When I (Janel) saw "Mom and Dad" calling on my cell phone, I knew something was wrong. Mom and Dad would not be calling from Little Rock. They were in Thailand with my sister Kelli and her husband. So this was my quite pregnant sister Keri calling from Arkansas, here at 11 PM. I slid on my sandals and hurried out in my PJ's to our gate, the only place in our compound with any kind of reputation for reliable phone service.
And yes. Something was very wrong.
On Monday, around the time that I was putting my kids to bed over here, my grandpa--my Mom's dad--suddenly finished the race that was his life, there in his home in Keota, Iowa, pop. 500. He is finally seeing God Himself face-to-face in heaven. Maybe he's dancing like a maniac on legs that work again at last.
I am celebrating and remembering the life of a terrific dad, grandpa, and great-grandpa, finally released from a painful body beleaguered by countless strokes, possibly since he was a young man; heart conditions; failing kidneys. Now, this man I loved is finally whole in body and soul.
But this is such a loss for me and my family. I think it's more so as we're so far apart from each other. It took some gymnastics to get my parents on the flights they're slugging through today, en route to Chicago via Bangkok and Frankfurt. One of God's special kindnesses was my parents' visit to each of us so near to receiving this news, so that our spans around the planet felt shorter with freshly cultivated relationships. But even then, I wish I could throw my arms around my mom, or my grandma, now a new widow after nearly fifty-six years of marriage.
Here in Uganda, it feels odd to be away. It feels abbreviated as I grieve alone this man who punctuated weeks and weeks of my summer and holidays, whose sly humor filled me with jokes that made my mom roll her eyes, who I still hear my dad affectionately calling by his last name--"Walker!"--and who couldn't resist a daring move in a game of euchre.
Monday night I leaned against my husband and mentally envisioned so many of the stories I'd heard about his life: wooing my grandma in a diner. Wedding her just before Christmas 1956 when he knew he was being drafted. Getting so sick on the voyage to Germany that he'd never willingly eat rice again. Guarding the Berlin Wall during the Korean Conflict. Turning my mom into an indubitable "daddy's girl" in the trailer they'd called home in her early life. Picking up poop from the grass and depositing it into a Dunkin' Donuts box one morning after my grandma accidentally opened the wrong drain on the pop-up camper. Being baffled by a slightly cocky young car salesman in his dealership who'd daily show up late for work but reputedly top even my grandpa's own sales numbers...and who would later ask for my mom's hand.
Then it was on to moments I remembered: Grandpa helping my pint-sized sister Keri catch a fish with a bamboo pole that was about six times her height--which we would later watch float away, claimed by the lake--and who I believe years later was the one who caught his finger with a flailing fishhook. I see him piloting a pontoon boat across Lake Trio, or tooling around it in a three-wheeler with myself and a cousin or sister in tow. I recall watching the smoke from his pipe spin up toward the can lights above the kitchen table (a habit I openly protested as a five-year-old). I grin at the laugh that shook his shoulders over something mildly naughty, until he could barely breathe. I see us sitting in the summer shade, he and I, as he recounted his memories of the war.
I see him still in my mom's love for authenticity, her active protection of those she loves, her fairness, her creative problem solving, her intelligence, her face shape and that slight overbite, and her love for a good laugh. Some of these, the two of them passed on to me.
Tuesday night as I peered through that exhaustive haze of grief, washing the dishes, I found myself singng his favorite hymn:
I sing because I'm happy.
I sing because I'm free!
His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know he watches me.
Yes, he is now free in the ultimate sense. As a relative affectionately mentioned to me, it is our loss, and heaven's gain. This week, I am thankful that death does not get the last word.