Gilead is a book from the point of view of a character named John Ames who is old and dying. The whole story is him writing to his very young son about life. This series of posts is about the notes my own father made in a copy of the novel before his passing. For more background, feel free to read the past posts in this series:
My dad’s dad passed away on January 20, 1985. Although I was only four-years-old, I remember this date because it was the night of Super Bowl XIX. It was when the 49ers beat the Dolphins.
My parents had just returned from a party, and my dad’s parents had babysat me and my younger sister. I don’t remember when my grandparents left, but I do remember my grandmother knocking frantically on the door and my dad opening it.
The rest is a blur with snippets of memory that could be real or imagined. What I do know is my grandmother had been driving when my grandfather had a heart attack. She turned around at the end of the street and parked in our driveway.
I remember my mom grabbing a blanket and rushing outside. I remember my dad yelling, but he probably wasn’t. He was most likely crying.
I can recall standing at the front door as my mom ran in a circle on the lawn, patting her chest with the palm of her hand. At the time I thought this was funny. Again, I don’t completely trust the veracity of my memory, but I still see these images clearly.
After my grandfather’s death, I rarely talked about him with my father. It would be years until my dad even mentioned him, and I can probably count those instances with the fingers on one hand.
From what I understand, my grandfather was a good man before World War II. I’ve been told that while he was gone, my grandmother received his wedding ring with his burnt flesh still clinging to the metal. I don’t know how long she believed him to be dead, but he obviously came back, and he was a changed man.
As a result, my dad didn’t have a very happy upbringing. This would shade many things in his life, and as you can imagine mine as well. That’s why the next passage my dad underlined in Gilead (page 10) is deeply affecting.
It grieved my father bitterly that the last words he said to his father were very angry words and there could never be any reconciliation between then in this life. He did truly honor his father, generally speaking, and it was hard for him to accept that things should have ended the way they did.
I don’t know my dad’s last words to his dad, but whether they were kind or angry, this passage most likely sums up how he felt about his father. It’s unfortunately how many people leave things with loved ones. Most of us don’t walk around with eternity on our mind’s all day long. When you say goodbye to your mom or dad on the phone or in person, you’re probably not wondering if that will be the last time.
Because of my dad’s injury, I actually did wonder this almost every occasion I spoke with him. Our last conversation was on the phone. They were not words of anger at all. I told him I loved him and he did the same. That’s a blessing from the Lord.
The above passage helps me keep in mind that we should always hold our finite lives in perspective. Meditating upon our inevitable death is not morbid; it is necessary in order to enjoy our lives and be present with the ones we love. It helps me to think less about myself and more about others.
I read recently that the Dalai Lama wakes up early in the morning and meditates for three hours on the fact he is going to die. This is extreme, and possibly untrue, but it seems to me that the spirit of the story should resemble how we face mortality.