This is what I wrote on the plane coming over, and read at the funeral yesterday:
My first memory of Grampa was a scary one. I was three and outside the house on Williams Street. My parents and strangers were around me on the sidewalk and this tall black-bearded man crouched down and spread out his arms to me. Everyone around me was laughing and telling me to go to him. “Go–it’s Grampa!” But I was scared and refused. It was the thick black hair that did it.
Now I know the occasion was that the family was home for furlough and we were visiting from VA. In a day or two, I saw that Grampa was actually a nice man but I was stubborn and refused to let him hold me.
After that initial scare, Grampa became a normal part of my life in our visits to IN. He was always jolly and his gruff voice belied his soft heart. I loved watching how he treasured Gramma Mabel, and later, Gramma Barbara. He’d always give Gramma a kiss when he came home, and hold her hand when they walked together. Even though I was a child, it felt significant to me that a man his age was so openly affectionate.
I remember at Susan and Delbert’s wedding, he read Proverbs 31 and I Corinthians 13, and the way he read made it sound like poetry, and I dreamed he’d do the same at my wedding. I remember several times when he read poetry to the family. What impressed me most was how he’d unashamedly choke up at some particularly meaning words.
Now when I write and wrestle with words to make them do what I want them to, I sometimes wonder if one reason words affect me so deeply is because he valued words. Maybe it’s in our genes. After all, family lore is proud of his winning the county spelling bee in grade school in KS.
I last saw Grampa this past February. It had been four years since I’d last seen him. I think I’d taken him for granted and thought he’d always be the strong, stalwart man I knew. But when I first saw him in February, I wanted to weep for the stooped, halting body that trapped his expansive mind. The Parkinson’s made his speech slow and slurred. He told me the words don’t come like they used to. He knows them but they don’t come out. “Is that frustrating?” I asked.
He shrugged. “It would be if I’d let it.”
To this emotional, impulsive girl, those were wise words to digest.
I was in Rome when Grampa died. I had one day there instead of the long weekend I’d planned. In the scrambled plans, buying new tickets, and foreign, unfriendly airport agents, all clouded with this abrupt loss, I tried hard to stay calm and remember what he said: “It’s frustrating if you let it be.”
Leaving Rome, the plane took off over the coastline and I saw the smooth, deep curve of the gulf that forms the sole of Italy’s boot. It was thrilling to see, and I knew that some of my itchy feet comes from Grampa who also loved the far horizon. I know I’m shaped by his love for new places that took him from KS to IN to Central America where he became Papi Juan to dozens of children and adults. I saw how happily and easily he entered that world as often and as long as he could.
Now the tables are turned. All his children and grandchildren have pushed away from their geographical roots for Kingdom work for some part of their lives. The two grandchildren who aren’t here today are Poland and Thailand. Grampa gave to us a love of learning, expanding, exploring. He was always asking questions, reading, and quick to learn. He even learned from Gramma how to sing better. It was easy to see that his life motivation was to serve and be useful because He loved Jesus simply and completely, and cherished the gift of salvation. It wasn’t so much what he said. It was the shape of his life.
Now it’s me who comes back home from living in another country and the small children are shy and don’t know me anymore. It’s bittersweet. Mostly, it’s sweet because of the enormous legacy we have of a bearded man whose heart was big and his arms stretched wide.