My grandfather died. In an hour and a half I'll be donning my pretty black dress for the funeral. In honor of my granddad, I southern belled my hair.
I'm not really all that upset. I mean, it's sad. Really sad. Particularly because he wasn't a Christian. But I think I am prepared for this. Not that it's about me.
Ever since I met Jesus (at the age of eight, I think) I've been waiting for this. I've cried many times for the soul of my grandfather and for my own cowardice in not trying harder to introduce him to the God I love. I've pictured hell and I've pictured my sweet grandfather in it and the images have haunted my childhood.
So now he is gone. And three things remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.
I have faith that all things work for the good and glory of God. I have hope that my grandfather may have been redeemed. Most of all, I am consumed by love. Love for Jesus who makes sense of madness and love for my grandfather, the great intimidating cliff from which I hung, clinging fast to my Christ-rope.
My grandfather was a wonderful man in many ways. He was a faithful husband for over sixty years and he was a good father and grandfather. He was a navy man and something of a hero in WWII. He was an important man, teaching at UNC at Chapel Hill and at other schools, and he knew many brilliant and influential individuals. He was a self-made man; he was a Missouri farmer's son with no money or privilege who managed to create a successful and mostly happy life completely from scratch. I am proud of my grandfather for these things.
But he didn't know Jesus. This is the great tragedy. It's hard to put labels on my grandfather; he was more than a navy man or father or husband or intellectual. In spiritual terms, I have described him as an agnostic or as an atheist. This is because I don't really know if he didn't believe in God or if he just didn't like Him. Maybe it was a little bit of both.
He was a private man. He never openly spoke of his history or of his beliefs or loves. Once, I mustered up enough gumption to ask. We talked about his love of college and of his drive to make his life worthwhile. He talked of God as an unknowable, unreachable thing, reluctantly admitted as possible, but not desirable, a part of his country past with no place in his modern life sprinkled by academia. But then, sometimes, I thought that he couldn't possibly believe in God, that the existence of a God would go against the grain of everything he stood for and of the way he lived. So, who knows?
My grandfather was always in control. He owned property. He exercised constantly. He liked to know that his life was in his hands, to shape into whatever he envisioned. In his last years, months, days, my grandfather was at the mercy of his daughter, my aunt. This must have killed him. To be totally dependent on the woman who he must have dangled on his knee as a young father.
This gives me hope. I think that people draw near to God when they need Him. They relinquish control of life when they find that they can no longer control it on their own. So maybe he was humbled enough to kneel in those final days. I really hope so.
If not, I trust God.
A few weeks ago, I visited my grandfather for the last time. I tried to mention God on several occasions; I felt as if my small attempts at conversation were like birds released from Noah's ark only to be returned (with a piercing gesture or expression). I didn't want to disturb the routine: Mom and my grandmother make pleasant chit-chatty conversation, my aunt makes dinner, George watches TV, Rayvon paces, and I, the somewhat crazy, somewhat hypocritical, somewhat disbelieved Jesus freak of the family, pick a fight with my brothers or just sit and twirl my glass in my fingers.
Once during that visit, I ended up basically alone with my grandfather in the living room. My Mom and Aunt were in nearby, in the kitchen, but for all practical purposes, it was just the two of us. He sat in his chair facing the television, his amazing mind ever so slightly muted, his sharp blue eyes misting over at times. I wanted to reach him somehow but I felt helpless and I hesitated because I felt that I had no right to speak. The rigidity of my mother's family dynamic (not that we are rigid people. It's just that we are stuck in the roles we play) stood like a wall between my grandfather and me and I could not climb past convention and courtesy to talk to him about a way out of his prison, about God. The room was getting stuffy (my aunt or somebody was cooking and the heat was uncomfortable) so I opened a window. It was slow going at first; the window hadn't been opened in a while so it was a little stiff and a little cobwebby around the corners. Eventually though, it yanked free and a little bit of Florida air seeped into the room. Then something interesting happened. My grandfather's 60% there gaze focused intently on the window. Neither of us spoke. He and I just looked through the mesh screen, out of the window, past the driveway and the Spanish moss into I don't know what.
That's what I'll always think of, around this time. Of my grandfather looking out the window. I guess you could get pretty poetic with that image and go into all kind of tizzies about what it means or represents or what it is I'm trying to say. I'm not saying anything. I'm just quoting:
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
1 Corinthians 13:13 (New International Version)