The first family member I lost that I felt the full force of was my Papaw, my father’s father. He died in December of 2015.
Papaw had a stroke in December of 2012. The stroke left him unable to use the left side of his body, but his mental capacities were fully present. During the first 10 months of the new stage of life for my family, I lived with my mom & had no contact with this side of the family. I didn’t see firsthand the tough decisions that had to be made, the adjustment to this new reality, and many more “things” that I’m probably not aware of, because I wasn’t around.
I started coming back around in October of 2013 & moved in with Mamaw & Papaw in December of 2013. I’d already experienced my mother’s mother being bedridden all of my life, up until her death. Unlike the case with my Meme, Papaw was able to verbally communicate with us. This made a world of difference & because of my Meme’s inability to verbally communicate, I was that much more thankful for what all Papaw could do.
My Papaw was a farmer. He grew up on a dairy farm just a hop, skip & a jump up the road. Before the sun came up, he milked cows, leaving him with muscular forearms. He served our country in the Navy, where he typed & arm wrestled a lot. He married a beautiful Jones woman & they had 4 babies. He was an electrician & passed that trade along to his oldest son. He loved the Lord with all his heart & always, at the end of his prayers, thanked Him for sending Jesus to die on the cross for our sins. He spent more time outside than in. He dressed himself in overalls most days. He could often be found on a tractor with a dog following close behind. He loved to eat & always had dessert. When us grandkids were getting rowdy, he’d say in his authoritative voice, “What’s going on out here?” All of us would stop dead in our tracks & we knew to immediately reroute our energy in a more positive direction. He loved the Braves, Panthers & Blue Devils. He picked on Mamaw all the time, always making us laugh. His hugs were the epitome of the term, “bear hug.” He squeezed a little too tight &, because, at my tallest, I came up to his chest, my face was always smashed into his overall snaps & pockets when we hugged. He could make anyone, any age, feel like a million bucks & like they had a friend in him.
I could keep going, but I think you get the picture. The picture of a man in love with Jesus so much that it spilled into the lives of those he crossed paths with.
I spent 2 years living with Mamaw & Papaw before his death. As each day passed, I realized how much life had changed for Papaw & for everyone. He could no longer walk… taking away the joy of being outside whenever he wanted, planting a garden, driving a tractor, walking next door to his brother’s house… taking away the basic independence of walking to & using the bathroom without any assistance, walking to the kitchen to sneak a late afternoon snack, or walking to the hay barn to start up the tractor to go on a ride.
Mamaw had to transition into a new role of caretaker, as she chose to take care of him at home. It was a 24/7 job. Because of Papaw’s time in the Navy, he received benefits through the VA, such as nurses who visited our home daily. They were family when it was all said & done. Comfort & Charles. Comfort… a nurse named Comfort. Need I say more about that? Charles had served our country in the military, as well as had experience as an electrician, so him & Papaw had a lot in common. All I can say is God immensely blessed us with those 2 to serve Papaw until the end of his life. There were other nurses prior to those 2, who were wonderful, but these were the 2 that were there during my time living with Mamaw & Papaw. They not only took care of Papaw, but Mamaw too. They were her companions… Their purpose in our home was more than twofold.
We had to grieve what Papaw’s life was pre-stroke . That’s something I never imagined having to do… grieving someone who was still alive. It’s not something people really talk about. I’ve had the experience of grieving my dad, who is emotionally dead, but physically alive. I had to & still grieve what I lost that day when Papaw had the stroke… his hugs are what I’ve grieved most, I think. One thing that remained was his sense of humor, especially as it pertained to picking on Mamaw. That never stopped.
Papaw had a few hospital visits in the 3 years Mamaw took care of him at home. They were never stress-free, but he always ended up back home, with the exception of last December.
The nurse, Comfort, noticed Papaw was talking kind of crazy, not making much sense. This is a common side effect of a UTI in an older person, so she thought it would be good for him to be checked out. Within 48 hours, the doctors advised Mamaw to tell her grandchildren to make their way up to the hospital. I was pulling out of a fast food drive-through, getting my lunch, when my phone rang. My aunt’s name and photo popped up on the phone screen. She told me what the doctors said. I immediately let my supervisor know & he worked with me to get a sub to sit at the front desk for me.
