I grew up without a close relationship with any grandparents. I was always jealous of kids who had grandpas and grandmas and mimis and nanas who came to plays, concerts, and such. My dad’s parents died before I was born. My mom’s mother died when my mom was a girl. Her dad remarried a woman named Patsy but Mom did not have a good relationship with her step-mother. I can count on two hands the number of times I saw my Granddaddy when I was a child.
As a child, I didn’t know for certain why my close cousins and I didn’t see Granddaddy and Grandma Patsy very often. I knew there was tension and hurt between Mom and her 5 natural siblings and their father. I occasionally heard stories but I never saw the whole picture. I do have a vivid memory of visiting Granddaddy when I was four-years-old. He took me outside and when I saw a tree swing, I asked him to push me on it. He told me he was too tired to swing and I quickly answered, with my hands on my hips, “Grandpas are supposed to push their grandkids on swings. It’s in all the books.” Bless. I have no idea what books I had been reading but I remember standing there, locked eye with him, and thinking I was not about to budge on this. I knew what Grandpas did for other kids. I had read the books and seen the evidence and I wanted in. He pushed me.
I saw him at a couple of family parties over the years. He came to my high school graduation, my mom’s funeral, my wedding, and Shelby’s baptism. I didn’t see him again for several years.
A cousin texted me in 2015 that Grandma Patsy had passed away and I felt God stirring in me to go to the funeral. Granddaddy, nearly blind at that point, cried when I walked up to him. He hugged me and told me he was so glad I was there. God started opening doors for healing. Later that year, it was Thanksgiving when God worked a massive miracle in my family. You can read about it here. And suddenly, there it was, a relationship.
Granddaddy turned 101-years-old this last November. At Thanksgiving, he sat next to me as we ate and told me he’d been invited to ride in the Fourth of July parade in his hometown. He fought bravely in Europe in World War II and in recent years, had been the subject of a few newspaper articles. There aren’t too many WWII Veterans still living so I could totally understand the parade plans. Knowing that July 4 is my birthday, he told me that if he was still alive, I could ride with him. Of course, I agreed. Like my Granddaddy, I rarely turn down a chance in the spotlight and a parade was ideal for both of us.
Two weeks ago, however, I received several texts and phone calls from family members letting me know his nursing home had reached out to say the end was near. He wasn’t expected to make it through the night. And then he wasn’t expected to make it through the next night. And the next. And the next. No one will ever accuse him of going down easily without a fight. His children and step-children were all invited in, one-by-one, through a back door of the nursing home, to say good-bye. Quarantine due to COVID-19 has made saying good-bye hard for so many families this year. For almost two weeks, Granddaddy waited for his family to say their farewells, and then finally, a little after midnight, while we all slept last night, he passed peacefully from this world to the arms of Jesus.
I am grateful for the last few years I’ve had to spend time with him. He wasn’t a perfect man. He wasn’t a perfect father or grandfather. But in the end, he was gentle and loving and funny. He longed to be accepted and loved – a longing I think we can all understand.
I cried a little bit this morning, thinking about the hurts of the family that were never addressed or healed but then I thanked God for the ones that were. I thanked Him for His promise of eternity when those things won’t matter anymore. I’m thankful for the salvation we have in Jesus and the hope that we all get to be together again one day.
We don’t know when we will be able to gather for a memorial but I know it will be a party. We will laugh and tell stories and eat good food and love on each other in the way only family can. And we will be thankful for Alfred Preston (Whitey) Birdwell because, without him, we would not be here to share his love.