In Honor of My Grandad, Hoyte Haskins, February 25, 1934 ~ October 24, 2020
She sat in the passenger seat of a car with the window rolled down. Her eyes were full of tears. She stared over the mask on her face at her husband’s body that lay in a casket twenty-five feet away from her car. This was the closest my grandmother had been to my granddad in over a week. After falling from his wheelchair, he had been taken to the hospital where he had tested positive for COVID. He came home for a brief stint only to be taken back after his condition worsened. He eventually died in the hospital alone.
Watching my grandmother weep from a distance was the saddest moment of my life. There are tragic moments that can bring about an unexpected and immediate sharp pain. This sadness was different. The sadness of this scene was slow, deep, heavy, and even suffocating.
When my granddad was taken to the hospital a week prior, my grandmother didn’t understand that he wouldn’t be coming back home. I’m sure she never imagined not being able to hold her husband’s hand as he breathed his last breath. I’m sure they both envisioned their last days together much differently. But, this was her goodbye, and it was tragic.
I have very few memories of my grandparents without the two of them being together. From working in the garden, to traveling the country in their RV, to sitting down at the dinner table each evening. They were always together. And now, though they were together, they were apart. I couldn’t understand what my eyes were seeing. It was almost too much to take in and figure out.
Over and over, I had to fight the desire to embrace my grandmother, who herself was Covid positive and sick. To be perfectly honest, I have regretted this decision every day since.
I never imagined preaching my grandad’s funeral six feet from my grandmother’s car window so she could hear. My grandad had struggled with lung cancer for many years, and I always knew I would be preaching his funeral someday. Almost instinctively, I had prepared every word in my mind waiting for the moment. I wanted nothing more than to honor his life before friends and family. And yet, given the circumstances, I would be saying much less to a much smaller group of people.
This wasn’t the funeral he deserved, but I’m sure he was just fine with it. He never sought the attention of others. He was the classic grandad. Before I could walk, he pulled me around his small town in a little red wagon. I sat in his lap for hours as we drove his John Deere tractor (that I affectionately called “putt putt”) around that same town. These things are just what you do to show off your grandson in Chapel Hill, Tennessee. He took me hunting and fishing. On several occasions he tried to teach me how to chew tobacco (something no one knew until now). I’ve never been so sick, and I’m certain he was making sure I never tried the stuff again. The only time I remember him clamoring for attention was when he yelled at the umpires and officials at my baseball and football games. In reality, more times than not, I was out when the umpire said so. I rarely attempted to block as a receiver without holding. That never seemed to matter; he was certain that was never the case when the call was made or the flag was thrown.
Hoyte Haskins was literally the most humble man I’ve ever met, and I don’t say that as the kind of sappy cliche people use when they don’t know what else to say. His kindness and compassion were tangible. He wasn’t soft or weak. You could feel the strength of years working in tobacco and a factory in his handshakes. But, he was the picture of a gentleman. He chose his words so carefully. This is the one trait above all others that I wish he had passed down to me.
One thing he did pass down was a commitment to storytelling. He never communicated anything without telling it to you in a story. When you talked about another person, he would tell you a story about them. If something was wrong with your car, he told you a story about getting his car fixed. If you went fishing with him, he told you a story about every fish he caught in every spot you floated past. I never tired of hearing his stories. The way he described the time of day, or the color of a car, or the size of a deer, caused you to hang on every word.
As his cancer worsened, he became unable to communicate as well as he once could. He couldn’t catch his breath, and it was harder for him to tell his tales. I wanted my kids to hear them all, and I hate that they missed out on some of his eloquence in my favorite stories. And yet, there’s one story they will not miss.
At his funeral, I looked into my grandmother’s eyes and began to speak of their marriage, and the truth was undeniable. The greatest story my grandad ever told me was right before my eyes. It may have been the saddest moment of my life, but it was also one of the most profound moments I have ever experienced.
There was something before us that Covid couldn’t touch–67 years of marriage. 67 years of “I’m not leaving. I am staying, and I’m loving you no matter what!” was there before my eyes. It testified to a love that was stronger than death, because it reflected the love of the gospel. I may have missed it before, but I wouldn’t on this day.
Their love was not a love that clamored for attention. It wasn’t until recently that my sister and I began to reflect on how powerful their steady relationship really was. I’ll never forget the moment it dawned on us as we talked: we had never witnessed an argument between the two of them. We never heard my granddad raise his voice. We had never heard her complain about him. Now, I’m not naive enough to think they never had conflict. I am certain it never overcame their commitment to love and respect one another as husband and wife.
As moved as I was by the sad scene, it reminded me that their love and commitment for one another wasn’t, itself, the love that is stronger than death. But, I also knew that even in a love story between two small town Tennessean common-folk, there is the unveiling of a cosmic mystery.
At the end of the day, my grandad wasn’t telling his story, the master Storyteller is telling His. The tale of a steady, sometimes unseen, love of a Savior-King who says to us, “I’m not leaving. I am staying and I’m loving you no matter what!” It’s the love of Jesus for us, stained with blood and marked by death, that allowed my grandad to love his bride as Christ loved the church.
As my grandmother stared at my grandfather’s casket from a distance, she could not hope in the love they had for each other to reunite them. Her only hope is the One who has promised to bring His bride through death to be with Him. Jesus’ love is the only love that was, and is, stronger than death. His love is never hidden and He has never been at a distance. And by way of our own resurrection, He will gather us Himself with unveiled faces to be together, bride and groom, forever.