Like all teachers around the globe, I’ve been on a count-down for the end of the year. Not because I’m tired of my job, getting up early in the morning, or handing out packets of ketchup to my elementary friends during lunch. My reason was different this year. It was about Alaska.
To celebrate thirty-five years of marriage, and sixty years of living, Brian and I booked an Alaskan Cruise, complete with “whale watching,” and a balcony room.
Now, you understand…
I wasn’t counting down the last days of school. I was counting down the days until our adventure would begin.
To say we were organized wouldn’t even touch the tip of the iceberg. I had lists about the lists of things we needed to do: COVID testing, arrangements for precious Lorelai, a reminder to download the ArriveCan App and upload all our info since we would be spending a day in British Columbia. I also had purchased a plethora of “sea-sickness” meds: bracelets, ear patches, and capsules. They would be safely packed alongside my Sperry Duck boots and the assortment of A&M and Texas t-shirts (the state of Texas, not the university in case anyone was wondering). Yep, I’m that kind of tourist. Proud and Obnoxious.
This past Wednesday, after picking up Lorelai from her grooming appointment, we decided to take a break from organizing, and packing, and list-making and go see “Top Gun: Maverick.” I quickly changed into my “Maverick/Goose 2020 Bring Back that Loving Feeling” t-shirt, and we were off to the Studio Movie Grill. The movie was great, and the humor and “all-in” approach by our waiter made it the perfect outing:
We arrived home, and it was after 5:00, which meant it was close enough to night-time to make getting into my pajamas legal.
After the horror of what happened in an elementary school over a week ago, I banned myself from watching the news. It’s important to know your limits, and I feel I made the correct decision of shutting off the TV and stepping away from the commentary and the politics that always seep into any national disaster. I am not pretending like it didn’t happen, but for me, the healthiest thing to do was/is to take a breath and turn off the endless sound bites and opinions.
Since my time-out from the news cycle, I have filled those minutes with reading. I pulled out a book (I am currently reading five books, and when one of them gets really good, I will read it until the end. Until that happens, I’ll keep up with this madness).
Brian’s phone rang while I was reading a book by Elin Hilderbrand. His phone was in the kitchen, so I ran to get it, but was too late to answer. I looked and saw it was his brother. I handed him the phone, and he punched the number and called him back.
And at 5:23 on a Wednesday after what was a simple, yet perfect day, everything changed, and the world as we knew it was forever gone.
We never expected the words we would hear:
“Dad’s been killed in a car wreck…”
It hit us like a straight-line wind. Within those few seconds we were slammed in the face with an unexpected force. Tossed, and turned, and swirled around and then rapidly thrust into the hard, unfriendly, unforgiving ground. And all we could say was, “What??????”
No one is ever prepared for death. It always seems to arrive on an ordinary day, when life simply consists of a to-do list, and Cruises, Alaskan and Tom.
Though, as unprepared as we are when death arrives, it comes with an extra boost of adrenaline, causing us to bolt into action, quickly making decisions that on any other day might take more than a minute. Phone calls are made, bags are packed, and in a moment’s notice, we wordlessly realize that things will never be as they once were. All because a driver looked down for a second, and then smashed into the backend of my father-in-law’s car, thrusting him into the car in front of him.
One second. One distraction. One life gone forever…
What a grim, yet important reminder for total awareness when driving. What a reminder of how important the seconds of our lives are. As Socrates wrote, “Our lives are but specks of dust falling through the fingers of time. Like sands of the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.”
Over the last few days, as tears sneaked up on me, and thoughts and memories of a life well lived came to mind, I’ve realized something. Brian’s dad was in my life longer than my own father. He was the closest thing to a Dad I’ve had for over thirty years, and from him, I have learned so much.
I first knew him as “Mr. Keith.” That’s what I called him as I nervously sat down to dinner when I was introduced to Brian’s parents for the first time. He joked that I was the first girl Brian had brought home to meet them. I’m not sure if this was true or not, but it was his way of making me feel special.
I quickly became aware of his charm, and his ability to connect with others. After he asked what subject I taught at the high school, he quipped, “I probably would have liked English a lot better if I had a teacher who looked like you.” Sweet words, from such a kind man. He had me at “Hello.”
