My grandfather lived with an abiding shame from the sins of his part in a demoralizing and confusing war. He never told me what happened on VC Hill in Vietnam. I learned many of his secrets before the end, even honorable things he covered over, but not that one. I thought for sure it would come, for he was, in his own words, like an old refrigerator, can’t keep nothing. But I was wrong. I expected confession and fear, but none came. I had the right answers about forgiveness and assurance prepared, but I didn’t need them. I was ready to run the distance between him and his God. Instead there was only a firm pressure on my shoulders, pushing me into a chair. Sit down.
Almost two years have passed and looking back I occasionally wonder if I missed some moment of ministering to his spirit. Maybe he roamed over VC Hill while I was sleeping, but I don’t think so. He was peaceful throughout, but so quiet. Where are you? I wondered, watching the movement of his sleeping eyelids. If he was entering gloryland, all bright like the Mount of Transfiguration, why wouldn’t he say? But perhaps his response was what Peter’s should have been.
Like Peter and myself, my grandfather had a big mouth and a fearful temper. I don’t wish to make light of it. Anger is a grievous sin, and putting people back together isn’t so easy if Jesus in the flesh isn’t standing right beside you. The last thirty years of his life, my grandfather became a faithful, active member of a church, setting himself apart from many generations of fathers and brothers who were too proud to submit to and serve a group of humans they wouldn’t care to go on vacation with, or any group of humans for that matter. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t hurt and get hurt in that church. Truth be told, there was a man he didn’t like and it was fairly obvious that man didn’t like him either. And that man was the pastor. He was much younger than my grandfather but he became sick and died several years before. His name was Jack.
One evening on his deathbed, my grandfather did some talking. When this happened, everyone in the house would gather around and piece together his meaning and when it was over, I’d write it down. This time, he looked from spot to spot in the ceiling and on the far wall with recognition at a familiar, invisible face, as if they were truly there before him. No actor could have put on a show so thoroughly convincing. With one he giggled and made funny faces. It was too perfectly ridiculous to be one sided. That’s when it fully came to me that whatever he was seeing was as real as the world we’re part of. It was like the feeling of reaching into a laboring doe to readjust the position of the baby, expecting everything inside that secret place to be strange and untrue, then suddenly knowing in that otherworld the familiar form you’ve held a hundred times here in the shadowlands: soft hooves, bony knees, floppy ears… beautiful, just out of sight and nothing to fear. Perhaps it was Donny Willoughby he saw, his best friend as a child, or one of his brothers. Then he turned to look at a new face and said kindly Jack. What Jack? What’d you say? He looked as if he was straining to hear, eager to listen, as you would to the distant voice of a long-missed friend.
My mother, who is never one to leave a mystery behind through delicacy got down in his face and said, Jack? Jack who? She said his last name, in question. My grandfather turned to her annoyed, interrupted. Of course, he said.
Over the years I had joined the counsel of reasonable women to lecture him about his feelings toward Jack. We had the right answers and laid them on thick, and rightly so, but it didn’t amount to a hill of beans. So we washed our hands of it and secretly questioned the sincerity of his faith, to let an offense live so long. We women know how to handle these things. We don’t leave them laying around for people to see, like an over-stretched undergarment. But my idea of a fitting resolution to this distance between church members could not have been so glorious, no, nor so perfect as what God brought to pass in his infinite wisdom. What kind of storyteller expects anyone to believe the kind of things we see in this life alone? The threads of his work aren’t tidy, and sometimes they can’t be followed and they break off in all the worst places, but in the end you see it secure and whole, and not the dishrag you imagined at all, but a tapestry filling the whole world, with every scene more beautiful than the last, where those of a cool unfriendliness meet over a hillside and listen to each other, where sad old things have passed away and you feel a pressure on your shoulders… for it’d really be wise, my friend, to sit down for the sight of all the new things coming on.
My sister said this ended too quickly, but it’s as far as I can see at present. Perhaps, one day, more. I had a piece published recently here, if you’d care to read it. In other news, Spring is here. The trout lilies have bloomed, the little brown jug is back, the bluebirds are building their nest, the goats are great with kid, the hens are broody in the egg boxes and when I asked Dad just now if the baitfish were spawning in the shallows, he said defensively, “Who wants to know?”
So I suppose you and I must draw our own conclusions.