Grandpa Jim’s Rosary
Shared in honor of all those who are leaving us, stricken by the coronavirus. Shared in understanding of the pain of those left behind. Shared as a bow to realities beyond those we see that offer strength, comfort and peace.
* * *
“For wanderers, dreamers, and lovers… who dare to ask of life everything good and beautiful. It is for those who are too gentle to live among wolves.” – J. Kavanaugh
A decorator had tried to make his hospital room cozy but had failed.
From behind flowery drapes, against a chic, beige color scheme, and around the backs of fake leather easy chairs, hospital stench clung to the air. No amount of antiseptic could eliminate the smell of sickness; in fact, it made it worse.
I didn’t want this small spartan room to be the backdrop of my father-in-law’s death. Jim belonged to soft breezes wafting across a wide and long front porch, raspberries warmed by morning sunshine, and the rose-scented sweetness of drowsy summer afternoons. But here he was, in a coma, in the final moments of his life.
We stood, crowded in that hospital room, his children — four sons and one daughter, several in-laws and an assortment of grandchildren, holding vigil at his bedside. His wife of nearly sixty years had just left with another daughter to get some rest. A small tube light above the bed flickered like a votive candle. Our conversations were hushed. His brown-rimmed glasses sat on the bedside table, next to a tissue box.
I thought of him as Grandpa Jim. He had been one flavor of fatherly love: tender, affectionate, and doting.
My own father’s love was flavored differently; strong, steadfast, funny, more reserved, vigilant about encouraging my independence and strength. I had loved him dearly and he me.
Grandpa Jim knew that I loved fresh raspberries. If he had been well and not dying that hot July day in Michigan, I would have sat at the big mahogany oblong dining table in his home eating a bowl of fresh red berries he had picked for me from the bushes in the backyard behind the garage. Still warm from the sun, he would have poured them over a bowl of full-fat vanilla ice cream from the creamery where he had worked as a milkman for over fifty years.
We would have chatted and laughed, the picture of Jesus with the Sacred Heart and the other, the Hunting Dog with Rabbit, looking over us from where they hung on the wall. Sheer white curtains on the tall, wide windows of the comfortable Craftsman-style cottage would have fluttered in the background, framed by brightly hued drapes.
In his early days as a milkman, Grandpa Jim pulled a route behind a set of horses He stored his dairy products in an icebox mounted on a wagon painted with the creamery name: Borden’s.
His daughter had given me a metal crate he had used to carry his products from the wagon to the homes he serviced. For a long time it sat on my porch holding pretty ivy plants. I could imagine him swinging it, laden with glass quart milk bottles, as he strode up driveways to the side doors of his customer’s homes.
He had unloaded the bottles into small “milk chutes” that were built into houses back then, 1’ X 1’ X 4”, compartments just big enough to hold a couple of bottles of milk with doors both inside and outside the house. These milk slots were practical. They allowed dairy men, like Grandpa Jim, to deliver their wares in the wee hours of the morning without disturbing their customers’ sleep.
We had a milk chute at the house I grew up in that was used by both the milk man and the bread man. On Saturdays, I twisted open the small silver handle on the chute and collected the fresh chocolate milk and mouth-watering cinnamon-walnut coffee cake that my Mom ordered as a weekend treat.
Eventually, Grandpa Jim’s milk wagon was replaced by a gasoline-powered van, but his routine was the same: rise at 3a.m., grab a cup of coffee and two pieces of buttered white toast, be out the door in a half-hour, first stop, the creamery, to load up products his customers had ordered on the small checklist forms they had left in their chutes on his previous run.
Not long ago, Grandpa Jim had pulled his last route, at age 78, turning in the keys to his van and bidding good-bye to customers who, like him, had grown older and frail. Negotiating Detroit streets that were no longer safe and friendly had taken a toll, but if he was ever afraid, he didn’t let on. Customers came first.
When sitting at his table, I came first. He loved me wholeheartedly, it seemed, like a precious daughter. But maybe he just loved everyone that way.
Grandpa Jim’s heart rate did a crazy zigzag, up and down; every time it bottomed out my heart sank and my fear spiked. A nurse stepped respectfully into the room and disconnected the monitor. Her actions hinted that the end was closer. Everyone in the room pulled toward the bed.
My father-in-law moaned. I drew up tight behind my husband, Jim, his oldest son, wanting to feel the comfort of his body, because mine was shaking. Grandpa Jim went still, his lips soundless except for the brittle rattle that escaped from his chest with each breath. He hadn’t spoken words in over a day, but, as though he were inside me, he whispered into my mind, and I heard, in his distinct voice: Lin, please ask my children to say the rosary for me.
My husband and his Dad were one of a handful of people who called me Lin.
How can I be hearing you when you’re in a coma? I thought. Gosh, it just isn’t my place to ask your family to pray a rosary. My husband and I had only been reunited a few weeks after a two-year separation and I was certain that some members of his family were wary of me. I was sad about the distance I felt from a family I loved, but I understood it and hoped time would bring forgiveness.
