Farewell to Papa

Posted: April 10, 2020 in Uncategorized

Memory is a funny thing. The farther you are away from the events the foggier the outlines of the story. On the other hand, some features and images become more vivid and distinct. That’s how it is for me as I traveled back to the memory I dreamed about last night.

It really was years ago, back when I was a young man with a young man’s life. For a time I lived and worked in a county seat town as the pastor of a medium sized church. I was the only minister, surrounded by a few part time support staff. And being the chief cook and bottle washer is a fine way to understand all the facets of a place and learn how it all works.

This little town had and has a wide variety of people occupying different stations in life. There are locals who’ve lived there forever. Infrastructure people like teachers who moved in to provide social services. Retirees move to this town and tourists show up during certain times of the year. The well-heeled ones build a second home there or buy a condo, keeping their first homes in the city. It’s all there, mashed up together. Which is another reason that it is a good place for a young man to test his wings.

One day I received a call – and this is the foggy part – from a daughter whose father was ready to be baptized. I didn’t know them from Adam. It was a cold call. But I agreed to come out to their house where Papa was spending his final days in his dying bed. If that phone call was foggy, the arrival at the single-wide trailer up the county road was not. Long before the time of GPS, I navigated by landmarks: just past the country church, on the left, before the Y in the road. After I pulled up and parked the car, I walked through dogs and rusting equipment to the wooden front steps.

The eldest daughter answered the door, and after some niceties she invited me in. It was a small, dark living room and a velvet picture of Elvis hung on the wall over the couch.

“You can come on back, Papa’s ready,” she said. And she led me through the narrow hallway to the back bedroom where Papa was. He smiled when I came in and patted the side of the bed for me to sit down. He was propped up against a few pillows. And after we we talked about life, the end of life, lasting things, eternal things, daughter brought in a basin of water with a towel.

After I poured the water over his old, bald, wrinkly head, water mixed with words about Father, Son and Holy Spirit, he kept his eyes closed for the longest time. We said a prayer and before long I was walking back through the dogs and equipment to my car.

Perhaps a week later I received another call. It was the eldest daughter again. Papa had died. Would I do the funeral?

We met at the cemetery beside the country church I passed the first time I visited them. There was the mortuary tent over the grave and the row of folding chairs. I don’t even remember what I said because it was probably many of the same scriptures and prayers always used at such occasions, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But what I do remember happened afterwards.

After the ceremony itself, people started moving away from the grave, taking flowers, meeting in little groups and chatting. All except one, the eldest daughter who had called me the first time, and the second time, who welcomed me into the living room and brought the basin of water and towel to Papa in the bedroom. She remained, sitting quietly, looking at the casket, her shoulders lifting in perfect rhythm with her quiet sobs. The rest of the family seemed to know that she needed to be there, by herself.

In time, a young granddaughter, maybe six or seven years old, moved in front of her grandmother and just stood there, waiting to be noticed. In a moment, this oldest daughter of Papa looked up into the eyes of her granddaughter and embraced her. She wept as she clutched her small shoulders. This granddaughter did not recoil. She did not move. She made herself entirely, perfectly available to her grandmother weeping for loss of her father.

This eldest daughter of Papa held her granddaughter as though embracing her own soul. Perhaps she was doing exactly that.

  1. Larry E Bernard says:

    Excellent, Tim. Thanks for the memory and the message. Blessed Holy Week to you.

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