A Death in Reflection

The final installment of my reflections on the life and death of John Barnes, my grandfather.

FW - Barnes I had driven down that road dozens of times.  And I had parked in that driveway just as often.  Every step I took towards the door was intimately familiar.  As was the doorknob I gripped and the entry way.  It wasn’t until I turned the corner into the living room that I noted the first difference.

A hospice bed.  Where the couch had always been.

And on the bed a wizened, crumpled form, barely larger than a child, and wrapped in a white sheet.  It took me several moments to realize that form was my grandfather John.

Amanda and I had flown into Kansas City to spend a few of John’s last days with him.  His kidneys were shutting down as a result of his lung cancer, which in turn had resulted from smoking for three quarters of a century.

John’s long and full life was almost over.

And I couldn’t help but observe how undignified death is.  I’d experienced death before, but this was the first time I’d ever watched someone in the process of dying.

For the next two days, we sat with John as he wasted away.  We fed him bits of toast and pieces of peaches.  He slept often and while he was awake he was barely coherent.  He didn’t know where he was, occasionally didn’t recognize us.  And he was scared and sick and all of this made him mean.  Undignified.  But as I sat with him, I saw two pictures of grace, beauty that even then grew out of the indignity of death.

These two moments will remain with me forever:

John had pulled himself up to sit on his bed and was complaining that he was tired and wanted to go home (he was home).  And my grandmother, Helen, went to him.

She sat down beside him.

And she spoke softly to him.  Whispered into his ear.  And scratched his back.

She held him and sat with him and even as he lashed out at her she stayed beside him.

John and Helen would have been married 60 years this July.  And in their interaction, in Helen’s loyalty and faithfulness to John, I bore witness to a picture of God’s loyalty and faithfulness to us in the midst of our pain and suffering.

God is faithful to us even when we lash out against him.

In another moment, Helen and Amanda had left, and I was alone with John.  He woke up, and in one of his more lucid moments looked at me and scoffed, “You and your tattoos.” (John was never a big fan of my ink.)

I laughed and we had a brief conversation about God.  My mom had told me that in the last year or so of his life, John had begun to doubt his picture of the afterlife.  I and his pastor had both had conversations with him, and one of those conversations must have come back to his mind in that moment, because he looked at me and spat out, “You don’t have any more idea than I do what happens next.”

I have discussed in two of my previous posts John’s faith, which he expressed primarily through his embodied life as a part of the Mound City, KS community.  John was an active part of his faith communities throughout his life, and his faith was lived out through his physical presence in the world – his generosity and service – much more so than through his thought and contemplation.

I sat by John as he lay dying and questioning and I wondered if a short season of doubt at the end of a long, full life can invalidate a lifetime of service and giving, of embodying the Gospel.

And I thought of the man who came to Jesus, asking for his daughter to be healed.  Jesus told him that all things were possible to them who believed and the man cried out,

“I believe!  Help my unbelief!”

Jesus told the man – doubts and all – that his daughter had been healed.  And the guy had to leave, travel a day and a half back to his home, not knowing anything about his daughter’s health.

His actions proved his faith, even when his thoughts couldn’t.

I held John’s hand as he slid back into the stupor of the dying.  And as he slept, I reflected on these things.

God is faithful to us.  And I truly believe that our actions speak at least as loudly as our words.  And hopefully, sometimes, even louder.

John was dead less than two weeks later, his body finally giving up in its long struggle against death.  And I mourned then, and mourn still, but it is a sorrow laced with hope.

I believe that, because Jesus’ resurrection is an embodied reality, I haven’t seen the last of John.

“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
— 1 Corinthians 15:55

A Sabbath Still Remains…

John and Amanda at our wedding rehersal. He is no doubt being sassy.  You can tell because...

Third in my reflections on the life of my Grandfather, John Barnes.

In my last post, I recounted John’s work ethic – that as a young husband and father he frequently worked up to 20 hours per day.  Even as a young boy, I remember going with Grandpa to the rock quarry where he worked.  My siblings, cousins and I would spend hours climbing the giant piles of lime and gravel while John filled trucks and ran the quarry.  When we returned to the farmhouse (and, later, the house by the lake), John would spend hours outside, tending to his garden or fishing.

