Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Nunc dimittis servum tuum

I've had a host of experiences in the past year that have made me realize I've entered adulthood - some pleasant, others less so. Doing my own taxes, buying a house, making a budget, paying a mortgage - the usual stuff that belongs to the "grown-up" world. I don't think any of these have made me feel that my childhood is now behind me, as much as the death of my grandfather has made me feel that way.

I've written about my father's father before - a stern, silent man. As a little girl I was always more than a little terrified of him. He was far from being the jolly grandpa of movies and story books. I don't ever remember being held on his lap. His hugs were always a bit stiff, and there weren't many of them. To a casual observer he and my grandmother would have seemed like an oddly matched pair. She was warm, vivacious and energetic even in her old age. Grandma was the provider of hugs, milk and waffles with powdered sugar on top. Granddad was the one you didn't annoy. I say this not with any kind of resentment - but just to tell you how it was.

On Holy Thursday I received word that my grandfather had passed away after suffering a stroke at the age of 95. Right away I felt I had to go to the funeral. I missed my aunt's funeral in November due to a bout of the flu, and I'll always regret that. I wanted to go to my grandfather's funeral - not out of some particular affection for him, but out of a desire to be there for my father, and a sense that his age and status as the family patriarch demanded this respect.

I think almost everyone reaches a point in life when they realize their parents are mortal - and it's a sobering thought. My aunt's death was that point for me, and my grandfather's funeral drove the message home again. As I watched my dad and his siblings place the pall on my grandfather's casket, it struck me that suddenly everyone looked older, more fragile. No one lives forever, but somehow when you're young you think the people who have been around your entire life will always be there. Not so - and the absence of my aunt as the remaining six children spread out the pall made that sharply clear for me.

After the funeral, during the time spent with my extended family, I was able to discern why my grandfather was the way he was. Encouraged by his mother to get an education, he left the farm at the tender age of 12 to board with another family who lived near the school, and did farm work to pay his board. He attended high school and graduated as valedictorian, in the days when a high school diploma actually meant something. He graduated from college then went on to Navy service in World War II and a long distinguished career in the federal government. In many ways he was, to use that cliched phrase, a "self-made man." Life was difficult then. It demanded that men be strong, unyielding, flinty. Is it any wonder he showed little tenderness in his relationships with his children and grandchildren?

My grandmother was the great love of his life. It takes a lot of energy to be the mother of nine children (two died young, sadly) but she did it all with grace and good humor. I heard this weekend that four hundred people came to her and my grandfather's 50th wedding anniversary, and that she knew every single one. She died when I was about 12 and since getting married I've often missed her and wished I could have her support and advice. My aunt told me that when she was dying, she worried aloud about how my grandfather would take care of himself. She might have worried more had she known it would be so long before he would join her. I hope and believe that they are, or will soon be, reunited - and there's comfort in that. Death does not divide us forever, but only separates us for a while. 

If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all.
But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
 For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead came also through a human being.
For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life,
but each one in proper order: Christ the firstfruits; then, at his coming, those who belong to Christ;
then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to his God and Father, when he has destroyed every sovereignty and every authority and power.
For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.
 The last enemy to be destroyed is death [...] (1 Corinthians 15:19-26)

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