A Grandfather’s Blessing

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Earlier this month the world lost an incomparable storyteller.

Walter Wangerin Jr., who had been a professor at Valparaiso University in Indiana since 1991, was the author of more than 30 novels.  He also wrote numerous children’s stories, essays and plays, not to mention scores of sermons from his days as a Lutheran pastor.

Wangerin was especially focused on the reality of suffering – heightened by his own struggle with the cancer that recently took his life.  His earliest insight came at the age of six during his final visit with his grandfather, a big man who had always been full of life and joy. 

Now he lay dying.  Yet in the midst of his suffering, Walt’s grandfather passed on a profound lesson.  Wangerin writes:

I was terrified, because I didn’t know what dying is and I didn’t know what you do with dying.

I walked through the hall to the place where Grandpa was lying down.  He was a big-boned man, but so thin.  And I stood ten feet away from him.  I stood back, and I didn’t move, and I didn’t talk. I simply looked at him in the eye and waited, because I didn’t know what to do.

Grandpa turned his head my way, and when his eyes widened just a little bit, I knew he had seen me and he knew I was there.  And then Grandpa told me what you do.

Lying on his back, Grandpa took a huge hand on a narrow arm and put it out to me.  He nodded and he smiled, and I understood immediately.  This is what Grandpa was telling me to do:  He was saying, “Six Years Old, come here.”  He said, “Let’s shake hands.”  So I walked over to Grandpa.

This is what you do when somebody dies.  You shake hands once, twice, and suddenly whatever death was, it was smaller than us.  It was smaller than me, it was smaller than Grandpa, and it was smaller than the thing that embraced us both – and that thing was God.

We drove home from there.  I think it was several weeks later, I was sitting in the kitchen, and the telephone rang in the dining room.  My mother answered it, and I could see her through the hallway.  I knew what that phone call was about from the first ring.

She hardly said any words at all, and when she was done listening to the telephone, she put the phone on the cradle, and she put her head against the phone and started to cry.  And I knew Grandpa was dead.

But Grandpa had taught me what you do when somebody dies.  Six Years Old – Grandpa had blessed me out of his suffering.  So Six Years Old stood up at the kitchen table (I don’t know how tall I was at the time, but I think it was about ten feet), and I walked from the kitchen into the hall, where my mother was standing with her head against the wall and weeping.

I knew what to do. 

I grabbed hold of my mother’s skirt and pulled it once, twice, giving tiny tugs so she would know I was there, and waiting till she would look down.  My mother looked down on me with her eyes red and with all the tears running down her face, but that was all right, those tears were all right, because I knew what to do.

I stuck my hand out.  I took her hand and I shook it – once, twice – so Mom could come down on my shoulder and cry on me.

And we could be bigger than this thing: dying.

In Walter Wangerin’s wonderful words, “Grandpa blessed me out of his suffering.”  

May God help us do the same.