Old Maid is super fun. And will give small children an ulcer. Proven fact.Rook was created because some Christians refused to use face cards due to their derrivation from Tarot cards. True story!Even after he finally retired, he spent countless hours out in the Mound City community,   And while John certainly played well – he was almost always up for a game of Rook or Old Maid – I remember most that he worked.  And in the last few years, when he got more and more sick, and just couldn’t get out and work anymore, it stole away his soul.  It wasn’t a dramatic sort of thing.  He just gradually became more and more miserable.

  John was a worker, and when he couldn’t work anymore, a real and important part of him died.

Such were my thoughts as I stood under a tent at the Wesley Chapel Cemetery, surrounded by my family, all of us facing the casket that held John’s body.  I thought about John the farmer.  I thought about Adam the farmer.  And the words of Genesis 3 rang in my mind even as the minister declared, “Ashes to ashes; dust to dust”:

“Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.  By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

...of the snarky grin on his face. This mischevious grin, as well as Amanda's reaction, were common occurences.

John worked hard.  And in this, he participated in the story of Adam, the story that is our story.  By his own toil and sweat he brought forth life for his family and – through his generosity – to his community.  And in this way, John also participated in the story of the second Adam.  John’s love for those around him was evident despite his gruff exterior, and he worked hard, he sacrificed for his loved ones – his friends and his family.

So as I stood, watching his casket, tears flowing down my cheeks even as rain kissed the canvas over our heads, I recalled for myself what the writer of Hebrews said concerning that second Adam, whose own labors on behalf of us, his beloved, are finished:

“Under the old covenant, the priest stands and ministers before the altar day after day, offering the same sacrifices again and again, which can never take away sins.  But our High Priest offered himself to God as a single sacrifice for sins, good for all time. Then he sat down in the place of honor at God’s right hand.”
— Hebrews 10:11-12

I wept for my loss, for my mother and grandmother and family.  But I understood what it means to mourn as those have hope.  John was adamant that his death be marked with celebration and I left the graveside overcome by joy rather than sorrow.  Because after a long life full of work, John Barnes was finally at rest.

“So then, a sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; for those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labors as God did from his.  Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest.”
— Hebrews 4:9-11

Generosity and Community, but Blunt.

The Mound City Post Office displayed this sign for a few days before the funeral.  The POST OFFICE. This doesn't happen in cities.  Or even big towns, for that matter.This series of posts comprise my reflections on the life of my grandfather John Barnes. The first entry is here.

A few years after John and Helen married, Eastern Kansas was struck by a pretty severe drought that left their small family in dire straights (since John was a farmer).  They were unable to pay their gas bill, but the owner of the station knew John and extended him credit for over a year until they could harvest a good crop and begin to recover from the drought.

When I first heard this story, I was overcome by the generosity of the store owner.  Such an act of kindness is far from commonplace in my culture.  Credit is offered by VISA and MasterCard, not by a local business owner, and we don’t do business with the same persons often enough that they know our names, much less vouch for our honesty and work ethic in so tangible a way.

That singular act of generosity is a window for me into John’s world; he and my grandmother were unfailingly generous as well.  I remember snippets of conversations overheard by my young ears – discussions between my mother and her brothers about some loans Grandma and Grandpa had made.  I never really knew the persons in question nor did I fully grasp what had actually transpired (I was far to busy exploring the barns or swimming in the lake to be troubled by such grownup concerns), but I do remember that they always seemed to give more than most everyone else thought they should.

I also remember when a good friend of theirs was finally dying.  Her husband had long since died, and she had no children to care for her (whether she had never had children or they were not there for some other reason I never knew), so my grandparents cared for her for a long time, visiting her several times every week and helping her to put all her affairs in order.  Small town gossip being what it is, several persons in town began to speculate that they were trying to weasel into her will.  I’ll never forget that my Grandma looked  at me and said, “I don’t know how anyone could think such a thing.  She’s our friend.”  John simply nodded his agreement.

