August 9, 2019

When Heroes Fall


My Grandfather passed away this past Friday. The morning he took ill was unremarkable. It seemed like any other morning. Grandpa was out and about with a friend from church, having some lights installed on a camper. There was no urgency to the project, but it was something he wanted to get done - like a million other projects that he had prioritized over the course of his life.

Somewhere along the way, my son and I got around and went to Lawton to pick up his Mother from the airport. They had planned to spend a couple of days here on the farm before catching a flight back to Indiana. We didn’t get very far along on our way back to Walters when I got a call saying that Papa wasn’t feeling well and that he was going to the doctor - like he had so many times before. At the age of 88, Papa had had his health battles. But they nearly always went away. A day or so in the hospital max. A dose of antibiotics. He was usually good to go. 

The Fall

So, I didn’t think much of the situation when he was first admitted. My Mom decided to spend the night with him. We prayed and went home with a promise to relieve Mom in the morning. But something odd happened during that first night. While he was alert and talking when we left, his blood pressure started to drop during the night. His breathing grew more difficult. The doctors threw around the word sepsis. Quite unlike the many times before, Papa wasn’t getting better. I started to get concerned. A nagging worry that maybe something was different this time. A quiet unease growing at the back of my mind. 

Tuesday bled into Wednesday. We were back at the hospital as soon as we could. Before we got there, he was moved to ICU. My nagging unease transformed into a mountain of worry as a hive of nurses flitted about with concerned looks. Papa was still talking and alert but he wasn’t allowed food or water. There was talk of a potential procedure but no concrete plans. Food and water were restricted in hopes that they could operate. Nutrients and antibiotics alike were administered through an IV. 

Most of the family was exhausted by the time evening rolled around. I offered to stay with my Mother at the hospital for another night to help her get some rest. Everyone went home to rest and to pray. For me, it was a sleepless night spent walking the corridors of the hospital between nursing rounds. When I was in the room, Papa shifted often and wanted to adjust his position in the bed to be more comfortable. I moved him. When the nurses weren’t badgering him for blood draws and vital checks, I talked to him about football and Thunder basketball and gave him water when the nurses weren’t looking. Just little sips to wet his mouth and to quench his thirst. As the night wore on, he talked less and less. I didn’t realize it at the time but those conversations with me would be his last words. I wish I had asked him questions that were more profound. I wish I had talked to him about things that were more consequential. 

By Thursday morning, he had finally fallen asleep but his breathing had gotten worse. The doctor recommended a ventilator. We agreed. After a few hours on the machine, his condition stabilized enough that the doctors could run the emergency procedure that they had been planning - a procedure to hopefully address a blood clot resulting from the sepsis. The thought was that the clot was causing some of the problems with his breathing. By now, the prognosis was grim and the surgery odds were a even 50-50 given that he would need to be sedated. We waited and prayed. As the afternoon sun faded into night, in characteristic fashion, Grandpa pulled through. Our spirits lifted with hope that his blood pressure might rise once the sedative wore off. Eventually, his blood pressure did become more stable for some time in fact. But he didn’t wake up. As advised by his care team, we all chalked it up to him needing to get more rest. So, we went home to do the same. 

I woke early Friday morning to a phone call. In a situation like this, phone calls early in the morning are never good. 

His nursing team had kept watch during the night while his condition deteriorated. The ephemeral “they” ran another emergency scan and found a new rupture internally. He was losing blood. Fading fast. There was nothing they could do. We raced to the hospital. I hoped for a miracle that was not to be. By the time we arrived, loved ones had started to gather. The only option presented was to remove the machines. Before the vitals went flat, we all had time to say our brief goodbyes. There wasn’t nearly enough time. Never is. 

Once the ventilator was removed, Papa slipped away quickly. The warmth in his hands - hands that had held mine hundreds of times before - gradually grew cold. In a matter of minutes, he was gone. 

A Hero’s Life Remembered

The days after are a blur. Funeral arrangements. Video tributes. Visits from loved ones and friends. At one point, we participated in an all night wake with him. The details of those days are fuzzy. At some point, the task of writing Papa’s eulogy fell to me. Any one of us could have done it. When you live a good life, it’s easy to say good things. But how do you summarize the life of a giant? Someone, who in life, always seemed larger than life itself? The effort was a fool’s errand. There were numerous stories to tell. Countless acts of kindness to note. Innumerable lessons learned at his table over coffee. Hours spent fishing at the ponds, soaking up his wisdom - all in blissful ignorance of the reality that it would one day end. Even the obituary that was put together, which accurately and thoroughly stated the bare facts of Papa’s life, seemed inadequate. His parents, wife, and survivors were all mentioned. A handful of his accomplishments graced the pages of the local newspaper. But neither the eulogy nor the obituary even remotely approached the totality of the man he was. 

