Living, Dying, and a Story of Interaction

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The scene is a neighborhood in Houston, Texas, about 17 years ago. Two rambunctious boys about three years old are playing outdoors, this is their exchange. “We went to see granddad.” “Uhuh?” “He was dead.” Yeah?” “He was so dead; you couldn’t poke him or nothin’.” “Coool.” The playing resumed.

My maternal grandfather passed away in Utah and was buried along with his second wife, who predeceased him, in the National Memorial Cemetery of Arizona. Although there is much to tell of his 85 years of life, including his work as a forestry ranger, his service as Colonel under General Patton in World War II and the pride and joys his three marvelous daughters and their families brought to him; I shall concentrate on what occurred between his death and his burial.

He lived a life as independent as any, but in his last years, Granddad had gone to Utah to be near his youngest daughter and her family. I recall my last visit with him. The kids pounced on his bed as he smiled and cooed back at them, and he told me of a resident who was stealing everyone’s shoes. He was living in a senior care facility and I assumed he was imagining things. I told him so but he insisted it was true. We agreed to disagree but I discovered when passing the woman’s room, rows of neatly arranged men’s and women’s shoes and slippers were indeed inside her doorway. As had happened many times over the years, I learned not to be such a know-it-all and that most older folks do, in fact, know-it-all.

So after a fuller life than most, he left his earthly body. It was arranged that he would rest in the military cemetery where his second wife was waiting for him. His first wife, my mother’s mom, had passed away when they were newly married and my mother was a year or so old. Granddad’s sister, had lost her fiancee in the war and for a few years the two came together to raise my mama. Granddad and my Great Aunt were both young, good looking and bright and each soon found the love of their lives, remarried and grew families.

Back to my story. My uncle was bishop and therefore, obtained permission to transport Granddad over state lines to his final resting place. In the back of a pickup. With one of those tops covering the bed, and in a coffin (of course). Okay, not to say his final resting place was in the pickup, but you get the idea.

The families traveled from many places around the country and converged at a La Quinta motel in Arizona for the service. Like many, including Granddad, we arrived the night before. What follows, is worthy of a Chevy Chase movie. We held impromptu visitation in the La Quinta parking lot. Gathered around the back of the pickup. We did the normal stuff, looked at him, remarked on how at peace he appeared, traded stories and tears. In the parking lot. My children had known him all of their little lives so I thought it fine to let them see him too. Not everyone agreed it was a good idea, but out to the truck they went. They hopped right in back with his open casket and peered at him as I explained that he was dead and at peace and watched for a reaction. They simply hopped out and played in the parking lot.

You might think that now you have heard it all. No.

It was October and traveling home in that truck was sure to be a haul. The weather was sketchy and  it was decided that the truck really needed a brake job before attempting the trip. Scheduling made it impossible to do this after the service. That’s right. My uncle took Granddad for his final brake job. The staff at the repair shop gave them ‘no waiting’ service. We all remarked that “Granddad would’ve loved that.”

Finally, visitation, check, brake job, check; we met on a sunny day for his burial. With many religious traditions in the bunch, we had a Quaker style circle after the military service, and traded stories about our time with Granddad. Seeing him through other’s eyes was interesting, so many facets of one person. Now he rests for eternity atop his beloved. Granddad would’ve loved that.

Originally Published 3/4/14
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