In this, the oddest spring in my experience, my second grandson will graduate high school.
Nick joined our family at a hospital in Nebraska, born at the tail-end of a summer that included the death of my dad. Traveling to and from Nebraska that summer, I wrote this:
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Tens of thousands of acres of corn, dead but still standing, crackling ahead of summer’s wind across Kansas and Nebraska. In between, vast patches of mostly-green soybeans soldier on toward the horizon.
Shallow ribbons of muddy water winding between mudflats, rivers so low they’re scarred by tracks of all-terrain vehicles. The Red, the Arkansas, South Canadian, North Canadian, Platte. Rain falls, but it’s just not enough.
A father, tearfully remembered in a string of stories, some comic and some not, buried in a field with hundreds of other fathers, mothers, sons, daughters. A grandson to carry that father’s name, ceremonially welcomed – painfully and behind schedule – into a world of startling contrasts.
A lost dad, painted in memories from a palette of glances, smells, touches, places. A grandson wrapped tightly in the softest of blankets, delivering a spanking-new palette of whispered smells, curious blue-eyed stares and a breathy touch.
It’s been a summer for the ages, tragic and celebrated, but not unlike the summers marked by countless other families. Sadness tempered by joy, dead corn bordered by green fields, shiny ribbons slicing timidly across bare river bottoms. These come inevitably to all families, all farmers, all fishermen.
The shadow of a father lies in a casket near the wall, hands folded, hair combed and sprayed stiff, clothed in a dark suit carefully chosen and softly pulled from a closet the rest of us seldom visited, the closet with a distinctly dad smell.
It’s surprisingly quiet beside a casket. You can touch the sadness. Grief wraps itself around you, reaches out to pull others in, pulses strong then weak, waxing and waning between conversations, pats and hugs. There is no other quiet like that quiet.
Life continues and it comes in an 8-pound package with eiderdown hair and long, wrinkled fingers clutching gently at anything – everything – within reach.
Under that ever-present blanket he wears carefully matched overalls and a shirt just about the size of a matchbox, gifts from an aunt concerned about fashion. The toes, nearly as long and wrinkled as the fingers, are swaddled in Ohio State Buckeye socks, a gift from a grandmother laughingly determined to get in ahead of Texas football fans.
If there was more time between eating and sleeping, more time to consider where he’s going and what’s come before, maybe he’d understand how important he is and what he represents. But for now he eats then sleeps and eats and sleeps again, shaped by yesterdays he’ll never know, influenced by memories he’ll never share
When (between meals and naps) Nick looks, he stares. His eyes move back and forth as he studies your eyes, your nose, your mouth as if to learn the face, to distinguish between the noise of laughing and the noise of talking. Will he someday cry for Black Beauty and hope to tramp with Freckles of the Limberlost? Will he get misty over a ‘57 Chevy or a 2005 Mustang? How do we make sure he doesn’t dog-ear the pages of his books and teach him to love Gershwin? In this still-new millennium will kids smile at the smell of a new tent or a sweaty horse?
Can we keep him from the fields of dead corn and the mudflats? Of course not. But we will point him toward the green fields and stand him high on a hill so he can feel the wind that comes in the minutes before the rain fills the rivers. Some day, if his life turns out just perfect, he’ll be both a son and a grandfather. And Nick will know he came near the end of our summer of sadness and celebration.
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In the 1982 film “Camelot,” King Arthur – forced into battle against Lancelot – believes there’s a better world out there, a light over the horizon, that Camelot is possible. He pushes his ‘boy’ Tom away from the battle, sending with him his message of hope... Tom can make a difference, he can tell the Camelot story. Arthur urges him away from the battle and into a shining future: He cries out, “Run, boy. Run.”
To Nick, and to your graduate, I offer Arthur’s exhortation and his hope: “Run, boy. Run.”
Bill Woodall is a retired newspaperman, a son, a father and a grandfather. He’s ready for a visit with his grandchildren.