Sunday, February 24, 2008

Odd Couple

My first love was a long, lanky man with slicked-back gray hair and black leather ankle boots. He called me, "Jenny." At age eight and fifty-eight, we made an odd pair.

Grandpa Ham wasn’t perfect. A machinist by trade and a heavy smoker, he often had dirty nails, and he never ate leftovers. He was also infamous for walking nowhere, hopping in his big, brown car just to go a block to visit the neighbors. I didn’t care. A skinny kid with few social skills, I loved my grandpa fiercely. Big, glassy brown eyes captivated me in gentleness as only a granddaddy’s can. I knew he loved me deeply, too, and I’ve often felt guilty for that. I wasn’t his only grandchild, but when we spent time together, I knew he loved me something special.

We had great times together, my granddaddy and me. I can still see the olive drab couch where we sat for hours during a hot summer week, me trying my hand at crocheting a potholder and him reading his paper. Occasionally, he’d elbow my ribs or pop me on the head with his paper. “Little Jenny, Penny,” he’d say and return to his reading. I beamed, full with love, wishing the moment would never end.

He wasn’t a quiet man. He said plenty. Our biggest adventure was a trip to the mountains on which he bickered constantly with grandma, “I know where we’re goin’, Jo!” he insisted as we twisted around and around on back mountain roads, crossing the Mason Dixon Line not once, but twice. My big sister and I giggled in the back seat. Then, we pretended we were firemen, pulling our shirts up over our noses to breathe because Grandpa Ham never rolled the window down to smoke. Of course, none of us ever wore seatbelts then, either.

Grandpa never got mad at me. I don’t think he could, not even the time when I locked his keys in the trunk, and he had to take out the back seat of the car just to get to them. It wasn’t until last weekend, however, that I realized what a gift he was for me.

“No boys allowed!” my sister, myself, my seven-year old daughter and my 87-year-old grandma insist at least once a year when we declare it Girls Weekend. No matter how busy we are, we converge on grandma’s house, taking her to Wal-Mart, listening to endless stories, savoring grandma’s cooking, and even learning how to crochet again. For 48 hours, three generations summon back those great old times. Last weekend, however, a male intruder became a welcome guest in my heart.

It wasn’t the first time that I noticed Grandpa Ham’s picture on Grandma’s family shelf, a black-and-white capturing a rare moment of him in a suit and silk tie. I pulled the dusty picture off of the shelf and met those glassy brown eyes and gentle expression again. “Your grandpa got all dressed up when I won an award for twenty five years of service with Colonial Stores,” Grandma Jo recalled of her time as a cake decorator and bakery worker. The picture was a cut-out. Having been married to another wonderful man for ten years after Grandpa’s death, she wanted to honor Grandpa with a single photo on her shelf. Crooked yellow edges showed that an 8x10 marking the bakery honor had been sheared to reveal his single picture and was ill-fitting in the 5x7 frame.

I got to spend some quality time with Grandpa Ham again last Sunday, stealing away to Wal-Mart to scan the picture and restore it to a proper size. It was more for me than for grandma as I wept in the Wal-Mart parking lot, hugging his picture and staring into those eyes again. “I miss you so much,” I cried, thankful that my daughter was in the back seat, lost in her headphones, watching Barbie: My Scene Goes to Hollywood on her personal DVD player.

Memories of his life and death came flooding back. Ironically, my most precious moment with Grandpa Ham occurred during the latter, and I have never told another soul what occurred between us then…that is until now. A young college student locked up inside myself, clumsily navigating my way in the world, I returned to his home twice when he was near death. A long-time sufferer of emphysema, he rallied the first time. The second time, he wasn’t so fortunate. That day, I entered the hospital full of visitors to hear, “Jenny, he’s asking for you.” On the outside, I acted surprised. I wasn’t. On the inside, I just wanted everyone else to magically disappear so I could somehow say goodbye to my first love.

Still seeing me through the eyes of a parent protecting a young child, Mom and Dad explained that there were tubes and a breathing machine. He wouldn’t be able to talk to me. I just nodded because how could they remotely understand that I didn’t care, that I didn’t need him to speak to me and that the tubes were what would make our last moments even possible? Still, for support, they sent me in with a neighbor or a distant cousin, I honestly don’t remember. What I do remember is the moment that I saw him, he reached out his long arms for me. I ran to him and with a maturity from within and without a tear, I looked into his eyes, telling him a thousand things without saying a single word. He returned the favor and his warm, soft hand strongly squeezed mine. We spent the rest of the time holding hands, my head resting on his chest covered with tubes, the neighbor lady awkwardly mumbling about the weather to the rhythm of the breathing machine. Grandpa Ham died at home several days later, Grandma Jo and all five of his children surrounding him, telling him how much they loved him. I’m sure those moments were as much a gift to them as our time in the hospital was a gift to my grandpa and me, the odd couple.

I didn’t become a Christian until years after my grandfather’s death. Although my grandma and grandpa were church-going folks, there was never a spiritual element in our relationship. However, now in those difficult times when I just need to affix a human element to my faith, I imagine Jesus as my Grandpa Ham. I imagine Him as that rare person that makes you love who you are when you’re with Him. I imagine Jesus as One who overflows my heart with love just by His presence, the One with whom I can fill up a room with unspoken words. I imagine my relationship with Jesus as one more about just being than saying or doing.

So many of us are bogged down with what we believe is religion, ridiculous rule-following and God-punishing religion. My friends, it is so much more about relationship than religion! Our relationship with a loving Christ is what defines our character and the way we live our lives, not the other way around.

Last weekend, I thanked God for a precious memory and a very real reminder of who He is. If you are a seasoned Christian or a non-believer, here is my prayer for you, too, today:

“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” Ephesians 3:16-19


Anonymous said...

I had a similar moment with my stepdad. I told him I loved him and how he had been so much better a father than my own had been. I just wanted to thank him. They said he was in a coma, but I believe he heard me and understood because he got tears in his eyes. Thanks for telling us about your experience. Carol Wigent

Anonymous said...

Loved this story, Jen. Your writing gently brings the reader into those special moments that you describe without feeling like a detached observer. This story stirred up in me thoughts of my own grandparents who have long passed from this world but whose memories remain very much alive in me. Thanks for sharing this wonderful story. It's such a reminder to us all how important and valuable the impressions we make today are to the lasting legacy we will leave behind for our loved ones one day. Thanks....Dan Parker