We’re back! Hope you all had a Thanksgiving so yummy it induced a cozy stupor! This week we have a touching story from Lenae at Just Lenae. If you don’t already know this woman, you should because besides being warm and funny, loving and thoughtful, she and her lovely family are on the move. To Azerbaijan. (Where?!) (Yeah, I had to look up how to spell it.) And they’re doing it right smack in the middle of Christmas craziness. So you should follow her on this new adventure – I’m sure it’ll be quite the roller coaster indeed. Anyway, she took time out of the craziness to share a moment that changed her. I hope you’ll take a moment to pull up a chair and join in the conversation.
From Lenae, titled: My Walk With Red
It was meant to be a weekend visit, when I drove up the California coastline to the small Oregon town where my great-grandparents lived, all those years ago. I was on the cusp of turning 19, with long, black hair I still hadn’t learned how to style, and grand, vivid hopes for all I hoped to accomplish after I left for the Air Force in a few months.
My great-grandpa wasn’t doing well. His health had been spotty for years, but it had recently been on the downward decline long enough that my dad urged me to go see him in the rehabilitation home he’d recently moved to. Just in case.
I don’t remember much about the 6-hour trek north. I sped along the redwood-lined highway I knew so well and reveled in the freedom of my solitude. I littered the floor of my parents’ car with empty Mountain Dew bottles and rotated through my favorite CDs. As for what awaited me once I arrived at my destination, I had no expectations or heavy thoughts about it. I was enshrouded in a bubble untouched by serious illness or death, moving lightly in self-assured naiveté.
It was a bubble that dissolved easily enough the moment I stepped from the cool, Oregon fog into the rehabilitation home. It smelled as most medical facilities do –stuffy, sterile—and all sound was eerily muffled and hushed. I was not prepared for the sight of Grandpa Red, as he’d always been called because of the copper-hued locks of his youth. He was emaciated and unshaven. He stirred instantly at the sight of me.
I had great affection for Grandpa Red, but my memories of affection from him were mostly hazy, rimmed in his characteristic sarcasm. He wasn’t gentle; if he wanted to hug you, he pulled you in under his arm and more likely than not gave you a noogie. He served in the Seabees during World War II, and filled the Navy-stereotype beautifully with entertaining, salty language. He listened to Rush Limbaugh in the shop behind the house and enjoyed fishing. He taught me in part how to have the grand and vivid personality I was carefully stoking for myself.
Yet the man in the hospital bed was neither grand nor vivid. He was a remnant of the person populating so many of my memories, already faded. Somewhere in my subconscious I recognized that this, truly, was a farewell visit, but I couldn’t wrap my brain around that reality just yet. I crossed the room and perched carefully in a chair beside him and did something I couldn’t remember doing since I was a very little girl: I held his hand.
I don’t remember if we traded any polite remarks. Frankly, I don’t remember anything about that interaction other than how very warm his hand was, and that he startled me to my core by asking if I’d attended church yet that week. “I’ll be at church on Wednesday,” I offered him shakily, information he wouldn’t know because we’d never discussed my budding faith.
“Will you pray for me, Lenae?” he asked.
After a very long pause –because now I was attempting to wrap my heart around the reality my mind had already recognized—I promised him that yes, I would.
Mortality is an interesting, twisted object to try and hold in your hands. I’d always been very precocious, very mindful of the darker aspect of the humanity I was a member of, but this meeting with my great-grandfather shattered any perceptions I’d built of my awareness. I was a typical 18-year-old in that I was quite sure I knew exactly what I was doing… about everything. And of course, nothing will tear up the roots of false confidence like confronting death.
The rehabilitation center he was in was not ideal. My great-grandmother was fretful and alone there, pacing the halls of the home they shared not far from the beach. But I wanted to leave. I wanted to return to the warm security of the car gliding down the highway, and sing my heart out and slam down junk food and think of how cute I’d look in an Air Force blues uniform.
In the end, there were a few things that compelled me to do otherwise: compassion bred beneath an umbrella of intentional parenting; a heart leaping and jumping in new faith, and ideas of what vibrant service and selfless love actually looked like. I quit my job back in my hometown to stay there in Oregon, and help my great-grandparents. The ensuing weeks were an education in one of the most grand, vivid transitions of life – as it were, the exit from life. It was a privilege to dole out medication, to hear tales told one last time, to observe gratitude delivered in unchecked fullness. It was shattering to be present for the physical breakdown of a body that was, at a time, strong and streamlined. I held those warm hands that grew ever warmer as he –we—neared the end, and it seemed he was burning the truth of existence into my soul. I’d never shared anything very deep with the man, but I was honored to be there with him as he grappled with the inevitable questions we weigh as we contemplate being no more. I was humbled to be able to pray with him, blessed to see evidence of a peaceful heart just hours before his breath came and went and then did not come again.
It was not graduating from high school or taking the oath at the end of military training that propelled me into adulthood: it was this – the overwhelming, breaking, final walk I took hand-in-hand with my great-grandfather. I felt in his grip all the love he was never able to convey in words, and when my eyes had cleared, I looked up to the see the sunrise of eternal life as I’d been unable to view it before.
I hope you enjoyed this moment, and that beautiful juxtaposition she created between youth and death. I hope you’ll join us once more next week, for the conclusion of our series. Thanks so much for connecting with us along the way!