I shook my head, as though to dislodge Grandpa Jim’s request. I wondered if I had just manufactured the thought, but it had come so clearly in his voice.
Grandpa’s petition that we recite a rosary was not surprising. Each of his children told stories about how they had attempted to dodge their dad’s rule that everyone be present and on his or her knees on the green carpet in the living room of their home in the suburbs for an entire recital of the rosary every Saturday evening.
When you’re a child who wants to play outside until the streetlights come on, fifty-three repetitions of the “Hail Mary” prayer; five repetitions of the “Our Father” prayer, and multiple other required devotionals aren’t exactly your idea of a good time. Over the years, I had heard Grandpa Jim’s grown children rib him about his rosary ritual. He would chuckle, but not apologetically.
Fluid continued to drip, drip, drip into the catheter in Grandpa Jim’s age-spotted hand lying on the hospital bed. His other rested in my husband’s, one white and frail, held by another, twenty years younger, more virile, and brown from the sun. Grandpa Jim moaned and one of his sons coughed out a sob.
The voice came again. Marked by its faint Kentucky accent, a remnant of his birthplace, Grandpa Jim seemed to speak a second time into my mind, though his chest barely rose under his hospital gown. I want to say the rosary one last time with my children, he said. Lin, please ask them.
The disembodied voice projected somehow from his inert body, lying eight feet away, had grown more determined.
I argued internally with my thoughts. Grandpa, I’m only an in-law. It isn’t my place to ask. I shifted from one foot to the other, feeling the coolness of the air-conditioned room. I looked at all the people in the dull light, his treasured family. This loss, however great for me, was far deeper for them.
I glanced at Grandpa Jim’s daughter, who looked lost, her face drawn with anguish, a thin arm resting gently against her father’s body. This generous and loving father had been with his children since their beginnings. He had tended to their bruised knees, pushing them on swings, taught them to ride bikes without training wheels and tried to keep them on the straight and narrow through unruly adolescence.
He had watched one of his children be ordained as a Catholic priest and then eventually move beyond that vocation to marry me and become a father. He had watched two of his daughters become nuns, and later leave their religious orders to marry and give him precious grandchildren. Full of faith, he had accepted change with grace.
He had tended to grandchildren and loved each with special devotion. He had carried them in backpacks, walked them in strollers and held them tenderly on his lap. His presence to them isn’t recorded in history books, it’s written on hearts.
I reached into the right pocket of my sweater and fingered the honey-brown wood beads of my rosary. How odd, I thought, that I had grabbed the beads as I left my car in the parking lot. I kept them in my glove compartment as a talisman against disasters on the road. I had bought the oversized rosary because it reminded me of those that had dangled against the hips of the nuns of my childhood, hung from ropes cinching the waists of their black habits.
For the third time, I heard Grandpa Jim: Please ask them, Lin.
Leaning into my husband’s back, I cupped his ear and said, “Jim, I think your Dad would like you all to share the rosary with him.” He raised his long fingers to shield his mouth and whispered: “But I don’t have my beads.”
“I have mine,” I said, pulling them from my pocket. I reached around to put them in his hands. “Would it be ok if I prayed the rosary?” Jim asked his family, a tender hoarseness in his voice. It was so like him to ask permission. Their answers came in unison: “Please.” “Yes.” “Of course.” This was a final gift they could give their father. Whether with the instinct of a little boy remembering a family ritual or the practice of a priest who had ministered at other deathbeds, he slipped to the floor on one knee as if genuflecting to his father. I moved aside to make room for his jean-clad leg and familiar black motorcycle boot.
His head bent over the rosary, throat thick with feeling Jim made the sign of the cross that began the ritual, “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Together, we said the first “Our Father,” three “Hail Mary’s,” and the “Glory Be” prayers. The big wood crucifix on the rosary swayed and dangled from Jim’s hands as he rubbed each bead and threaded it through his fingers at the end of each prayer. The soft chant of the familiar words was comforting. We prayed the first decade, ten Hail Mary prayers repeated one right after another and finished with an Our Father, the Lord’s prayer. Grandpa Jim continued to breathe softly, as though listening.
On the first “Hail Mary” of the second decade of ten, he inhaled, and a death rattle shook from his throat. He exhaled one slow last time, like a sigh. A long pause followed, as though my father-in-law had simply forgotten to inhale. His thin chest underneath the hospital gown stopped moving, and his body grew forever still. There was no further swell of an inhale.
I felt my body lift, drawn upward by a current of energy. My spine straightened as if tugged by a magnetic pull. I felt Grandpa Jim’s spirit sweep through me as it left the room. It’s hard to describe, but I remember I could not help but look upward as though I was trying to watch something that I was feeling but could not see. Our prayers grew louder and more fervent, as though lifted too, by his departing essence.
