My maternal grandfather, known to me as Daddy Boots, had moved to Norman from Texas to spend his last years among my family. It was a blessing to me. He got to know his great grandchildren, my children. They will never forget him. I saw him more in that period than I’d seen him in my whole life. He was a grand man; a war hero, a pilot, a computer wiz, a stock market junkie. His presence was larger than most. He was tall and broad, and because of his hearing loss he was loud. His voice was a steely tenor and his expressions were declamatory and boisterous. He was a leg man; never missed a chance to watch the Rockettes. He was a story teller, and we’d all heard his stories many times. I loved him dearly.
When they found the skin cancer, it progressed rapidly, spreading to his brain. He could no longer take care of himself and it wasn’t long before his mind became confused. My parents put him into a a hospice care facility in Purcell. No treatment could have prevented his death. I visited him a few times. The last time I visited him, he wept with joy. He thought that I was his son, my uncle. I did not contradict him because it made him so happy. He held my hand, and touched my face and told me how much he loved me, how proud he was of me…or him.
The facility arranged for my parents and my aunt to be on a call list because they believed he would die very soon. I asked to be on that list as well. He had come to mean a lot to more to me than that cheery old man who used to put me on his lap and teach me operating system commands on his TRS-80 computer when I was a little boy. He was something more real to me now.
I had been preparing for the night my mother would call. I believed it would be at night. It seems like people are more prone to dying at night. His wife, my Grannie, died at night. I had prayed and meditated over it many times. I wanted to be in a helpful state of mind for this. It was 2:30 am, or thereabouts, when my mother called. She said very little, nor did she need to. She would swing by with my Aunt Money and my dad.
Money quietly chatted with me in the back seat as my father drove down I-35 in the quiet of night. She sniffled as she explained that she had anxiously eaten an entire bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken knowing that tonight would be the night. She was queasy, and she wished she hadn’t of eaten it, but I also knew that this, in part, was her way of lightening our moods a little bit.
The nursing facility was a quiet, cozy place at night. The lights were low and everyone was settled in. A nurse met us at the door and spoke softly to us. She explained that he would likely pass in an hour or so. When we entered the room, my Aunt and Mother wept and spoke to him, although he was unconscious. My memories are hazy. But I can remember the emotions of the room like they had shape and color. The sorrow, the anxiety, and the helplessness. We held hands in a circle while my dad prayed. It steadied us.
Daddy Boots lay on his back and his breathing was labored and ragged and slow. Money sat by him first. She spoke softly and lovingly to him. She called him Daddy. She held his hand for as long as she could bear it. Eventually, my mother took her place. Daddy Boots was holding on fiercely. She assured him that it was okay to let go, and that Mother would be waiting for him. I wondered if that was hard to say, to tell the man who had raised you that it was okay to let go.
I felt a strong sense that I had a role to play, so I sat in a chair on the wall the the nurse had brought in and began to breathe myself into a meditative state. I was reaching as high up into the light as I could. Soon, I felt lifted into a space of golden light and I began to pray.
“Lord, give me the words to help him let go. Give me the touch and the mind to tune into where ever he is right now.”
My mother was pleading with him. Weeping. Patting his hand.
“Can I sit with him for a while?” I asked quietly. My voice sounded distant to me, but she heard me.
She kissed him and got up to stand with the rest. I sat down and took his hand and the words began to form in my mind even as I spoke them.
“Colonel Boots,” I addressed him. “The war is over. Your orders are to land your plane tonight. Mission accomplished. Job well done.”
As I spoke these words, his eyes opened just enough for me to see a soft glow emanating from them. I felt a lightness coming over him. If a soul could smile, it was smiling now. I don’t know what he saw, but I like to think it was Dellalou, his wife, reaching out to him.
I stood up and looked to my dad who was standing at the foot of the bed. His eyes sharpened as he looked at Daddy Boots’ body. He looked back at me. I cannot remember exactly what he said, but it was something like, “That’s it. He’s gone. I’ve never seen anything like that in my entire life. How did you do that?”
And of course, I hadn’t done that. God did that, just as God has spoken through any of you when He needed to speak words that have some human flavor to them. And perhaps God didn’t need any of us for this, but what I believe is this. Daddy Boots loved us. He loved his life, especially his life as a pilot. God can’t make us let go. It’s something we choose, even when we barely have a consciousness left to choose with.
We made a circle around his body and prayed together. Prayed for a safe journey, peace. We prayed our gratitude for all that he had done for us and meant to us.
I remember little after that. But our souls were lifted. All the anxieties were gone. We knew that he was at peace now, and it comforted us. I managed to sleep, but I doubt anyone else did. I’m pretty sure they went back to my parents house and brewed a pot of coffee. Before I fell back asleep, I prayed a simple prayer of gratitude for letting me be apart of that sacred moment, when the Colonel landed.