If you were blessed to have been born or ever lived in the United States of America, your mind automatically thinks about the most celebrated day in our nation when you think about the month of July. Every year on July 4th, millions of people gather to celebrate the birth of our country. Far beyond the physical borders that outline our nation, Americans living abroad enjoy cookouts, fireworks, and celebrations in honor of this amazing place many of us call “home.”Our family celebrated in various ways as we were not all together this year. Mike and Spencer were in Kentucky and celebrated with a cookout and fireworks with Mike’s sister Ann and her in-laws. Emma and I (and Michelle) spent most of the day inside out of the heat then went to a special July 4th service hosted by our church, out to dinner and home early as Emma is not impressed by fireworks!!! Between autism, cerebral palsy, OCD, and poor vision…fireworks can’t hold her attention.
As it does every year, my mind went back to another time when my family was not “together” on the 4th of July. I was 7 years old and it was the first time I ever encountered death. Our family of 5 children and 2 parents had been living in Indianapolis, Indiana, where I was born. That summer we made our annual trek to Hazard, Kentucky, to the birthplace and extended family homes of almost all of my grandparents and relatives. I loved our trips to the mountains. There were cousins to play with, mountains to explore, creeks to wade in, rocking chairs to sit and listen to the night noises, aunts and uncles to eavesdrop on, grandparents to talk to, and oh so many other things to explore.
This particular trip took a different twist and turn as our parents decided, rather abruptly, that they were moving us back to the mountains. Failing health of my mom’s parents, and the realization that life won’t always stay the same had caused my parents to re-evaluate and decide they wanted to be closer to that extended family we loved and missed so much. So, they announced that they were leaving us in the capable care of Aunt Gladys and Uncle Ed, and going back to Indianapolis to gather our belongings.
On July 4th of that summer, all of us kids (and there were a ton of us when the cousins were together) were playing in the yard at Aunt Gladys’ small, green, house. She called us onto the porch where there were railings to lean on, chairs to sit in, and of course a swing. Always a swing. Porches were where things happened. Important conversations, quiet times to sit and listen to nature sounds, restful times when it was simply enough to raise a hand to the occasional car passing by. So gather on the porch we did. I wasn’t the youngest, but I was the one who climbed onto the lap of Aunt Gladys for the announcement that would forever seal itself into my heart and memory. “Kids, your Papa Ballard died today.” Silence. Forever, or it seemed, there was just eerie silence. Then, one by one as reality sunk it, we began to cry. I don’t remember how the others took the news. I only remember that I buried my head in the bosom of my aunt. For safety. For comfort. For freedom to cry.
Papa Ballard Napier, was the tallest man I could ever imagine in my childish mind. Standing well over 6 feet, his legs seemed like they stretched forever and his arms could encircle you and make you feel like you were in a cocoon. It didn’t matter what time of day you climbed onto his lap, you could reach into the pocket of his green uniform style shirt and find a piece of Juicy Fruit Gum. Never any other flavor, always Juicy Fruit. He was safe and predictable that way. Juicy Fruit gum and strong, black coffee. That’s who he was.
Years of working in the coal mines had taken their toll and the horrid, dreaded, cancerous disease known as black lung slowly, quietly, crept into his body and eventually weakened him and took him from us.
I lost a grandfather that day. I lost a chapter of my childhood that summer. An Indianapolis neighborhood known as Beech Grove where we lived on Andrea Drive. A house that held memories of when I had chickenpox, got my first toy organ, and drank Dad’s left over coffee from his nightstand every morning. We were the last house on the road before the dead end. We had a creek behind the house that met us every day with new adventures and discoveries. Dad built us the coolest treehouse (funny, there was no tree-it was freestanding actually). Property that emptied onto a field that provided hours and hours of hide and seek and a path that led to the Village Pantry store where we could get penny candy. Teachers at school. Restaurants we loved like Shakey’s pizza with the pipe organ, Steak and Shake where my mom worked and brought home leftovers at night, Bonanza where we went on Tuesday nights as a family and Roslyn’s bakery. I left behind friends in the neighborhood that even today I think of and wonder where they are now.
At seven years of age, I’m not sure how much about death we can truly understand but I do know we can understand the pain that comes from grieving. As I set nestled in my aunt’s lap and surrounded by her arms of love, I really do not know if I was crying more over losing my grandfather or missing my parents. All I know is that I was experiencing the deepest despair I had known at that point in my life. I can still recall the pain I felt and how desperately I just wanted to be held.
I am unsure of how long I sat there. Maybe only a couple of minutes, maybe more. Her arms held me and let me grieve for as long as it took, as long as I needed. Eventually, after some time had passed, Aunt Gladys said, “you kids go on and play now, everything’s going to be okay.” And so, play we did. We ran down the steps and resumed what we had been doing before her words had shattered our perfect day. Children are resilient that way. Perhaps it’s because we truly don’t understand the impact that death will have on our future. Or perhaps we have perspective and wisdom beyond our years.
How many times since that July 4th summer day, have I come to God grieving, broken, carrying pieces of shattered dreams, bearing open wounds, sobbing tears that took away the ability to speak? Often!!!
Whenever and wherever there is death…physical death, of a relationship, a broken dream…there is freedom to grieve with God. Knowing He will hold us as long as we need to be held. Until our tears dry and we feel like we can inhale deeply again, filling our lungs with physical air and spiritual strength enough to stand on our own again. Still hurting? Yes! But with FREEDOM to move forward with grace. I just love that about God.
When just one small moment in life shatters our perfect day and everything we knew as good is gone and grief overtakes us, God’s arms cocoon us in an embrace. Nestled up against Him we can just “sit” and “be still” until we finally here Him say, “You kid’s go on and play now, everything’s going to be okay.”
Never do we celebrate our Nation’s birthday but that I think about how gently I was ushered into the realization of death and that things aren’t always perfect but that things are always okay. Because there are arms to run to and the safety of an embrace until I’m well enough to go play the game of life again.