Grandpa is at the end of the dinner table, lying back in a large reclining wheelchair. Although surrounded by the whirl and bustle of last-minute supper preparations, tonight, humming softly to himself, he seems to be lost in a world of his own. The rest of us are gathered around the table and grow quiet. Grandpa is asked to say the blessing. Not surprisingly he begins with a slow, measured litany of thanks for all the blessings of life. Drawing out each word, each thought, wrapping it in meaning and emotion, he expresses thanks straight from his heart.
Since Grandma’s death, his prayers often include his thanks for her and for the wonder of how “God picked her just for me.” He often reminds us that “from all the women in the world, God handpicked my Jeanette, and gave her to me.” “How I do thank thee for her, dear Father in heaven.” But tonight he adds a new thought to his prayer: “And when we come into difficulty, be patient with us and help us.”
Grandpa is dying of cancer. He understands what difficulties are; in fact, he faces new ones each day as he physically declines and makes his way through the unfamiliar territory of his last journey. He knows that he (like all of us) needs God’s patience every day. This prayer came as much from the depths of his heart as any other I have heard.
Grandpa is a big man – “five eighteen” he likes to say when asked his height. At first glance, he might look to be tough. His hands are huge, too. They are calloused and gnarled from hard work. But anyone who knows him knows that the biggest thing about him is his huge heart. Here is a man who is never afraid to let his heart feel emotion and never ashamed of his own tears. Here are hands that know both hard work and tenderness, hands that have held the handle of an axe but have also caressed a child, cradling its small face gently between them, wiping away tears.
Last week I spent several days visiting Grandpa, sitting at his bedside, where he was often lost in thought and in the reminiscences of his life. He was confused and unsure of himself. He was alone on some road, with no one but God to guide him. Often he said he didn’t know where he was. At other times he spoke of trips he had taken or was planning to take. But uppermost on his mind was the well-being of those who were around him. He just wanted to make sure that each of us by his bedside was cared for and had everything we needed.
I marvel at this care and concern for others even during moments of confusion. I suppose that if you spend your entire life caring for people, even on your deathbed their well-being will remain your primary concern. This is how Grandpa lived his life. Whether designing a building (making sure the counters were high enough so as not to strain one’s back, and the bathroom doors wide enough so that one could fit through with a sick child in one’s arms), ushering in church, hosting guests in his home, or caring for Grandma, Grandpa’s big heart could always be felt. I can still remember being lost in a crowd and suddenly feeling his arms wrapped around me from behind in an unhindered greeting of love.
Grandpa is slipping away and will soon be gone. But his legacy of compassion, of gentleness, of teaching us the importance of allowing our hearts to be moved by a book, a song, the death of a child, a flower, will never be gone. He is leaving us a legacy of being thankful for the wonder of life, for each day, for each person, and for all that God gives. He is leaving us the gift of love.