lead Foot Lucy” nickname can be traced straight back to her!

4. Change is inevitable. My grandfather was a pastor. Not at one church. Not at two or three churches. In his 57 years as a pastor, my Papa shepherded seven church congregations spread out over three states. My grandmother always made it an adventure, a calling, an opportunity. And she always made it home. No muss, no fuss. Just set up house, share the (one) bathroom, gather the family around the table for a home-cooked meal, and say the blessing. Make friends, embrace change, celebrate birthdays, holidays, and babies, and be grateful for the pillow on which you lay your head at night.

5. Marriage is forever. My grandparents were married for almost 60 years. When my Papa, her beloved Charles, was dying of cancer she was his advocate, his caretaker, his nurse, his meal planner, his gentle bath-giver, his prayer warrior. She was strong as he grew weaker, and she bravely held his hand as he left his earthly body to embrace immortality. Memaw taught us how to grieve loss and celebrate life in the same breath. She cried and she laughed and she hugged long and hard those who shared her grief. And she has faced head-on the years without him, sadly at times, accepting that it is not yet her time to be reunited with him. When it was suggested at one time that she consider re-marrying, she looked away and softly said, “it’s not for me; Charles was my one and only.”

6. The Bible is true. I don’t know how many times my Memaw has read through the Bible but she can teach it as if she wrote it herself! (No disrespect intended.) When she talks about her favorite passages or verses in the Bible, they truly come to life. Her love for God’s word is the foundation and cornerstone of her existence. And anyone who has ever met her knows that to be true about her. She doesn’t preach the Bible to those around her. She doesn’t have to because she lives it every single day.

7. Prayer works. My Memaw has spent hundreds, probably thousands, of hours throughout her life praying for her family, her friends, her community, her country, and the world. When she awakens during the night, instead of getting a warm glass of milk and going back to sleep, she gets on her knees and prays for whoever is on her heart and mind. And she stays there until she feels a peace about climbing back under the covers. I’ve heard her tell of many a night when she prayed right on through the night until it was time to start the day’s work. My life is living proof that her prayers were heard and answered.

8. Eternity is forever. I can’t remember a time (almost ever) when my grandmother hasn’t reminded us all that she wants nothing more in the world than for her family to be together. Forever. Eternally. She reminds us all how important it is for us to stay in right relationship with God, to love Him above all else, and to be obedient to His leading. Through teary eyes and strained voice she pleads with us all to be sure, be absolutely sure, that we know where we will spend eternity. And then she smiles that sweet little smile, cocks her head and whispers, “I love you all so much.”

 Happy birthday, Memaw. Happy birthday, Stephen. As I find myself standing between the young and old, it occurs to me that the distance between 10 and 97 is not really very far. Not when it’s measured with love.

