Where have you been? Where are you going? And why?
My wife’s grandfather died Wednesday. I’ve watched her say goodbye to him slowly for the last three years. Several nights before he passed, the hospice nurse reported hearing a soft voice singing throughout the night. The nurse shared the story with Frank’s wife, Millie, the next morning. Millie put in a CD that the nurse agreed matched the angelic voice. It was a song about being called home to heaven. On Tuesday, Millie had her own vision of Frank. He laughed like a child as he reunited with his sister. Coincidental or not, I need stories like these to keep my hope alive.
Two years ago I wrote this blog, but I did not post it. The time was not right. It is now.
— Knives and Dolls—
“My dad will probably try to give you a knife,” my father in law told me.
We stepped into my wife’s grandparent’s house, and the smell of dust and seventy years in the carpet hit me. I carried the diaper bag on one shoulder, a camera bag on the other, and a baby in my arms. It occurred to me that ninety years separated three of the room’s inhabitants. Shannon’s grandparents, Millie and Frank, lit up upon our twin girls’ entrance.
Frank spends twenty hours a day confined to a hospital bed that takes up half of the living room. On this particular day, he sat in his electronic chair wearing only a shirt. A towel draped over his lower half. When he drifted off to sleep, the towel would slip, and Millie would yell, “Hey Frank, do we need to put you back in the bed?”
“Nah, Millie, I’m fine,” replied Frank’s gentle voice.
It would be easy to overlook Frank. Most days he sits quietly as his wife entertains a constant flow of friends. Their house is a revolving door. If I talk to Frank, he’ll inevitably tell me about the day he encountered a hornet nest forty feet up in a tree. He fell; he anticipated a paratrooper’s landing but instead broke his hip and injured his spine at a life altering angle. Or he will pour out his guilt about the day he should have died. His World War II plane crashed the day he took off to go buy some shoes. If you talk to someone else about him, they’ll inevitably tell you about his tender heart, honesty, and prayerful, hard-working devotion. They will tell you how much he loved his wife. “You’ll never meet a better man,” they will say.
He told Millie to hand me his leather pouch of pocket knives, and I unbound the leather straps and rolled out the assortment of antique pocket knives, all dated by the extent of their rust. Staring at the collection, I wondered if General Patton had ever given away his medals.
“Summer, look at the doll.” My attention shifted.
Millie had set one of her dolls on the coffee table in front of my daughter who stood propping herself up, transfixed on the face before her. Summer and dolls had become the family’s fascination. Earlier in the week, I woke her from a nap and took her into Shannon’s childhood room. We stood at the dresser where four Madame Alexander china dolls returned our gaze. Summer reached her hand to pet their hair and faces with her tiny hand. She blabbered and conversed with the silent statues. We smiled and laughed as she crawled over to different dolls that sat around each room. Her pudgy legs caught in her dress along the way. Earlier in the week, her first word had rolled off her tongue, a definite “Da” concluded with something of an “L” sound. She repeated it again as she stared into her great-grandmother’s treasured doll.
I directed my attention back to the knives before me. Boyhood flashed before my eyes. There was always something about a knife. If I discount a plastic Play-Doh contraption, my first genuine pocket knife was a little red Swiss Army, complete with blade, scissors, nail file, tweezers, and tooth pick. I was MacGyver, empowered with the strength to escape any jam with the contents below the sink and Little Red in my pocket. I was my grandfather, constructing and creating in his workshop. His Swiss Army knife smelled of sweat and fresh cut wood. Mine probably smelled like dreams or new shoes. For me, the scissors and file were great: they offered the ability to open fruit roll-ups and rescue ten year old damsels with chipped nails. But, it was the knife that made me potent.
Frank’s knives lay before me like trophies, prizes that I kept reminding myself not to take through airport security. Each trophy told a story. I would eventually choose a knife that represented some deep cavern in Frank’s heart, a man that holds the admiration of an entire family. At one time his far-less wrinkled hands used this knife like his son uses a golf club and like I use this keyboard. Frank’s passions will one day lead him to construct a garden in heaven that surpasses the beauty of Nebuchadnezzar II’s. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus called the Hanging Gardens of Babylon one of the Seven Wonders of the World. If Herodotus had had the vision and ability to peer into the future, I imagine he would have claimed Frank’s character as the eighth.
Maren darted across the floor, and I jumped up to redirect her from the catheter by Grandpa’s bedside.
I resolved that I could not concentrate on both the rugrats and the blades. In the midst of this dilemma, though, I took in the passage of masculinity and femininity in the form of knives and dolls. When my girls look into the eyes of these dolls, something transcendent moves into them, not from the antique, but from their great-grandmother’s heart. The same happened for me as I took Frank’s knife. We are the recipients of stories that began long before us. We swim in the stream of strength, beauty, and love that flow through Frank and Millie. May we live lives worthy of such an inheritance.