When I walked into my grandfather’s room at the nursing home in Huntsville, Tennessee, I didn’t know what to expect. My father had warned me that he wasn’t doing well, so I tried to prepare myself. I did a terrible job. My uncle Kevin was in the room when I walked in. Papaw was sitting in a chair, staring ahead and not really looking at anyone or anything in particular. Cancer, as I’ve heard and seen many times, shows no partiality, and Papaw was no exception. The man who’s hands had been as strong as Vice Grips sat there feebly, those once mighty hands limp, frail, and lifeless. I talked with Kevin while the nurses put Papaw in bed, and when they and Kevin left, I sat in that room alone with him. There was an uneasy silence.
Silence with Papaw is something I’ve sadly become used to. He hasn’t really spoken to me since before Labor Day. The tumor ravaging the frontal part of his brain has affected his speech, making it rather difficult, if not impossible. I sat in the chair next to his bed and looked at him. His eyes were open, but he didn’t look at me. He just stared ahead, looking at nothing, but yet seemingly looking beyond the cinder block wall on the other side of the room. I couldn’t stand the silence any more, so I started talking.
I told him about my first semester teaching, graduate school, valet parking and all the foreign cars I’ve gotten to drive that he would always roll his eyes about before talking about his immaculate and original 1957 Chevy Bel-Aire. I told him about the women in my life, or rather the lack thereof, because it was something he would always ask me about. I told him about some of the girls I thought about asking out on a date but let my head get the better of me.
“There are quite a few pretty ones Papaw, but I just don’t have the time right now. I wish I did, ” I said, and I already knew what his response would have been. “I know, I know, I have to make time. You’re right Papaw.”
I talked to him about my book, my apartment search, my friends, my students. I talked to him about a lot of things, and for the near hour that I talked, he stared ahead, eyes open, never saying a word or looking at me. On occasion his hands would start shaking, almost like Parkinson’s, a side effect of the tumors silent attack on his brain.
I knew he must have been tired, but his eyes stayed open while I talked.
When I had nothing else to say, I slowly rose out of my chair, gave him a hug and a kiss on his head, told him I loved him and that I would see him again soon. He looked right at me without a sound. I turned and looked at him as I left, and for a moment, I thought I saw the faint hint of a smile, and his shaking hands rose slightly as I walked out, almost as if he was saying goodbye.
When I got back to my truck in the parking lot, I cried. “It’s not fair,” I thought. “Why do you have to let this happen? He’s a good man. Why?” The man I grew up adoring and emulating had shrunk back into a silent shell because of something he can’t control. And in that moment, I resented God for letting this happen. I started my truck and pulled out of the parking lot. “This is the hardest season of my life God, and now you’re doing this to me with Papaw. Can’t you give me a break?” I asked aloud as I drove in the silence. As I turned on to the the highway, I very clearly felt this question hit me square in the chest: “What is that to you?”
It reminded me of the scene from Lost where Ben first meets Jacob. He complains to him about all he’s lost, what he’s gone through for him, how much he has suffered and waited in his service. “What about me?!” he screamed. Jacob just calmly looked at him and quietly said, “What about you?” Granted, Ben killed Jacob right after this, but that’s not the point.
“What is that to you?” This was the exact thing Jesus said to Peter when he asked about John. Jesus had said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?” He then ended with, “As for you, follow me”. In this moment I knew God was saying to me, “What you want is not important. What is important is that you trust me.”
I don’t know why God does what he does. I don’t always like what God does. I don’t like that he allows me to go through pain and stress and heartache and then asks me to trust and love him for it regardless. I don’t like that he asks me to trust him when I’m afraid of what’s next. But, I don’t want to know the alternative. He’s a God of love, and I guess sometimes love has to let us hurt for a greater sake that we may not ever see or understand. So I’m going to trust him. He let Peter fall beneath the waves before he pulled him back out, and maybe right now God is doing the same thing to me.
I’ll hold my breath as long as I can and trust him to reach down and get me, because deep down, I know he always will.