This year a sweet chariot came for my Grandfather. I called him Papaw, and he was my mother’s father, although, in the way of the complex, noisy tribe of my family, he acted as a sort of father-figure to me, too. Both of my grandfathers did.
We spent a lot of time together over the years, but what I remember most clearly is that he would sing to me in his nice baritone, old Elvis songs, spirituals, things he heard growing up. He’d warble at me as he pushed me in the red plastic swing in his backyard. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” was his favorite. It was a constant refrain throughout my childhood years.
I started imagining his death the minute I heard his diagnosis: dementia, renal failure. I thought, if I prepared myself, maybe it wouldn’t hit me so hard, that grief was something I could mark off my checklist and go on. Maybe not in good shape, but certainly better than if I spent his winding-down time in denial. But I couldn’t rationalize away the tough times that lie ahead.
Having time to watch a loved one die is a sort of terrible blessing. It takes and it gives.
Watching him struggle, I imagined my life without him over and over. I was exhausted by the toll of grieving well before his light went out, one day in February unmemorable but for his loss.
The logistics of his dying were complicated by the fact that I lived more than 400 miles away. I felt inadequate to the situation, like I should have moved back to care for him. Of course, feelings of inadequacy in the face of a loved one’s dying are normal, I was told. They suffer and you can’t stop it. Guilt is a natural, if useless, reaction.
To fight my own looming sense of failure, I vowed to write him a eulogy. I’m a writer. I thought it was the most fitting tribute I could give. I started when I moved, long before his death, which I thought would be the sort of resolution I needed to finish it. But instead, in my grief, I was inarticulate.
In his honor, I want to share it with you now.
Swing low, sweet chariot. Coming for to carry me home,
Swing low, sweet chariot. Coming for to carry me home.
This is what I remember most about you. I never thought about it, really, that maybe the song you sang most wasn’t just pretty sound. How morbid, when I realized what it meant. Freedom. Was it the diabetes? There were things you wanted to be free of. With a child’s arrogance, I thought you sang only to amuse me. I never entertained the idea of a deeper meaning. I never thought about what that freedom might look like.
You stopped singing after I grew into awkwardness as a teen. I had long since stopped singing back, in homage to my newly grown-up dignity. We’ll call that phase “teenage narcissism.” With the benefit of adult wisdom, I can now report that the statement “You never know a good thing until it’s gone,” though cliché, is true. I would give anything for just one more chorus. I would sing with you in the house, in the mall, in the cafeteria of my old high school hallway, in front of scores of judgmental teenage peers.
You were a good man, a decent man, who taught me about commitment and sacrificing for the people you love. You stopped singing, yes, but to the last, your generosity of spirit never failed. I keep a picture on my phone of you sitting in your bed in the hospice unit, smiling. You was obviously sick. But you looked like sunshine. You were trying to protect us.
Disease took many things from you — from all of us. But that goodness is still what I think about in my sadness at your passing, even now, long after that sweet chariot finally came to take you home.