Driving Towards Death

3 Lessons My Grandfather Taught Me

Last week I was told my grandfather had 12-36 hours left and that I needed to get there as soon as I could to say goodbye.

The drive from New York to West Virginia takes right at 12 hours so I left wondering if I had enough time.

Twelve hours is a long time to reflect on memories made. I felt like I was driving towards death.

During that long drive I would call my mom every couple of hours for a status update on Gramps. She had been by his side with her brother and mom for several days. At the last update I had asked her if she thought I should get a room because it was so late and just see him in the morning. Mom told me that Granny (Gramps’ wife of 62 years) thought he was waiting on me because he had seen everyone else. Now I really felt like I was driving towards death.

Once my wife and I drove from Louisiana to New York in one shot. The drive was twice as long as the one to West Virginia but somehow this one felt even longer. Every time we cross the state line I like to play John Denver’s Country Roads. I was flooded with hundreds of different memories as we drove through the mountains.

Gramps taught me how to fish, hunt, keep bees, and search for ramps and mushrooms. Every summer growing up I would spend a week or two with him and Granny. I loved those weeks! Some of my favorite childhood memories were made with him.

When I finally made it to the hospital it was 10:00pm. Gramps was awake and seemed happy to see me. I held his hand and cried. He told me his kidneys were shutting down, tomorrow he would be jaundiced (typical Gramps), and Wednesday he would be with Jesus. He said he could almost see Jesus and felt like if he could turn his head a little more to the right he would see Jesus.

The room had several people in it and I asked if I could have a few minutes alone with Gramps. On the long ride down I had made a list of everything I wanted to say. I wanted to make sure he knew how I felt about him and I wanted to make sure to say “thank you.”

I guess it was more for me than for him. Man, that conversation was so difficult realizing this could be the very last time I see him. It also didn’t help that Gramps was practically deaf from his years in the Air Force so I had to shout everything in his ear. Yelling “thank you” in someone’s ear feels out of sync with what you are saying. I’m not sure why I asked to be alone since everyone outside could hear me shouting anyway.

After I finished, I asked Gramps if he would pray for me one last time. I’ll never forget it. In that moment I understood why the blessing of the patriarch of the family was so important in the Old Testament.

Hearing his strong faith in the face of death strengthened mine even though I was sobbing like a baby. A voice I had heard pray 100s of times was talking to the God he would see very soon. I felt like if I could turn my head just a little more I might see Jesus too.

When he finished I then prayed for him. I’m doubtful he heard what I said, but when I finished he told me to “work hard and always do my best and then one day your kids will be as proud of you as I am.”

Gramps was a testimony to the fact that your second half could be better than your first. I was fortunate to only know one version of Gramps. (I wrote about his change here.)

It’s easy for people to get stuck in the past and blame their life on a past version of someone else, and in the process become the very thing they resent. But if the person we’re blaming can change, we can to.

Other people get stuck in the past blaming someone who will never change. I asked my counseling professor while I was working on my doctorate about how to move on from the blame game. He told me, “Some family members you love will never change but you need a few good memories to hold on to for your own sake when they are gone. Try to make a few good memories instead of trying to change them.”

Fortunately for me I didn’t have to overcome anything with Gramps. It’s the blessing of the grandchild and grandparent relationship.

Gramps taught me so many different life lessons. As I’ve had a little time to pause and reflect on his passing I kept thinking about 3 things that Gramps taught me.

1. Laugh the Loudest.

Gramps’ solution to bullies was to laugh the loudest. He told me most people want to fight back, get angry, or retaliate but he said that just gives the bullies more fuel. It’s exactly what the bullies are wanting…a reaction. If you give them the reaction they want they will keep teasing you. Instead, Gramps said to laugh the loudest of anyone. When you do you’re taking away the reaction they were looking for. When they see it doesn’t bother you they will move on.

I wished he had given me this advice when I was in middle school! But I’ve seen it play out in my adult life too. Bullies aren’t just in middle school. When I’ve laughed the loudest the person with the mic just moves on.

2. It Can Always Be Worse.

During the last few years Gramps’ health really deteriorated. The things he used to do with ease in his old age became a significant struggle.

Health challenges take a swipe at any man’s pride, but especially the pride of a man from a different generation.

The catheter bag was a tough one. I remember talking to him on the phone and he said “Joe, I have to wear a catheter bag now, but it could be worse. At least I’m able to get up and walk around. I’m grateful for that.”

Then his feet started swelling so much that wearing shoes became impossible. He was forced to wear house shoes to church. For a man who thought church had a dress code that included wingtips this was a tough blow, but he told me, “Joe, at least I can still go to church and I’m grateful for that.”

One of the last times I spoke to him on the phone before he went to the hospital he expressed disappointment that he hadn’t been able to make it to his church in a couple of weeks, he just didn’t have the strength. “But I walked to the garage today and I’m not six feet under and I’m grateful to be talking with you.”

He really had a lot to complain about but he didn’t. He always focused on what he could do instead of what he couldn’t. He focused on what was left and not what was lost. Believing that tomorrow would be better.

In the face of death it was especially true. Wednesday was the best day of his life.

No matter how bad you have it someone has it worse.

3. Life-change Matters.

My grandfather became a Christian later in life (you can read that story here). He attended the same church for 29 years!!! He weathered different pastors, different building projects, and church challenges. He was a deacon and a pillar of his church.

(I guess we could stop right there and make that the point because some Christians have been part of every church in their community. They will eventually leave the one they’re at now when something causes them the slightest challenge or isn’t exactly the way they want it. They’re flaky in every area of life, but not Gramps.)

Every time I spoke with Gramps I always asked him how his church was doing. Imagine my shock when he told me that he and Granny were praying about leaving. This man was married to the same lady for 62 years. He had attended the same church for 29 years! He would receive award Bibles every year from this church for “perfect attendance.” What in the world would make him consider leaving after all he had weathered in 29 years?

So I asked him.

Gramps said, “Joe, I tithe faithfully every week. I give to all of our special offerings. I give a special gift every month above all of that. I don’t mind doing it. But we haven’t seen one person baptized in a couple of years now. Is that too much to ask to see one soul saved? I don’t have the strength to knock on doors anymore and invite people. I’ve spoken with my pastor about all this and I want to support a church that is serious about reaching the lost.”

I often think about my grandfather when we baptize people at church.

In a very real sense we are all driving towards death…our own. Our time is fixed. The destination matters but so does the journey.

Gramps faced death with bright hope for tomorrow because He knew who was waiting to meet him on the other side. He knew the One that didn’t cheat death but beat it. He knew the One who was the Way…Jesus.