When I was a freshman in college, my dad’s mom died. The timing of it was a little crazy as it fell during spring break. Friends had been trying to get me to go on a missions trip to Florida during that week all during the late Fall and early Winter semesters, but I just didn’t feel right about going. I’m not sure what was irking me at the time, but I just had a sense that I needed to stick around at home. Turns out the Holy Spirit was guiding me.
My grandmother lived only about an hour or so from us in Astoria, New York. My dad could easily get down there if he needed to (if anyone can easily get to New York, that is). He would talk to her every few days and she would come to visit every so often. She wasn’t always the most amiable person, at least not to me, so she never stayed with us for extensive periods of time.
She had a tough life. She raised 2 boys in New York City by herself after her alcoholic husband left. Her building did not have an elevator in it and she walked up the steps to her apartment right up until the time she went into the hospital at the end. My dad had actually tried to contact her and was getting worried, so he drove down to her apartment. He had to break through the deadbolts as she had fallen and was on the floor, unable to get up and let him in.
I wish that I had taken better mental notes of those days. I know that my dad was trying to be strong, but I am sure that it was a hard time for him. He seemed strong at the funeral, although I don’t completely remember the whole thing. I know that it was the first time that I had ever seen a dead body before, not something that I had prepared myself for. I think it was hard for my dad to watch his mom in those final days, especially because it stuck with him and hit him a few years later.
Around my junior year of college, my mom’s mother’s health had started to deteriorate. She was living in a retirement community in upstate Connecticut and we would get to see her fairly often. She was one of the sweetest people that I knew. She was always smiling with such warmth that it was hard not to smile back. Despite the difficulties that she had during her life, she always had such an incredible outlook.
I remember going to the hospital with my mom towards the end. My grandma was unresponsive and it was hard to see. I know that my mom was struggling, but my mom had gained her own compassion and sweetness from her mother, something that I think she passed on to me. That may have been the last time that I saw my grandma alive.
Within those last days, I remember waking up one morning to a noise that I hadn’t heard before. As I sat up in bed and listened more closely, I realized that it was the sound of my father sobbing. I wasn’t sure what had happened, so I threw on some clothes and went to the kitchen where I found my mom and dad. Dad was sitting in a chair with his head in his arm as he sobbed. Mom just stood there with her hand on his shoulders, trying her best to comfort him.
I wasn’t sure what was up. I asked my mom if he was okay and she told me that seeing my grandma in the state that she was in reminded him of his own mother and all that she had been through. I think the sheer emotion of the moments had weighed him down and he just broke.
As I think about the top memories that I have of my father, that certainly ranks up there. When I let my mind go back to that day and think about it, it’s almost as if I am there, watching it happen all over again. What my dad expressed in those moments was so important to me. He gave me permission to cry. He gave me permission to express my feelings outwardly, not something that many guys can say about their fathers. He showed me deep down what it means to be a pastor, to share in someone else’s pain, to weep with those who weep.
My grandma eventually passed away, but I haven’t forgotten her or the impact that she had on my dad. My dad felt so loved and accepted by my mom’s family. They always loved him and cared for him, something which probably helped to ease the pain of losing his dad so many years earlier.
I’ve never forgotten that day. When I lost both of my parents, I did my best to make sure that my kids saw that it was okay to grieve and to cry. It’s such an incredible lesson that I learned from my dad that day, every moment that I reflect on it, it seems to mean that much more to me. I miss him so much, but what a better man I am because of all of the things that he taught me.