We all traveled from Charlotte, Charleston, Chicago, Rock Hill, Albemarle, Grier, etc. to CMC Pineville, where Papaw spent his last days on earth.
One of the most surreal moments at the hospital was everyone packing into a small sitting room, while the reality of the end was presented to us. I remember looking around… many looking at the floor, a tear rolling down my aunt’s cheek, and silence. I remember seeing my aunt hug my dad for a long time, a sleeping bond awakening in the midst of pain.
We spent the weekend welcoming extended family, singing hymns & hugging each other. Papaw rallied on Sunday. He was very alert & responsive… a huge difference from the previous days. From the end of Sunday on, things declined.
Monday marked the beginning of finals for the first semester of my senior year at Gardner-Webb. I felt stretched, to say the least. I wanted to be at the hospital, but still had to prepare for finals. I took my Tuesday night finals online somewhere in all of the craziness.
Each morning, I woke up, immediately grabbing my phone for an update on Papaw. There wasn’t an update on Wednesday morning, December 9th. I texted both aunts. One responded for me to come upstairs. I met my sleepy-eyed aunt in the living room, where she shared that Papaw had gone to be with the Lord around 2:35 that morning.
It didn’t feel real. I went to work. The office is usually pretty quiet until about 10AM, so I knew I would have time to myself… I could do it. My supervisor came in my office & sat beside me, asking for an update on Papaw. As tears pooled in my eyes, my words jumbled themselves as they spilled out of my mouth. While my grammar/spelling-conscious self was a little embarrassed of the graceless way sorrow poured out, I knew that he knew what I was trying to communicate. He encouraged me to go home, so I did. While at home, I took a 3rd final online & had to travel to Gardner-Webb’s Charlotte location later that night to take my last final. As I drove to the Charlotte location, the sun was going down. At 5:25PM, I snapped a photo of the sunset. It was a beautiful gift from the Lord, as I was about to hunker down & take my Ethics final with the heaviness of loss bearing down on my heart. (The photo included at the top is the sunset from that evening. I edited it to include some of my favorite lyrics.)
The next few days & weeks were a blur. The Receiving of Friends was the next day. Before the doors were open for the many that came that night, we were allowed to see Papaw one last time. As the casket opened, my dad walked over to stand with my sister, Mamaw & I. Papaw was in his overalls. Daddy made a comment about Papaw’s ears being large. I don’t remember what I said or thought, but I must tell you that my dad’s ears stick out like Dumbo’s, so he has no room to talk! I interacted with many familiar souls that night & met others that loved my Papaw or that loved a family member & were there to support them. I met my dad’s 4th grade teacher, my Papaw’s first cousin, my dad’s co-workers from Piedmont Natural Gas, and more. In their love for Papaw or other family members, they loved me that night by standing in a line, some for hours…
The funeral was the next day. It was held at my family’s church. That didn’t feel real. Seeing his casket hovering over a huge hole in the ground didn’t feel real. Seeing members of the military present a flag to Mamaw didn’t feel real. Seeing that serviceman’s genuine care shining through his eyes as he got down on his knees & spoke to Mamaw didn’t feel real. We had a huge dinner that night, full of KFC buckets & bonding conversations. It still didn’t feel real.
The fact that I aced my finals is a miracle. I didn’t doubt my abilities, but my brain was a bit frazzled. I was present enough to do well on those, while everything else was on autopilot, thankfully!
Since Papaw entered the pearly gates & the presence of Jesus, the Lord has shown me some things that I might not have otherwise seen. He has shown me how blessed I am to be apart of a family that has hope in Jesus… Jesus, who offers us a new, perfect body that cannot be touched by the damage a stroke can cause… Jesus, who offers us new spiritual life in the death of our physical bodies. He showed me His love through the gigantic waves of support we received. He has shown me the importance of spending time with those you love, as you never know when anyone’s last day here will be. He showed me the power of regret via others’ responses to what was happening.
Loss is tough… plain & simple. There are days when I wish I could hold Papaw’s hand one more time or hear him say, “Good morning, beautiful,” when I walk into the living room.
With Christ, joy can be found in loss, if our loved one was a believer & we are too. I am elated to know that my Papaw has been relieved of his broken earthly body & has received a new body in his forever home. I am elated to know that I, too, will join him in heaven one day, because he instilled the Gospel in his children & they have passed it on to me.