Dawn asked me to write a guest post for Father’s Day about three seconds after I asked her to write her guest post for my blog. Being her friend, and always looking for a chance to add a writing credit, I quickly agreed.
Then I started thinking about what to write.
Should I be funny? Should I be heartfelt? What could be written about fatherhood that hadn’t been written before?
Then my grandfather got sick.
The past couple of weeks my dad’s side of the family has been on high alert over my Pop Harold. He went into the hospital with trouble breathing, only to find out he had congestive heart failure and a heart rate just this side of deadly. The docs were able to get the fluid off his heart, but they weren’t able to isolate the cause of his heart racing, so that meant an extended stay in the critical care wing. Turns out it was a tiny valve malfunction and a blocked artery. They gave him medicine and sent him home on Tuesday.
They don’t expect him to ever really recover. We’ve brought in hospice to help out.
Being on the verge of losing my Pop Harold made think about the three main fatherly influence in my life, and I realized: if pedigree were all that mattered, I would be the world’s greatest dad.
Between my father, Rickey, and my two Pops – Pop Harold (my dad’s dad) and Pop Emmette (my mom’s dad) – I have the kind of patriarchal lineage one only finds when reading Biblical genealogies. Those three men represent the finest collection of fatherly wisdom ever assembled – a Daddy Dream Team – and it is my privilege to call myself their son.
I lost Pop Emmette eight years ago this August. I remember the day he died, how I stood over his body in a tiny ER alcove while the world went to hell around me. Doctors and nurses were rushing by outside the curtain that was supposed to give us privacy, and it was a weird juxtaposition to my feeling as if the world had suddenly stood still. Pop’s body seemed half its size; without his soul to fill it, the skin just sagged.
I spoke at his funeral. I told stories that he had told me, stories that were inappropriate for a funeral because they were designed to make people laugh their butts off. I think I may be the only preacher in the world who intentionally turned his grandfather’s funeral into a stand up routine and had the audience roaring with laughter despite themselves. I remember thinking, in that moment, how much of a gift Pop had given me through his stories. How much of me was bound up in him.
Now, with Pop Harold at home but simply waiting to pass on, I find myself planning to speak at another funeral. This one will be different, however. Not because Pop Harold wasn’t a funny man – he certainly could be – but more because Pop Harold’s life has been more of a mystery to me. Perhaps it’s because I was too enraptured in Emmette’s stories to ever ask Harold for his, or maybe it’s because Pop Harold never wanted to share his stories like Emmette did, but whichever it was, I don’t know nearly as much about Pop Harold as I did Pop Emmette.
But what I’ve learned is different. Not better, necessarily, but different. It’s like having silk in one hand and Egyptian cotton in the other – the texture is soft and wonderful for each, but for entirely different reasons.
Pop Harold has shown me the challenge and majesty of aging. That when people seem to have outlived their usefulness, they still have purpose: to teach those around them about the power and necessity of love and family. Pop’s life has become one final lesson from the Good Book – something he spent years studying – and it’s a lesson that we have learned fitfully, painfully even, but one we’ve learned well. When he is gone, there will be no laughter. There will be tears and plenty of them because such is the depth of our love.
And through all of this has been my own father, Dad, as I call him. In some ways we are polar opposites – he’s quiet, good with money, not artistic in the least – and in other ways we are almost carbon copies of each other. I look in the mirror and see where my hair is going gray in the same places his did, at the same age. I see his brown eyes looking back at me through my glasses. Our hair even parts on the same side (when I part mine).
We’ve never been talkers, the kind of father-son duo that can sit up late into the night swapping stories and telling tales. When we do talk, it’s usually to-the-point conversations, even when we’re just shooting the breeze. I’ve never thought it odd or abnormal because what my father says is so packed with wisdom and meaning that it simply doesn’t take more words than he uses.
Unlike me. I can take more words than three people need. But that’s just what makes him so interesting to me. It’s part of why I respect him.
He leads by quiet example, almost by sheer force. Not as a bully forces, mind you; more like Gregory Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird. When my father sets a course of action, his integrity almost compels other people to choose that same course. This explains how he was able to become a vice-president in a major bank without his college degree: he learned everything he could, choose what was right, and got others to do the same.
And then there’s me.
I’m a father now – my daughter, Ella, is 5 and my son, Jonathan, is 2 – and one would think that given the examples I’ve had, I’d be a flawless father.
I’m not.
But even as I make major mistakes, I’m learning that perfection is not required of a father. Nothing astounds me more than when I screw up and my kids look past it. Not in a “we’ll remember this later and use it against you” way, but in a genuinely forgiving way. The more I am with my children, the more I begin to understand things like grace and love and mercy – not just from me to them, but from them to me. I can look into their eyes and see how much they truly love me, not because I’m perfect but because I’m daddy.
That’s a lesson that no one but your kids can teach you. And it’s the best lesson in the world.
Happy Father’s Day to all of you fathers out there, wherever you are.

This morning while washing the late-night edition of yesterday’s dishes I was looking out the window above my kitchen sink. The view is not particularly inspiring.  There are shapeless, overgrown holly bushes on either side of the window and a little ‘V’-shaped island a few feet away which separates our yard from the neighbor’s.  As much as I love to garden, I’ve failed miserably at creating anything of beauty in this particular area of our yard.  The sun plants don’t get enough sun and the shade plants don’t get enough shade. Hmmmm.  However, in spite of all my digging, planting, killing, digging, planting, and killing, there is one small hosta plant that seems to make its way up out of the ground about this time every year. 

As I looked up from my soapy water I noticed a fat little chipmunk making its way across the railroad tie border into the island.  He moved so fast and was so dark brown that I almost had trouble keeping up with him.  Mr. Chipmunk darted around in no apparent pattern stopping here and there to sniff or dig through the mulch, raising his head every few seconds to watch for predators.  He would then scurry back across the railroad ties and disappear; I assume he has made his home somewhere behind or under the railroad ties.  This pattern continued for several minutes.  I was quite amused and thankful for the mental vacation as I neared the end of the dish pile.  Then I looked just beyond the island to see a large gray fur ball making its way toward the island.  You guessed it, a cat was headed straight for that railroad tie wall.  Well, I was hooked now!  National Geographic’s got nothin’ on what was about to happen outside my window.

With amazing premeditation, Miss Kitty stepped gingerly into the island and settled herself on the high side of my stubborn little hosta plant.  Tail curled up and still as a statue, she waited.  And I stood frozen at the window, willing that little chipmunk not to stick its head out.  In hindsight I should have just bumped my fist against the window and scared her away but for some reason I just stood there watching.  Waiting.  Just like Miss Kitty.

Well, you guessed it.  Mr. Chipmunk stepped out, climbed up on that railroad tie wall and wham! It was all over.  In one graceful, quick-as-lightning moment, Miss Kitty caught her brunch.  I felt sorry for the chipmunk but in awe of the cat.  I know, I know, survival of the fittest and all.  But it somehow seemed unfair that Miss Kitty had a huge advantage to be able to use my hosta plant as stealth cover!  She sauntered off to enjoy the fruit (or meat) of her kill and I let my hands – which had a death grip on the edge of the sink – fall to my side.

Am I worried about the family Mr. Chipmunk left behind?  A little.  Am I impressed with the instinct, speed, and agility of Miss Kitty?  You bet.  I know in theory that it is the ‘circle of life’ and that some animals have to die for others to live. Nature at its honest-authentic-and-real best.  How strange that the “ewww” and the “ahhhh” can co-exist in my brain, in nature, and in life. 

It is indeed life in all of its (sometimes) miserable glory.

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