“According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly”
I love being in the woods alone. Breathing in the life that is swelling and teeming all around me, feeling the quiet. I have spent a lot of time among these trees. My sister, my cousin, and I spent hours running between the trees, our imagination turning the trees into an enchanted forest. Those were truly magical times. As I get older it seems things have less magic or I have forgotten how to see it. I feel it today though just like I used to when I was a little girl. I crisscross through the woods on trails that are familiar to my feet and I hear our laughter echoing through time.
I make my way back toward the house and enter a little clearing. My grandfather planted several fruit trees on the edges of the clearing long before I was born. Any fruit the trees produced was immediately snatched up by the army of squirrels that call this forest home. Today the trees are more beautiful than I have ever seen them. Their limbs heavy with their creation, the clearing fragrant with the sweet smell of pear, apple, and plum.
From behind me I hear a throat clearing and turn to see my grandfather sitting on a fallen tree at the edge of the clearing, admiring his trees. I walk over and sit beside him, my head falls to his shoulder and I look up at the canopy above us. This was always a dream of my grandparents, to have a house surrounded by trees. Here we sit in the middle of 40 acres of thousands of gorgeous white oak, pine, and elm, a contented smile on my grandfather’s face. I feel peace.
Suddenly, as if a switch has been flipped the feeling is gone. It’s replaced with grief and loss, so intense it threatens to rip my heart out of my chest. I bury my face in my grandfather’s chest and wrap him tightly in my grip as I start to cry. My sobbing so forceful and my grip so tight my grandfather shakes along with me. I feel a soft hand on each of my shoulders and he gently raises me up to look at him. My grandfather looks at me for a long time, his face beaming with pride. He raises his hand and catches a tear with his thumb as it races down my cheek.
“No, need for that.” He says kindly.
I look into his face, it’s different than I remember. I can’t tell what it is exactly, he isn’t young but he doesn’t look old either. His eyes have a spark to them that I had nearly forgotten. I take a deep breath as I try to get my breathing back to normal.
“What will I do without you?” I ask him weakly.
I look down to wipe the tears from my eyes, when I look up he is gone. Perched where my grandfather was sitting is the most beautiful Red Tailed Hawk I have ever seen. The bird is so majestic it almost takes my breath away. He sits, staring at me, for a long while. I look back at the hawk and I feel my grief melt away and a warm feeling spreads through my body. We lock eyes and I see a familiar spark in the hawk’s eyes. Then without warning he spreads his wings and rockets toward the sky, soaring past the trees and out into the sun. He spreads his great wings and floats on the breeze the sun illuminating his red tail.
A crash of thunder forces my eyes open and I sit up in my bed. My face feels puffy and my nose is congested from crying, but I feel peaceful. I lay my head back on my pillow and listen to the rain patter against the window and hear the soft rumbling of the storm over head as I drift back to sleep.
Losing a loved one is never easy, that’s obvious. Of course it’s hard in the sense that it hurts, but that’s not my point. My point is that inevitably we will forget that they are gone, which makes it fresh all over again. When you have a had a relationship with someone for a long time you see them as a constant in your life, and retraining your brain takes time.
Even as I sit here at my grandfather’s memorial service I forget that he is gone. I look at the pew in front of me and see the craftsmanship that went into building it and think “I bet Grandpa could do that”...but he can’t. Our minds are brilliantly funny things. It’s almost as if mine won’t accept that he is gone. In the two days since he has passed I have had a dozen “I need to tell Grandpa...” or “I bet he would love...” moments. Which is more than I had before he was gone. It is almost as if my subconscious is fighting to remind me about him while I consciously try to forget so it doesn’t hurt as much.
There was a beautiful piece written by Aaron Freeman read by one of our dear friends, it talked about the conservation of energy and how everything that ever was my grandfather or ever touched him is still here. I don’t know if my grandfather ever read that poem or not but I know he would have loved it and would want it read today. But, it still seems inadequate. What else can a memorial or funeral be? We try our best to honor our loved ones and send them off in a way that captures who they were and what they meant to the world, a truly impossible task. I think that is particularly true with a life like his.
He was a truly exceptional human, in ever since of the word. How can an hour bear the weight of a life as extraordinary as his? How can an hour encapsulate the life of a boy born in Manchester, England, coming to America, becoming a brilliant theologian, a rocket scientist, pastor, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, carpenter, friend, mentor, author?
I guess that isn’t the point. This isn’t for him at all is it? It is for us. It is for this room filled to capacity with those who were touched by a life. I look around the room and see face after face stricken with grief at the loss of this man. Face after face of people who knew and loved all the different aspect of him.
I look to the front two rows where myself and the rest of the family sit. Great-grand children, grand children, children, and their families, all sitting quietly each one holding a personal memory in their minds of the man they have lost. Then I see my grandmother...a giant piece of her lost forever. She sobs quietly with her head resting on my mother’s shoulder, her pale pink hair bobbing up an down as she cries.
A month or so before he passed, him and my grandmother moved in with my mother. In the time that they were there I don’t think he left that bed. We knew he did not have long.
One afternoon my sister and I were sitting on the front porch with my grandmother and she told us that she always wanted to dye her hair pink. What else could we do but go out and get a box of hair dye and make her wish come true? After her hair was done drying we took her in to the room where my grandfather lay. He looked up at her and with his soft voice just said “My, my, my.” I think he like it. That was five days ago.
When the service was over we went back to the church that my grandparents attended, which was built on their land. For many years the body of the congregation was made up of my grandparents and one other couple. Occasionally they would have visitors, but usually it was the four of them, taking turns playing piano or giving the sermon. I always loved how seriously they took it.
After visiting with everyone for a while I decided to walk to my grandparent’s house, which is all of 300 yards from the church. Halfway between the house and the church is the clearing from my dream. I step into it and look up at the fruit trees and see that there is no fruit. All around the base of the trees are the cores and pits of fruit that was consumed by the squirrels. I turn and look behind me and see the fallen tree where my grandfather and I sat. Sitting on the tree is the hawk just as it was in my dream, looking right at me.
I feel my face flush and warm tears begin streaming down my face. A huge smile splits across my face and the hawk takes off. I watch it for a long time before I start off again in the direction of my grandparent’s house, feeling peace.
I don’t know what happens when we die. I don’t know if there is life after this one or if this is all we have. I do know that when I see a hawk I think of him. I know that when I am having a bad day and I see that red tail illuminated against the sun I feel a little better. I know that my grandfather isn’t gone, he is just a little less orderly.