I got the call on Saturday that my grandpa was losing steam. This battle he’s been fighting against ALS has taken a toll- an awful and unfair and undisguised toll. The phone call from my mom led to a FaceTime with my grandma where I was able to see and tell Grandpa that I love him. Immediately following the calls, I cried. Shortly thereafter I was angry. I tried to take it out on the laundry. Four back-to-back loads, washed and folded and put away. Then I took to the yard. Blackberry bushes were trimmed. The side yard ditch cleaned out. And then I turned on the lawn mower and pushed ‘round and ‘round the big backyard space, leaning in and screaming with the motoring sounds of the mower, ‘I hate this!’. It was almost synchronizing and melodic.
(Sourced from www.sr71.us; Jack Kennedy, top, third from the left)
Grandpa lived his life with his hands. He retired as an Air Force Master Sargent who worked on the infamous SR-71 Blackbird Skunk Crew, and then went on to work for NASA’s U2 and ER-2 (both high altitude aircrafts). Mindful work and grit are every bit a part of him as his tastebuds. I knew that if he could speak more than a few words, he’d say ‘Go on, Em. Don’t sulk.’ I think it’s in my genes to work out my thoughts. To work out grief and ache and all the things I can’t control. And oh how I wish with everything in me that I could control this. That in an instant, I could wave a wand of healing and regenerate his body to wholeness. But I can’t. I couldn’t.
C.S. Lewis put it this way in A Grief Observed, ‘No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear’. I hate the thought of a life lived without him. I’m not saying this or writing for sympathy. I’ve said it before, writing is an outlet of processing for me. And grief, I’m learning, is quite a process. There is no such thing, unfortunately, as immediate grief relief. Our family has been grieving with Grandpa from the minute we saw symptoms of ALS, about three years ago, and I think the chord we’ve all sang at times was fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of watching a man lose the ability to use his hands, amongst almost everything else.
It is said that Joseph, a prominent member of government in the time of Jesus, a man who knew that Jesus was the Son of God because he believed His words, had been given the lifeless body after crucifixion, wrapped Jesus in a linen cloth and placed Him in the rock side tomb (Mark 15: 42-47). What was the anticipation like after Jesus’ death? What about fear? What did that look like? Somewhere, even in the earnest of his faith, did Joseph have doubt? Would he be looking at the clouds instead of the tomb?
The late Rachel Held Evans discusses many things in her book, Inspired, and one of those is the idea of allowing the Psalms to absorb into our being. As a Christian, I’m guilty of sugaring the salt. The open wounds of loss, anger, pain, disease, and brokenness are too vulnerable, and yet they are alive and rampant in our world (hello COVID-19 mayhem). That’s no surprise. But I think too often, we cover them quickly because we don’t want to feel the burn. I dare even say that we don’t want to be seen as a faithless follower who spends too much time in the mourning. But if I have no cause for grief, I have no reason for hope.
This has been my Psalm:
‘I am confined and cannot escape;
my eyes are dim with grief.
I call to you, Lord, every day;
I spread out my hands to you.
Do you show your wonders to the dead?
Do their spirits rise up and praise you?
Is your love declared in the grave,
your faithfulness in destruction?
Are your wonders known in the place of darkness,
or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?
But I cry to you for help, Lord;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.’
How easily could the God of the Universe taken Jesus off the cross that day so there was no suffering? Or what if He didn’t have us wait that long. Two days is a long time to wait for a miracle. Couldn’t it have been immediate? As the curtain tore, I imagine what it would have looked like if as in an epic movie scene with Sebastien Angel’s instrumental version of Survivor’s ‘Eye of the Tiger’ accompanying the King above all kings riding in on a lion proclaiming It Is Finished. Right then, right there. But He was buried in a locked tomb after being mocked and beaten and then pierced. For those two days following His death, the salt. The burn. The sinking in to our grief, our anger and pain and fear. No sugar. No immediate relief. Just humanity in need. And then the tomb was declared empty. The stone was rolled to the side. And an angel appeared and what we see is the picture of hope. The very thing Jesus said he would do, he did- rising from the grave and ascending to the Heavens with the Father, forgiving us and providing a way to eternal life with Him.
On Monday evening we got the word that Grandpa had passed. I still cannot believe it and my soul aches in grief. And yet. He is in a perfectly restored body. That wand I wished I had is the very promise of the Heavens. The perfect promise that Jesus declared in His death and resurrection, and offers it to those who believe in Him. And Grandpa did. I am dependent on the truth that the moment Grandpa exhaled, he inhaled with full lungs and a new body. My grief is ever present (more laundry done and plants planted and weeds sprayed) but it is sheltered by hope.
It’s possible that as I write this and you read it, I’m greeting many of you in your circumstance of grief. And I am so sorry if that is the case. I’m sorry for your loss; for your burdens, for those things in your life that leave you feeling helpless. It’s easy to assume that we are alone, but even the word we proves that we are not. I’m encouraging you to see the crowd of witnesses around you, offering hope.
I am grateful for you, Grandpa and the life you lived so well, with such meticulous thought and care and craft. I am grateful to be your granddaughter and hope that your fight lives on in me.
Here’s to you, Grandpa Jack.
If you’d like to watch videos about the SR-71 or NASA ER-2, I’ve posted them below. The kids and I have spent many hours revisiting these over the years as Grandpa has been on FaceTime filling in the details.
If you’d like to know more about ALS, click here (alsa.org). For instance, did you know that military veterans are approximately TWICE AS LIKELY to be diagnosed with ALS? And of now, there is no cure.