This Thanksgiving, his eyes fluttered open only at intervals when he had the energy to struggle for consciousness and for breath. Even when they were closed, one eye was only half closed, drooping and no longer controlled by his will, as his chest rose and fell with difficulty. Notwithstanding constant care, his lips were cracked and dry, his skin thinner and more fragile than the pages of his old bible. He is still there though, behind the eyes, trapped in a body that will no longer respond to his commands.
He knows this is the end, but he shows no fear, only peace. My brother, my cousin and I received telephone calls all that week as he gave away the remaining articles in the senior living apartment to which he knew he would never return. Then, earlier this week he met with his long-time pastor. The younger man, long retired now, took notes as my grandfather planned his funeral--the scriptures he wanted read and the old hymns of The Faith that he wanted sung.
I remember past Thanksgivings, when we would gather around the tables strung end-to-end. Before the meal, Grandaddy’s voice would say our collective prayer of thanks. Several years ago, my father took over the duties, not because Grandaddy stopped praying, but because his voice faltered and broke whenever a prayer was said over a holiday table. Grandaddy felt too keenly the empty chairs at each holiday. As my father would pray in his stead, Grandaddy’s shoulders would heave and shake beneath his bowed head as he sobbed, almost quietly enough that he could suppose we did not hear.
My grandfather feels the empty chairs because he is the kind of man to whom people flock as if to the warmth of the village fire on a cold night. There are three generations of kids in his church who have never known a fifth grade Sunday School teacher other than my grandparents. Child, parent and grandparent, they all learned, gently and sweetly, from the same tender man. In recent years, whenever he attended his church on his scooter, those three generations of people would all gravitate to him in the hallway, and even the little kids would hug his neck like he was their own grandfather. The Sunday School wing of that Church bears his name, permanent imprints to a lifetime of giving not only money but himself.
But there is a cost to be paid in giving oneself away. In 90 years of giving his heart away, my grandfather has lost all the friends who were his contemporaries. Of course he has buried his parents, but also his younger sister. He buried his wife more than 5 years ago, the girl that he met in the high school musical and eloped with when they were both teenagers. He has buried a teenage grandson, dead before his time after falling asleep at the wheel on Memorial Day weekend. He has buried 3 great grandchildren, my cousins, who were killed in a fit of domestic rage. That same day he buried their father, the murderer, my first cousin, who turned the gun on himself.
Grandaddy knows well the cost of love and life, and knows well the pain of continuing with each breath. Yet, he counted the cost and found it worth paying. In fact, it is the heart he always gives away that buoys and sustains him. He would tell you that all the giving is a bargain at twice the price. Once this week, his eyes fluttered open, and seeing the familiar face of my mother, his daughter and faithful caregiver, his lips moved. After several attempts, the words finally came out.
“I am so thankful to be alive.”