Grandpa Jim left his body on a wave, palpably co-mingled my love, his family’s love and the pure love of the mystical heart that called him home.
I cried but was relieved that he had been released from his suffering. Heartbroken to lose him, forever, I was shaken to my core. I had never seen anyone die, much less someone I had so loved.
I was surprised that death felt as mystical and sacred as birth. I was standing on the holiest of ground in that hospital room. I bowed my head, closed my eyes, told Grandpa Jim I loved him and thanked him for loving me.
We stood for a while, not sure what to do next. Someone, I don’t remember who, got a nurse. Her soft-soled white shoes barely registered on the linoleum floor as she crossed the room, and gently felt for a pulse in Grandpa Jim’s limp wrist. A moment later, she murmured what we all knew, “he’s gone.” She left us to our sorrow.
Over the next half hour, one by one, we kissed him good-bye and left the room.
As I left, I looked over my shoulder at Grandpa Jim. His old thin body, slack-jawed, lay impossibly pale against the white sheets, his head, framed by thin white hair had lolled into the pillow. I was shocked by his lifelessness. How could a body that still had a heart, liver, and a brain be inanimate? I wondered.
I’d never witnessed stillness like that. The essence of the man I loved was gone. The body left behind was but a beautiful, fragile shell. I understood more deeply that whatever we are, our bodies are a temporal home, a place enervated by a holy essence. This is true no matter who or where we are. The subtle something that allows us to craft a unique life, a special character, is utterly without substance. I had glimpsed the nature of God, an energy without form. We do not breathe, we are breathed.
What do you do when you witness something so mystical, so big, something you have no words for and, yet, life marches on, drawing you into ordinary time? You’re just a middle-aged woman in a hospital with a growling stomach because you haven’t eaten in hours.
I joined the rest of the family in the hospital lobby, feeling adrift as we all do when we lose the mooring of a parent. There was nothing to do but to wonder, privately, about the mystery I had witnessed, to get into a car and to drive forward into the next moment.
My husband Jim stayed overnight at his parent’s home. Since several other siblings and their spouses were also staying, we decided it was best that I take Laura, our daughter, to spend the night at my parent’s house. After I told my parents that Grandpa Jim had died, we made subdued small talk; there wasn’t much to say in the shadow of such a loss. I went to bed and was soon asleep.
2:00 AM. The digital clock beside my bed shone into the darkness announcing the time.
Fully awake, I padded into the kitchen on bare feet to get a glass of milk and home-made chocolate chip cookies, my way illuminated by the hood light on the stove. The night air was warm and fragrant with the smell of freshly mowed grass and dew. I slipped into the screened Florida room at the back of the house, curling my feet under me as I nestled into the soft, plush pillows of the cozy turquoise and peach flowered upholstery on the bamboo-framed couch.
My thoughts drifted to the hospital room in Ann Arbor. I wondered where Grandpa Jim’s body was. It was hard to imagine it in a morgue drawer, a cold space too ugly and small for such a warm, beautiful and big life.
A swirl of small, star-shaped lights dancing on the rolling lawn drew my attention. They hovered beyond the windows of the small room at the back of the house, where I sat.
What were those? I thought. Must be fireflies. I squinted and stood, moving closer to the large casement windows. No, they’re much bigger than fireflies and they’re star shaped, I thought, puzzled. The swirling came closer to the house; it was fragile, ephemeral and beautiful, and, also, very, very tangible. I would have no more questioned the reality of those stars than I would have questioned the presence of the moon.
Grandpa Jim spoke one final time into the quietness of my mind. His voice was clear, unmistakable and, as it often had been, on the verge of a gentle laugh. Lin, thank you, he said, for asking my family to say the rosary with me. It made leaving a little bit easier. I love you all so much. Good-bye now.
I stood riveted at the window as the shimmering lights slowly receded, twinkling less brightly, until they were gone. I had the same sense of a departing energy as I’d had earlier in the hospital room, though the current was softer and subtler. A surge of deep love and peace emerged in my body as the echo of Grandpa Jim’s good-bye faded.
There was not then, nor has there ever been, a shred of doubt that Grandpa Jim spoke directly to me from his deathbed and that he visited later, made visible in a spray of tiny dancing stars. I have never questioned that his now formless energy had taken form in a voice in my thoughts and in that swirl of stars.
Why had he visited me? Perhaps I was the only one awake for him to thank. Maybe he visited others in their dreams then, or later. He might have left many signs, noticed and unnoticed, for those who loved him to let them know he was at peace, that he had simply slipped beyond form.
The formless, eternal love of those who leave us in the material world lives on, becoming visible via our hearts and thoughts in many manifestations. Our relationships with those we love are sewn permanently into the fabric of the universe.
When we die, the awesome scope and beauty of this tapestry is ours to understand. We shine as distinctly visible threads, each one irreplaceable in the masterpiece of God’s unimaginable mind and unconditional love.
Copyright 2020: Linda Sandel Pettit, Ed.D.