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Losing My Friend

alec vanderboom

For George Gableman 1919-2010

My ninety-four year old maternal grandfather died on January 1, 2010, Mary's Day. We drove through two giant snow storms on curvy Appalachian roads to bury him. I got to the funeral home after an eight hour drive with three children under the age of seven.

Grandfather's casket was closed. A giant batch of red roses lay on top. He and I were all alone in the room.

I laid my exhausted head on his coffin.

"My friend, you have gone and left me here all alone."

I'd never called Grandpa my "friend" before. The new name felt strange and odd. Instantly, I realized that the new title fit. We were sixty years apart in age, but we were still dear friends in Christ.

Grandpa was the one who was always happy to hear about the conception of a new great-grandchild. Grandpa had endless appreciation for my husband and endless respect for my work as a stay-at-home mother. Grandpa answered every phone call with "Hi Ab, What can I do for you?"

Grandpa sent us money for a car seat for our first child. He lent a Cosco card for diaper runs for baby number two. But the past four years, I only need happy chats with a cheerful Christian grandfather. His intangible gifts of faith and hope and unconditional love were beautiful as I moved father from the path of worldly success and acknowledgment.

Now, my friend was dead.

I am left here all alone.

I laid my head on the casket, and the sense of loneliness welled up from my soul.

I'm alone. I'm the last Christian in my family.

When I was a little girl, my Grandpa and my Grandma were the two people who made sure that I was baptized as a three month old infant. My parents were in graduate school and had stopped attending church. My grandparents made sure that I got an infant baptism in the Methodist Church where they faithfully attended Sunday Service for the past 55 years. My parents were married in that church. I wore my paternal grandmother's silk baptismal gown, and got baptized on March 30, 1973.

How do you thank someone for insuring that you became a Child of God?

As a child, I had many strong Christians in my family. Everyone was Methodist. My Grandfather, both my Grandmothers, and three of my Great-Aunts. These people wore Christ deep in their bones. It was faith deepened with struggle, the Great Depression, World War II, Infertility and the threat of Nuclear War in the 1950s. You went to Church. You prayed to God. You helped others. You tried to live a Good Life. These were the similar rules that colored each of their individual lives.

I grow up, a girl with a Carmelite soul, under the steady presence of these gentle prayer giants, like a sapling under a grove of oak trees. One by one each of these family members have died peaceful, happy deaths.

Grandpa was the last Christian to die.

Beside his coffin, I suddenly looked around and realized I'm only one who still believes in God. Each one of my siblings, each one of my cousins, each of my parents, each of my many uncles and aunts, each one got that precious light of Christ at baptism. Yet, all of their candles have all burned out. Everyone's faith is gone.

It's unexpected. It's unexplainable.

Why am I left?

Why did I get the added gift of the Holy Eucharist, and Confession and deep understanding of the mysterious of the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony? Rather than a frail, flickering candle in the wind, as a new Catholic, my faith is fed daily with an amount of Divine Power that I'm only beginning to understand.

I put my tired head on Grandpa's coffin and cried.

Suddenly and automatically, like some deep reflex, I started to pray both for Grandpa and to him. We had an easy conversation through Christ, as simple as chatting over the phone.

I gave thanks that my Grandpa finished his race. Over Christmas I visited him in the hospital. Grandpa had lost his wife, he'd lost his teeth, he'd lost his ability to go to the bathroom by himself. Yet this formerly fiercely independent man had no complaints. He was as docile and happy as a child.

In that bare hospital room, I pulled out a Methodist Hymnal. Jon and I and Grandpa sang Christmas Carol after Christmas Carol. In the days that he was in the hospital, the stress of not sleeping made him lose most of his memory. He forgot who I was. But it didn't matter. All the choruses of those beloved hymns were still in his heart.

My grandfather spent 70 years singing as a baritone in the United Methodist Men's Choir. For the last two years of his life, he appeared half an hour early in his living nursing home, wearing a shirt and tie, ready for my father to take him to Adult Sunday School. All of those songs, all of that faith, it was all in his heart. He welcomed the Christ Child with great joy at age 94.

Back in the funeral home, chatting over the Jesus prayer hotline, I told my Grandpa to pray for me. I wasn't sure I was going make it to the end of my life, the way he did.

Then after praying, I helped carry his coffin outside. We had an outside grave site service in January. I played the clarinet Grandpa bought me in 5th grade. Then I sang "How Can I Keep From Singing."

I didn't realize how much my family had become fallen away Christians, until I attended my Grandpa's funeral. Their faces were so hardened against any talk of the resurrection. It's a fairy tale to them. I felt a little uneasy. Things felt flipped around. It felt like the dead people were the ones who were walking on top of the graveyard, while the vibrant, living souls were resting comfortably underneath.

It's not the easiest time to remember your clarinet fingerings when you mind is constantly struck by how much your family members resemble spiritual zombies.

Then my kids got up and sang "this little light of mine." Well, Hannah my future nun sang happily and loudly. My son Alex walked off mid-song and the baby Maria buried her freezing face into her coat hood.

I don't know why I got the only gift of living faith. Yet I'm grateful that I now live in a vibrant community of Catholics. I'm a wife of a strong Catholic man and the mother of strong Catholic children.

My job is to keep passing on my faith and pray valiantly for all of my dear family.

For Grandpa George: Thank you for the gift of a good singing voice and also teaching me to know who I'm singing the hymns to each Sunday

How Can I Keep From Singing?
My life flows on in endless song,
Above earth's lamentation
I hear the real though far off hymn
That hails a new creation

No Storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that rock I'm clinging
Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?