Today is Christmas Eve, and I'm sitting at the counter/bar at my mother-in-law's house. My wife and her mother are at the kitchen table wrapping presents, my child is downstairs with the Basset Hound I schlepped from Charlotte (to hang out in Hickory at ANOTHER dog's house, by the way), and there are scatterings of my sisters-in-law and father-in-law blowing in and out of the house. Something of a frenzy, I am surrounded by fun and laughter and stress and just plain old fun. It makes me think about the fun of Christmas and everything that makes it so.
And then I think about my friend Jody McPherson. He died two days ago, and he leaves behind a wife and precious twin boys. Jody was one of my fraternity brothers, and it completely sucks that he's gone. Jody was a dedicated husband and father and police officer who suffered from a form of brain cancer. I will always remember Jody from our college days - he was a big man, probably less so after his diagnosis, but he had a smile and a charm that matched his muscular body. It hurts my heart that he died days before Christmas. And even though his boys knew he was sick, I cannot imagine what they are going through right now. No one can.
My paternal grandfather died around Christmas many years ago, and though he never said anything about it, I know it devastated my father. It had to have been one of the hardest things he's experienced in his life; the passing of his mother several years later was equally as painful for him. Not one day in my 37 years have I ever seen that man cry, but to have lost both of your parents certainly gives you that right. God only knows how he dealt with his grief. I don't know what I'll do when faced with the same situation.
A couple of years ago, I sat in a dimly lit hospital room and watched mother softly stroke my maternal grandfather's hand as he slowly lost his life. I wasn't there, but I imagine she did the same years before when her mother died. I sat on the other side of the bed, also stroking his hand and marveled at how lucky I was to be there with him. It makes me cry now just thinking about it. How I loved him - and still do. Just me and my mother and my grandfather, sitting quietly, each of us in drastically different places in our lives; each of us dealing with the inevitability of what we didn't know was less than twenty-four hours away. He couldn't talk, and he smiled as best as he could when I walked into his room. I will never forget the smell that lingered in the air, or the ragged sound of his breathing, or the way he gripped my hand with what was left of his strength. I imagined him thanking me for being there. I was in agony that I was watching him die. And at the same time, I was thankful that my grandfather would soon be free of his pain.
If you've read 'I'm Probably Going To Be Thirsty', (and you'd better have), you'd know that I'm not the most religious person on the planet. I don't know what happens after you die, even though I really want to believe that Jody and my grandfathers are in Heaven. I know people die every day. I know that people are aching right now either because of family and friends they've lost years ago, or earlier today. I know that. But whether you knew your 93 year old grandfather had reached the zenith of his life, or that a young man with whom you shared the bond of Brotherhood had unexpectedly lost his battle with a ravaging and deadly disease, the death of someone you love is never easy to rationalize and the pain never goes away.
As they prepare to say a final goodbye to their father, in twenty years Jody's precious twin boys might only remember the 1000-watt smile and a bear hug and their daddy's hearty laugh; in twenty years, my father might only remember the bald head and glasses and soft-spoken nature of a father of nine; in twenty years, I might only remember the time I sat in a dimly-lit hospital room and held the soft, wrinkled hand of the funniest man on the planet.
With each year I've aged, I have been enriched by my varied experiences; sometimes in ways that I never would have asked for or even appreciated when I was younger. I know now that the only eloquence in death is its finality. Inherent in finality, though, is its converse - new beginnings. And woven inextricably within new beginnings are the memories we create.
Every day of your life, be it Christmas or the 4th of July or just a Tuesday, I hope that you take time to treasure the loved ones in your life. Hug and kiss and laugh. And make memories.
May Jody McPherson, Garfield Vertreese, and Joseph Vernon Sears rest in peace.