That was John Barnes to me.  He didn’t say much.  And when he did speak, it was straight to the point (for instance, when I got my first tattoo – Hebrew on my left forearm – I knew instantly that he was not thrilled.  He asked me what it said, and when I started to tell him, he cut me off by exclaiming, “It says bulls*** to me.”  That was the first time I ever heard him cuss.)  For most of my life, I’d always taken his gruffness to be a sort of sullen anger – as my mother pointed out in her funeral reflections, he always could throw a good fit.  But in retrospect, I realize that John was just a simple man.  Not intellectually; as my uncle Jim said, “He didn’t say much, but he didn’t miss much either.”

No, I wonder if John’s simplicity was a sort of embodied honesty.  He worked hard.  He loved well.  He lived in a community that respected hard work but that caught you when you fell.  And he didn’t see much point in trying to be anything other than what he knew.

There’s an authenticity there that many of us are missing.  The communities in which we live have become so detached, so disembodied that we now have to seek out those experiences that were part-and-parcel of John’s every-day-life.  And we’re having to learn to be real in a way that he never did.

John wasn’t perfect; far from it.  And that’s the point.  If you knew John, you knew him flaws and all.  He never had a conversation about ‘taking off masks’ or ‘tearing down walls’ in his community.  I’m not sure those conversations would have even made sense to him, so far are they removed from his lived experiences.

It makes me wonder what we have to learn from actual communities actually living in community.  Where your loss is my loss and your win is my win.  I wonder what we can do to begin to reclaim that level of honesty in our lives.  I wonder how we can move back towards an embodied sense of community.

Any thoughts?

A Man of the Land

John on our wedding day... in his signature overalls and wearing yellow to match my grandma, Helen. John Barnes died on Sunday, March 20 at 2:30 am, Central Time.  He died on a hospice bed in the living room of the house he’d occupied for nearly 20 years, surrounded by his wife and two of his four children.  He was 82 years old (b. December 19, 1927) and had lived in Mound City, Kansas his whole life.

He was, among many other things, my grandfather.

And he was, among many other things, a farmer.  A man of the Land.  I learned a lot about my grandpa in the process of his death, and in the next few posts, I want to reflect on what I learned about and from him in the last few weeks of his life.

John grew up farming with his father and brother, and after he married Helen in 1950, they struck out on their own.  Soon, John bought a lime truck and began hauling lime.  His days soon looked like this:

Wake up before dawn, take lime truck to quarry and start hauling at dawn.

Home around 7:00 pm.  Eat dinner.

Farm until early morning.

Sleep a few hours.

From the stories I heard, Grandpa started out with pretty much nothing.  He worked sometimes 20 hours per day and was at the mercy of the Earth.  Some years there were drought; some years they had less.

For a man like John Barnes, the amount of work he did was directly proportional to how much he had.

This is not the world in which we live today.  The world of Office Space in which we do just enough not to get fired.  We live in a world of salaries and benefits, a world in which we are told we ‘deserve’ a certain amount based on how much education we have or the persons we know but – very rarely – the quality of work we do.

For the vast majority of us, job reviews or performance evaluations are a joke.  For John, a poor evaluation was his children’s growling stomachs.

One thing I’ve always remembered about my grandfather was that he didn’t take what he didn’t earn.  No, that’s not right.  He was a very generous man, and he had received generosity often in his life (more on this in the next post).

He accepted gifts and generosity without expecting them.

He worked as hard as he could and never felt entitled to anything.

And that’s something I took away from my grandfather’s death.  Somehow we in my generation have developed a strong sense of entitlement.  We feel the Earth owes us something, that the mere fact of our existence entitles us to health and wealth.

Our culture has become increasingly disembodied, ever further detached from the Earth that was created to sustain us.  In the hours I spent with my grandpa just before and after his death, I was able to peek into a different world, a different culture.

“And to the man he said, “Since you listened to your wife and ate from the tree whose fruit I commanded you not to eat, the ground is cursed because of you. All your life you will struggle to scratch a living from it.  It will grow thorns and thistles for you, though you will eat of its grains.  By the sweat of your brow will you have food to eat until you return to the ground from which you were made. For you were made from dust, and to dust you will return.”
–Genesis 3:17-19