Something tells me that I am not the only one who is unhardened and maybe a tad more than elated to see 2020 go by the wayside and usher in a new year with promise, resolution, and perhaps even a little amnesia. I write this with a healthy amount of caution because, as some of you may already be thinking, 2021 could be worse, while others, siding with the more-or-less optimistic stoics among us, would be counter-offering a glib, “how could it be?!” Whatever the case may be, we can all agree that new opportunities await all of us just as they have every year, and now is the time to learn from the more immediate past and project going forward whether or not the new year is going to be better than the last one.
Let me suggest one possible positive starting point to begin 2021: is there anything already significant about the upcoming year that we could find so as to set the stage for good things to celebrate rather than ruminate? We would seek these out to somehow counteract the events over which we have no control with items that, whether it is a great or terrible year, will come and go whether we like it or not, with of course the normal caveat about dying or some other unforeseen cataclysmic occurrence. I found one.
Sometime within the first few days of our new adventure, I will have outlived my grandfather. The rationale of this observation has nothing to do with competition and everything to do with admiration which should be made noticeably clear in a few lines. To declare without embarrassment that I will have been blessed by this landmark in 2021 only serves to remind and challenge me to live up to the standards and nobility that he left my family over forty-five years ago when he died. If there was anyone in my world who could make you feel as if you were the only one in the room, it was Grandpa. I am very happy to discover in sharing this intent to write about him with my other relatives, mostly cousins, that I was not the only one who felt this way or to this day still remember the intense joy and expression of pure delight when we walked into his home, expressing as he would with some little nickname he had for each one of us. Mine was “Little Googy,” which I have come to discover is an Australian term of endearment spoken to children when they are about to be fed their morning egg.
Of all the memories amassed during high school, of all the choices and decisions that a young man makes during that tumultuous season of human development, I am most happy of the one I made, almost intuitively, to begin to ask my Grandpa about as many memories he had to share whenever we went to visit. Had these days been accompanied with clever and smart phones that could have recorded and photographed any given moments of time, my rendition of those short but meaningful conversations may have been very different today. Still, I am grateful for what we had and for what I remember, even more than forty years ago.
One memory that always comes back to my heart, especially around these times of Thanksgiving and Christmas, is the very tender account my Grandpa telling me about a little lamb he was once given. I can’t remember why or how he came across a baby lamb, but I do remember what happened after a few months. My Grandpa has created a little pen to the side of their home into a makeshift corral and every day went out to feed the animal and to make sure that it was protected and safe from any wild animals that may have been passing through. Over the next couple of months, the lamb grew pretty large and by this time had already had a name. Then came Thanksgiving. As a father of a family of six mouths to feed, he had one obligation and it will not take an exceedingly long stretch of the imagination to figure out what happened next. The last element of this memory that I remember is what my father told me years later after my Grandpa died. He said that he could remember approaching the table quite hungry and as he was enjoying one of his favorite meals with his brothers and sister, he looked up and saw his father walking up and down the dining room with just a piece of bread and some coffee. He just couldn’t eat the main course that day, understandably.
I think it was early in my Senior Year of high school that I had what was probably the last conversation I would have with Grandpa just weeks before he died. Our nation was still swelling from the divisive nature of the Vietnam War/Conflict and as a young man nearing the age of the draft, I had some important questions for him concerning the nature of battle and war itself knowing the time of life that he had lived and observed. “Why do we have war, Grandpa?” was something along those lines that I recall placing before him outside his home, probably near the same area of his make-shift lamb pen. I wish I could say that I could restate the exact words he used, but what I do remember was that he said that war really did not create valor or heroism, rather, it revealed it in the most unobvious of places.
Then he went on to share a most profound detail that he was told by those, older than him, returning from World War II. It involved a situation involving two buddies from Texas who fought side by side in the trenches of France. Apparently, the two had become separated in the fierce battles in the trenches in southern France. When the gunfire had ceased for a few merciful minutes, the one could hear the other crying out clearly wounded and even perhaps dying and began to implore his commanding officer for permission to crawl over to reach his friend, to offer comfort and encouragement and to help him in any way possible. The officer in charge, however, refused to let him leave the trench but before he knew it, the young soldier was already over the top, ignoring the smell of gunpowder in the air, the concussion of incoming rounds, and the frenetic pounding of his heart deep within his chest. Miraculously, he made it to his friend hoisting him on his back and then repeated the amazing rescue effort only to discover that when they both returned to the safe area of their platoon, it was too late. His friend was gone. And even in the face of remarkable love translated into pristine bravery, the officer in charge chided the young soldier and cynically asked if it had been “worth the risk.” Without hesitation, he quickly and with tears in his eyes, gently responded, “It truly was worth it, sir. My buddy’s last words made it more than worth it. He looked up at me before he died and said, ‘I knew you would come.’” Not too much longer after that priceless conversation, my Grandpa leaped into eternity waiting for all of us, but not without leaving us all at least a few morsels of wisdom to propel us forward into the trenches of life. I remember recalling that story as they carried his body to the cemetery with all my family watching with a heaviness caused by the realization that things would probably not be the same anymore, and they were right.
Amazingly, some thirty years later, I found myself presented with a situation which made me think of these elements of life and love and loyalty from yet another unique perspective. I guess you could say that I have been blessed with both a sense of loyalty and reciprocally loyal friends, so when one of them called me to tell me that his older brother was found dead in his living room, a man I knew and considered a friend, and then quickly ended the conversation to start planning the funeral, I knew what I was going to do. It was the week of Thanksgiving and I had not spoken with my friend who lived in the Midwest and I remember answering my mom who asked me what I was doing for Thanksgiving. I answered, “I’ll be in Iowa.” Calling on favors from everyone from Omaha to Sioux City, I arranged the flight, a car, and a place to stay, including a ride to the funeral home where I knew the family would be gathering. I can still see the scene in my mind’s eye. I was sitting alone in the back of the chapel watching as my friend and his grieving family filed in to pay the last respects, many of them who only saw the body of my friend’s brother laying in state, tears and sad shouts emanating throughout those brief shocking, terrible moments. And that’s when it happened. My friend casually or maybe instinctively looked back toward the last pew of the chapel and spotted me. He slowly sauntered toward me, approached, and said those immortal words, “I knew you’d come.”
Grateful to my ever-smiling and constant welcoming Grandpa, I am ever-so-thankful to my Sweet Jesus who has never left my side no matter how dark it has been, or rather how dark it appeared to be. Therefore, I’d like to share with you what I have learned going forward:
I know very well how valuable time is and how wonderful it is when it is spent doing good things and spending it with great people. Thank you, Grandpa. I know you did all you could for all of us and genuinely believe that you are at peace now. To all who are reading this, I wish you peace in this brave new year.
There is no doubt there are many among our readership who call themselves “dog lovers.” I mention this as a sort of disclaimer because as we begin to launch another brave new, and a conceivably better world in 2021, I want to close with the last line from an awesome book and movie simply entitled, “A Dog’s Purpose.” After taking some of us on an emotional roller-coaster, the ending reveals what the title suggests. The purpose of those wonderful canine companions is simple. “Be Here Now.” What a great way to preface the new year! Just be here, wherever you are, whatever the circumstance, whatever the scenario. Then, just maybe, you’ll hear the words that everyone should hear at least once in their lives: “I knew you would come.”
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“Love is Love no matter how old you are, and I knew if I gave you enough time, you’d come back to me.” ~Nicholas Sparks