Brian and I were married in 1987, and as soon as grandchildren came into the picture, Mr. Keith affectionately became known as PaPaw. And what a PaPaw he was.
I remember when I was expecting Christopher. He knew that I was hoping for a girl (only because I wasn’t sure what on earth to do with a boy). Brian told me that Mr. Keith was legendary for being able to correctly predict the gender of babies by looking at how the pregnant woman was carrying the baby—-high meant “Girl,” low meant “Boy.”
I was clearly carrying the baby low, but Mr. Keith told me he thought it was a girl. In fact, he was almost positive. He knew I dreamed of pink frilly dresses, and big bows and he didn’t want to dash my hopes by predicting there would be blue in my future.
Of course, after I had Christopher, I couldn’t imagine my life any other way, and PaPaw confessed that he told me he thought it was a girl because he thought that would make me happy. He always made me feel so special.
PaPaw was the best grandfather in the world. The only grandfather my boys ever knew. He loved to take the boys outside and let them roam around the land. They would fish at the pond, and he would take them riding on the four-wheeler.
One summer, we left the boys with MaMaw and PaPaw for the weekend while we attended a wedding in New Orleans. This was the first time they had been left for that long (aside from the week that Christopher spent with them when my dad died). We weren’t worried in the least. We knew they would be in great hands!
When we returned, the boys spilled the beans that they had a wreck on the four-wheeler. MaMaw was so upset and worried about it, even though no one was hurt. She and PaPaw told the story of how it happened.
PaPaw then added this tidbit: When he asked Charles if he was okay after the crash, Charles matter-of-factly said, “I fell on my lip.”
PaPaw loved to share that story, but his favorite tale to tell was one he re-told the last time I saw him.
When Charles was around four, MaMaw and PaPaw came to visit us and to watch Christopher play Little Dribblers. After the game, Charles and PaPaw went for a walk in the woods around our house. As they were making their way through a makeshift trail, a small limb from a tree scraped PaPaw’s arm. When Charles looked at it, he spotted a little blood. He stopped and instructed PaPaw, “Wait here. I’ll be back in a minute,” and he quickly disappeared. PaPaw followed his instructions, and about five minutes later, Charles showed up with a box of band-aids and began ripping them open and attaching them to PaPaw’s arms.
Each time PaPaw told that story he always ended it by stating, “That Charles. He’s such a good boy.”
As I reflect back on my boys’ growing up years, I am so very thankful for PaPaw. As the Patriarch of the family, he set an example to all of his children and grandchildren. He wasn’t ever full of hot air. He was honest, and trustworthy, and had a true servant’s heart. He was never boastful, or arrogant. He was always thankful for what he had and would give anyone who needed it the shirt off his back. He didn’t just talk the talk. He walked the walk.
In October of 1992, my father died suddenly. I was devastated and lost as I tried to navigate my way through grief. A couple of weeks after I buried my dad, the phone rang one night. To my delight, PaPaw was on the other end of the line (this was in the days before Caller ID, so when you answered the phone, you never knew who it might be). When I realized it was him, I told PaPaw that Brian hadn’t made it home from football practice yet, and he quickly said, “I didn’t call to talk to him. I wanted to check on you.”
PaPaw did this periodically, and one night, Brian happened to be home early and answered the phone. After being on the line for only a second, he handed me the phone and said, “It’s Dad. He doesn’t want to talk to me. He asked for you.” PaPaw always knew how to make me feel so very special.
Brian has always said that he enjoyed seeing how PaPaw and I interacted. One of his favorite things to do was to tease me about the Aggies. He knew how serious I was about watching the A&M games, and he knew exactly what buttons to push. It was all in fun and something special the two of us shared. Over the years, I’m happy to say we turned PaPaw into an Aggie fan—-he was so proud of our boys when they graduated from A&M.
The one thing that PaPaw loved to tease me about the most was Pizza. Once, when the boys were young and MaMaw and PaPaw were in town, they came by the house after watching a game. We were hungry, and I hadn’t had time to prepare a meal. The obvious thing to do was order a pizza. When I asked everyone what kind of pizza they wanted, without missing a beat, elementary age Charles wailed, “Pizza again?!?!”
