"Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever."
~ from the 23rd Psalm
Someone asked me the other day if I could remember my "first" death? Over the years of serving as a pastor and chaplain, I have encountered death more times than I can even remember at this point.
The first person that I remember having "died," was my great grandfather, Clarence DeAtley. I remember the phone ringing at our home as we were up, getting ready for the day, and then my dad suddenly grabbing his coat and running out the door. I have a clear picture in my mind of my dad's face that morning. I hadn't thought about it until this moment, but my dad's face in my memory is much younger. It is a reminder that often moments, or life milestones, can seem to be encapsulated in our memory for a lifetime.
I can still see his car, pulling out from the alley beside our home, and the tailpipe of his car, blowing out gray smoke into the crisp, Indiana March air. I can still see my mom's face as she told me, "Papaw DeAtley died."
I still am not sure if I really understood what that meant. I loved my Papaw DeAtley, even though he was a much "different man," than the man he had been most of his life. His mind, confused, and so much of what he had been, replaced by a man who would sometimes get angry, but would welcome a great grandson to sit and share time with him while eating a fudge ice cream bar.
I remembered a man that would sit at the small table in a farmhouse kitchen that still contained the wood stove that once was used for cooking, and the 1940's gas stove that had replaced it. My great grandmother, turning on the broiler, and making toast with a little sorghum and butter. Occasionally, she would fix a mixture of cinnamon and sugar, adding to the flavor of the toast.
Hot tea would be steeping on the blue counter, and I would watch as she would add teaspoon after teaspoon of sugar, and then gently stir the mixture just prior to taking a sip. I can still remember watching her do the same thing with her iced tea, and watching as the granules of sugar would float in the mixture as she would take a drink.
I would watch as "Papaw DeAtley," would take the silverware from his place setting, and with the cloth napkin provided, would wipe down each utensil that he was about to use. To this day, I don't remember asking why he did that? I just remember that it was part of the routine at each meal.
"Papaw DeAtley died."
I was six months away from turning 7 years old. I had no idea really of what this meant, but that the news upset my both my mom and my dad.
The next thing I do remember is pulling into Myers Mortuary in Lebanon, IN, and my mom struggling with my coat. It was a cold day, and like to many late winters in Central and Northern Indiana, it is not unusual for there to be cold rain and sometimes ice.
The funeral home seemed dark to me. Heavy fabric draped windows, and organ music played over speakers that were sometimes filled with static, could be heard. I looked at the tall lamps that were in the front of the room next to what looked to be a shiny box, surrounded by flowers. I remember the ceiling, lined with small tiles that were plain white, illuminated by the lamps that seemed to make the room look pink with their light.
The first person I saw was my "Mamaw Williams," and I noticed the white handkerchief with a little embroidered blue flower with yellow dots, raised to her face, where she wiped tear after tear. She took my hand, and I could feel the moisture from the handkerchief, touching my hand, as I tried to pull away.
I felt the hands of someone that I do not remember, picking me up. The person was behind me, but I clearly remember seeing "Papaw DeAtley" laying in the box. He looked like he was sleeping, but he wasn't bothered by any of the people that were talking as they stood beside the box. I remember thinking, "Why is he asleep? I would love for him to ask for ice cream about now."
I'm unsure why I ended up sitting next to my Mamaw Williams as people sat down for the service. My head rested on her lap, and I can still feel how her belly shook as she cried. "You know he was my dad," she said to me.
I didn't realize then, but do now, that she was wanting to make sure that I knew this connection. It's hard to believe that it has been 16 years now since Mamaw Williams died, laying in another box, in the same room at Myers.
To this day I can still associate the name of the mortuary, with the smell of aged carpet, fragrant lilies, pink lighting, and the sound of a shoe shine machine that sat near the entrance, where men would step up, turn on a switch, and it would buff away any dirt or scratches.
I can still see Papaw DeAtley, Mamaw Williams, and a few other relatives and friends that have died over the years in that room that has changed over the years, but the location and reason for gathering has been the same. It is the place in my memory where death becomes a reality.
I am drawn to these memories as I encounter patient families when one of my hospice patients die. Sometimes, as I see young children encountering their first death and trying to understand, that six-year-old inner child in me, still wishes that the person would sit up and ask for ice cream.
Death is as much a part of life and breathing. It is the stark reality that none of us can escape. In my Christian faith, I understand that death is the gate that opens as we live fully into eternity. For me, I try to remind myself that I am already part of that eternity, that my death will be a mark on a timeline that has no ending, and that those early childhood memories will be only a memory, forgotten, as I encounter those who died before me.
I am not afraid to die, but like all of us, if truthful, the journey to that death will sometimes leave me anxious as I consider the path, and ask God to help me when it comes. Perhaps that is a reflection to be written for another day. In the meantime...
Stay in God's grip!
G. Todd Williams (c) 2021
Pre-order Todd's new book, "Remember Me When..." at Chalice Press and receive a 20 percent discount.
Rev. G. Todd Williams lives in the Houston metro area and is a Hospice Chaplain at Essential Hospice, Webster, Texas, and is an ordained Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pastor.