He saved his two most valuable lessons for when I got older: always put my wife and children above everything else; and do whatever it takes to provide and care for them.
When I first started writing, he questioned whether I'd be able to support a family with a pen. But he encouraged me. I knew he became a believer when he'd call and say: "Jeffrey, are you writing today?" I'd tell him that I write every day. He'd say: "Good. You just keep writing."
He wasn't a religious man. But if he doesn't make it to heaven, I don't have a prayer.
Speeding past farms in West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, I could smell the leather of his boots; hear the sound of his duck call; and see the tattoo on his forearm and the smoke rising from his cigarette. Then my iPhone vibrated. I answered. Grandpa's pain was intolerable. So the doctor upped his morphine. Sedated, he would likely sleep the remainder of the day.
I drove faster, intent on being there when he woke up.
Three hours later, another call. "He's gone," said the voice.
I couldn't swallow. A lump formed in my throat.
No matter how much you believe in heaven or an afterlife, death has a way of reducing us to desperate beggars. Especially when you lose a father. Please let heaven be real. Please let him wake up on the other side. Please let me see him again.
I was just outside Allentown, Pa. He died when I was driving through the state he was born in.
I called my wife and she informed our children. Minutes later my 11-year-old son texted: "NO!!! Grandpa is gone? No!!!"
For the next three hours I drove in silence through New Jersey, over the GWB, past the city and up 95 to Connecticut. At New Haven, I turned on the radio. The Hollies sang:
It's a long, long road
From which there is no return
While we're on the way to there
Why not share
And the load
Doesn't weigh me down at all
He ain't heavy, he's my brother.
I wept the final 35 minutes to his house. I entered through the kitchen door, like I always do. His car keys were on the counter next to his baseball cap and prescription containers. There was a pile of unopened Christmas cards on the table, including one from us. The newspapers were piled up, too. The news — politics, the economy, the scores — is trivial when death arrives.
In the living room I half expected to see him in his favorite chair. He did everything from that chair — answer the phone, work through crossword puzzles, watch the Yankees and Giants, read the paper, smoke cigarettes, eat TV dinners, nap and remember his Josephine. Her picture was by the telephone cradle.
Beside the chair I found his pencil clipped to a page in his crossword book. The last word he filled in was "Abuts," the correct answer for "Borders on."
Then I looked at the couch. His green wool blanket flowed to the floor, like a bath robe that had fallen off him on his way to the ambulance. I put it to my nose and inhaled deeply. It had his scent.
His unopened presents were still under the tree. His L.L. Bean boots were by the basement door.
Finally, I walked into his bedroom and sat on the bed. It's the same bed I used to lie on when I was a little boy and he was a strong man. Alone, I let myself be that boy for a minute. I cried.
Then I remembered the poem he wanted read at his funeral:
Sunset and evening star
And one clear call for me!
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