Not exactly what one wants to have said in front of their in-laws. Not the best endorsement for a Mother-of-the-Year Award.
As embarrassing as this was, it became a running joke, and throughout our times together, when someone asked about a meal, PaPaw would look at me with those blue eyes twinkling and say, “Pizza again?!?”
Although I’ve known Mr. Keith for over thirty-five years, I’ve only known him as a father-in-law, the father of my husband, and a grandfather. He was so much bigger than that! He lived fiercely and loved big. He had so many stories to tell, and I’m sorry I didn’t have time to hear them all.
As a youngster, PaPaw rode bulls, until the football coach told him to stop—he needed him on the football field and didn’t want him to take any chances of getting hurt.
PaPaw could fix anything. Over the years, whenever an appliance, lawnmower, or something in the house needed to be repaired, the first call Brian made was to PaPaw. And almost every time, PaPaw knew how to fix it, as well as instruct Brian how to fix it. When I think of PaPaw the handyman, I am reminded of a line from Toby Keith’s song, “Made in America”:
“He won’t buy nothin’ that he can’t fix
With WD40 and a Craftsman wrench.
He ain’t prejudice, he’s just, made in America.”
PaPaw was active in his church. He served as a Deacon, and one of his favorite things was to help the widows in the church. PaPaw had a way with the ladies. He always made them feel so special.
As death grips our heart, and our souls and spirits are overcome with sadness and grief, we remember fleeting moments of our loved one’s life. We might not remember their greatest accomplishments, or their hard work, or even the biggest days of celebration. We remember the things that made that person special. The way they smiled; the twinkle in their eyes; their willingness to make you feel welcome; the callouses on their hands showing years of toiling and labors of love; the hugs, and stories, and hopes and dreams; the fears, the joys, the friendship, the family, the love, the grace; their unwavering service to others and to their Lord.
It is not riches, or worldly goods that make a man. It’s the things he’s made of: the grit, the grace, the love, the kindness, the dedication, determination, the unyielding and never-ending love for one’s family. It’s the way he holds a baby, or visits a sick friend, or checks on a grieving daughter-in-law. It’s smiling across the room as he says, “Pizza again?”
PaPaw was all these things and so much more. Every person who knew him could talk of his kindness and good deeds. He was loved by many, and will be missed by many.
Over the last couple of years, PaPaw became nostalgic and began sharing more and more stories of days gone by.
This was a favorite of his to tell:
When PaPaw was a youngster, on Saturdays he used to walk from his house on Tarkington Prairie to the Picture Show in Cleveland. This trip was over twelve miles. He walked a lot of the way, and then hitchhiked the rest.
Once he got to Cleveland, he would sneak into the movie through a side door.
One day, after watching a movie, PaPaw was headed back home. He had walked part of the way, and then decided to hold his thumb up and hope to catch a ride.
After a few minutes passed, a long Cadillac pulled up beside him. The driver rolled down the window and hollered, “Hey, boy! Where are ya going?”
“Tryin’ to get home,” PaPaw answered.
“Get in,” said the driver.
As they headed down the highway, the driver asked, “Where’s home?”
PaPaw told him it was a few miles down the road.
As they drove along, PaPaw looked in the backseat. The driver asked him, “Do you know who that is?”
PaPaw responded, “That’s my favorite singer, Hank Williams.”
As they continued down Highway 321 and approached Farm to Market Road 1008 (Kenefick Road), PaPaw said, “You can let me out here.”
Seeing there wasn’t a house anywhere in sight, Hank Williams said, “Where’s your house?”
“Just a few miles down this road.”
And then Hank Williams said to the driver, “Bring him to his front door.”
And that’s how PaPaw made it home.
On June 1, 2022, PaPaw was driving back to Kenefick Road. Although his trip was cut short, and his life tragically ended, he made it home.
And when he arrived at the front door, he was met by Jesus who said, “Well done my good and faithful servant. Enter into the Joy of the Lord.”
It has been my greatest honor to be your daughter-in-law.
Fly high, PaPaw…