Nine years and almost four months ago, my grandfather died. It was my twenty-fifth birthday, a Sunday. My husband and I had driven to my hometown on Friday, hoping to visit with Grandad because we knew he was very sick. When we arrived at my parents’ house, my mom was waiting by the door to go straight to the hospital with us. My dad was already at the hospital. The doctors had said to call in the family; Grandad wouldn’t live much longer. My aunts and uncles and cousins arrived that Friday night and into the day on Saturday. All twelve of my Grandad’s children, most of their spouses, and many of his (then) twenty-one grandchildren filled his hospital room and spilled out into the hall. The nurses set up a coffee cart in the vacant room next to his, making sort of a hospitality room for our large (and boisterous) family.
My uncles thumb-wrestled with Grandad; my aunts rubbed his dry, chapped lips with wet swabs. My grandma sat by his side. The room was loud at times, filled with laughter yet tinged by grief. We took turns standing by Grandad’s head, holding his hand, talking to him, telling him we loved him. We stood in the hall or sat in the coffee room, catching up with cousins, telling stories and sharing memories. When the nurses looked our way too often, we’d quiet down a little; but it is difficult to keep that many people quiet.
On Sunday morning before Grandad died, all of us gathered around his bed, filling his hospital room. A pastor prayed and we all sang Amazing Grace. A couple hours later, he closed his eyes and stopped breathing.
I can’t think of a more pleasant way to spend the hours before death than to be surrounded by children and grandchildren and praising our Savior. I often imagine what that must have been like for my grandfather, lying in the hospital bed, looking around the room, seeing his legacy surround him. Grandad died as he had lived, in a room full of family.
Soon after my grandfather’s death, another man died. This man was the estranged husband of a co-worker of mine. He had left his wife and daughter when his daughter was a child. He was selfish and cruel and pushed his family away from himself. He rejected their love, over and over. He chose not to know his son-in-law; he chose not to know his own grandchildren. When his wife tried to reconcile, tried to convince him to return, he turned her away. When his daughter tried to love him, he turned her away as well. This man died as he lived; alone. Alone. His legacy surrounded him as well, a legacy of hatred and selfishness and bitterness.
I know that having a lot of children doesn’t equal a wonderful legacy and it doesn’t ensure love and selflessness. But I think it is wise to consider what kind of legacy we are leaving behind. What sort of memories am I building for my children? What bonds am I forming with them that will carry over into their adult years? What am I teaching them about the value of family?
Honestly, that morning in my grandad’s hospital room is one of my most favorite memories. Some of us were crying and could barely sing the song, but there we were for Grandad to see. He loved his family. He was proud of his family. He’d asked me just over a year before he died when I was going to give him a red-headed great-grandbaby. My brother and his wife fulfilled that wish just four months before Grandad’s death — they even cooperated on the red-headed part.
There was no doubt for any of us that family was important to Grandad. Faith was also important to Grandad. I heard him stand up in church and testify about Jesus. I saw him get up early, his broken back aching in the cold, to head up to the old country church and light the stove so the rest of us would be warm during the service. I saw him standing when it would have been more comfortable to sit or lie, to count the people in Sunday School and the offering we brought. Yes, service to God was important to Grandad. Service to his country was too. Grandad served in the Pacific during World War II. Up until he died, he kept in touch with the men he served with. Some of them came from far away to attend his funeral.
Grandad wasn’t perfect. He yelled at us if we accidentally flipped the electric switch that turned his TV off. And he turned his hearing aids down if he didn’t care what we were all talking about. He smoked cigars in the basement, and he sometimes got silly with a little too much Percocet, which he took for the chronic pain in his back. But Grandad loved his family and worked hard to provide for them. He grew up in coal towns and quit school after the eighth grade to work in the coal mines, where –except for his service during the war–he worked until a cave-in broke his back and ended his ability to work.
This is the legacy he left behind. A legacy of faith and family and service to God and country. A legacy of hard work. Oh, and a legacy of fishing and occasional cigar-smoking in the basement while listening to the CB-radio.