My grandfather, Mendel Ham, grew up on a farm in rural South Carolina. Racial inequality was rampant in the Deep South during the 1930’s, but one of his best friends was an African-American farm hand. That pretty much sums up my grandfather—the stares and jeers weren’t strong enough to break his spirit.
I didn’t know him as a young man, but I try to envision him approaching my grandmother to ask her on their first date. Or, see him as an eighteen-year old marine, serving our country in Japan. He once told me that was the loneliest time of his life.
I only know about his younger days from the stories he shared over our weekly breakfasts when I was in high school. Or there was the occasional reminiscing of my own father as he shared old family photos.
There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t thank God for those memories with my Paw Paw. Those memories are all that I have left. A year after his much-deserved retirement, Paw Paw began a battle with cancer that ravaged his body.
I remember the hope I felt when he told me, “When you finish your freshman year, I’ll be done with my treatments.” But that’s not how his story would end.
On Sunday morning, June 24, 2001, Paw Paw took his own life.
The Day I Saw My Rock Crumble
It was a beautiful summer day in coastal North Carolina. I was home on summer break and had just left church with a friend, headed to the Goody Goody Omelet House for lunch. My cell phone rang. It was my mom and she was crying. Through her tears I heard, “Something has happened to Paw Paw.”
My friend and I rushed home. Before the car had come to a complete stop, I jumped out of the passenger seat and began running toward my parents who were in the garage. My father was pacing and seemed angry. He was shouting, but I couldn’t make out any words. My mom was frantically trying to comfort him and I was confused. The emotions were thick, like a heavy humidity that filled the air.
Somehow, in the midst of the hysteria, I heard someone say, “Paw Paw shot himself.”
The crushing weight of the news collapsed my knees from underneath me. I fell in our yard as confusion mixed with heartache to create a nauseating sensation. I wasn’t sure if I should yell, if I should cry, or if I should throw up. Somewhere inside I hoped that this was all a mistake, that somehow, this wasn’t real.
In moments that seemed like hours, we learned that Paw Paw was still alive, but on life support. To this day, I’m not sure how I gathered the strength, but I went with my dad to see his father. Fear filled my young, nineteen-year old mind, but I stood by my father as we went into the trauma unit to see Paw Paw.
The hallway to his room seemed endless, a never-ending pathway to a place I didn’t want to go. As we turned a corner, I saw him. Paw-Paw was lying on a bed, his life sustained by a breathing apparatus affixed to his mouth. His head was in bandages. His eyes were closed. The rhythmic beep of the heart rate monitor acted as a countdown timer. My grandfather was going to die.
I was simply an onlooker, able to experience the moment, but paralyzed from speaking. My father was in front of me, slowly approaching his dad. As he dropped to his knees, I gently placed my hand on his shoulder. I could feel his anger and his heartache on my fingertips.
Through questions and tears, I heard my dad say, “You were a great father.”
Those words are imprinted on my soul.
Shortly after that exchange, our pastor and friend, Tim Russell, came in to pray with us. We stood in a circle, our hands on each other’s shoulders, and we prayed for Paw Paw. A few minutes later, the heart-rate monitor flatlined. My grandfather had taken his last breath.
Perspective in the Midst of Tragedy
For years these memories have haunted me—circumstances beyond my comprehension. But the more people I talk with, the more I realize that these stories exist for all of us.
I’m not one to suppose that I have answers. In fact, I come to realize that sometimes questions have no answers.
The truth of that statement doesn’t make it easy to write. I want answers. I want to know why. But I’m learning that, maybe it’s not our purpose to have answers. Maybe it is our purpose to choose how we will respond when answers aren’t available. Maybe that’s how we’ll find the answers we’re looking for.
In these moments, we must recognize our ability to continue with strength that isn’t our own. It is in the valleys of life where God has taught me that He is my rock. And the more I press into my faith, the more I’m reminded that I have been given a choice. These moments in life will define me, but I get to decide how.
I have the power to carry on my grandfather’s legacy. I choose to remember him for who he was, not what he did.
Paw Paw and I had a little secret. We parted ways with a handshake almost every time we said goodbye. And hidden inside his weathered palm was a twenty-dollar bill. These handshakes, coupled with his soft chuckle, are the very thing I hold on to.
His generous spirit gave me far more than twenty dollars with each handshake. He was passing on his legacy to me. That is the legacy I will pass along to my sons—strength mixed with gentleness, faith coupled with action, and joy in the midst of pain.
Whatever adversity you face today, I pray that you understand that you still have a choice to respond. And, know that you are not alone. In fact, your response has the power to create a legacy that will be a beacon of hope for those who are walking through the valley.