As a family we planned Grandpa’s funeral. It was a service that was quintessentially him. The historic country church that our family calls our spiritual home is not necessarily one that has embraced the digital age. There are no projectors and screens adorning the stage. There are no cameras. The dark wood paneling of the sanctuary harkens back to an understated elegance that seemed to permeate rural construction at the turn of the 19th century. Yet, the congregation agreed to have the internet installed so that we could livestream Grandpa’s prayer service and funeral for his many friends and family from across the Nation. I think that Grandpa would have gotten a kick out of this bit of logistical planning, and the fact that his funeral was the first to bring the Church, as we call it, into our modern, technological era. 

We were careful to call the prayer service and funeral “celebrations” of his life. The use of the word celebration is really just an exercise in semantics but we wanted people to reflect upon Grandpa’s life and celebrate the work of a faithful servant of God and of a life lived well, as opposed to treating the occasion as than an opportunity to mourn his passing. In truth, it was a mix of both. Still, it was a service that befit the person Grandpa was, and it involved many of the people that he cared about and that cared about him. If the goal of such a celebration is to honor the memory of the loved one who has passed, then I think we succeeded. 

But to me it still didn’t seem adequate for a giant. For a hero. 

A Hero’s Farewell

It wasn’t until the funeral procession to his grave that I began to feel like Grandpa was recognized for the hero that he was. It’s true that Grandpa was a proud veteran of the Korean War. He served his country bravely as a combat engineer, and instilled a similar sense of service in each of his grandchildren. My oldest younger sister is a foster care worker who has devoted her life to protecting children. My youngest sister will soon be a teacher. He never said it in so many words, but the message from our Grandfather was always clear: serve a cause greater than yourself. 

But beyond this, he was our rock. There was no situation in life that I couldn’t bring to him for wise counsel. There was nothing he couldn’t fix. No problem a bit of his common sense couldn’t solve. He mentored me without the need to call it mentoring. He encourage me. He pushed me to do things that were well beyond my comfort zone, the lot of which have made me a better person as a result. He didn’t fight villains at night. But he knew how to fight the enemies of self-doubt, insecurity, and intolerance. Like a true hero, he conquered all of these with a sword of love. 

Our family buried Papa with full military honors. As we made the descent from the church, down the hillside to the cemetery, located about five miles away, we were escorted by the Oklahoma Highway Patrol. The trooper’s lights flashed as cars pulled over to acknowledge the passing of a great man: a man whose greatness can be attributed simply to the fact that he loved God and loved others. As we pulled into the cemetery, American flags waved proudly long the cemetery’s fence line. Their vibrant hues of red, white, and blue provided a stark but fitting contrast to the solemnity of the day. 

Far too soon, the officer’s car came to a stop blocking both lanes of traffic along the country highway leading into town. As we passed, the officer stood at parade rest, his head bowed while the procession made its way through the gates. Gradually, the hearse would wind its way along the narrow lane of the cemetery, and I saw a lone bugler standing off in the distance. There would be no faux recording of taps at this funeral. When we arrived at Grandpa’s grave, the military color guard stood a short distance away, at the ready to pay one final tribute to a fallen warrior. 

We removed Grandpa’s flag-draped coffin from the hearse and carried it to its resting place while the color guard stood in salute. At the exact moment the interment ceremony began, quite by happenstance, an Air Force jet flew low and overhead. Our family likes to think that we have a number of friends, but we certainly don’t have the military connections to secure an Air Force flyby. We had a good laugh later when folks asked how we managed to do it. 

Although it was not planned, I viewed the flyover as a special nod from God, and perhaps from Papa himself, and made my peace. If anyone could talk the Lord into sending a jet over for his service, it would be him. It may seem like a cheeky ask of God during Papa’s first few days in heaven, but I wouldn’t put it past him to find a way to comfort a broken-hearted grandson like yours truly. 

When the guns blazed in salute and as taps played in the distance, I internalized the fact that Papa was gone. As we lowered him into the ground, there were still plenty of tears. Even from me. But when the final spade was turned and his body buried, I couldn’t help but smile a bit wistfully. 

Papa had gotten a hero’s farewell after all. 








No comments

© Pax Plena
Maira Gall