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A new year’s resolution

by Keith Barber

Last week, I stumbled across a DVD of my grandfather’s funeral service. It’s been nearly four and a half years since my beloved mentor, protector and father figure passed away. I had almost forgotten the video chronicle of that day even existed. I happened to be rifling through a stack of DVD’s and came across a disc with the words, “Papa’s Funeral Service,” written in my mother’s familiar handwriting. I had much to do last week preparing for the upcoming Christmas holiday, but I dropped everything to watch the DVD. The video was grainy and a bit shaky. The audio was far from perfect. But what unfolded on camera was a revelation.

Pastor Roger Gilbert performed the service at the First Baptist Church in Mount Airy that Sunday afternoon. A soloist with the church choir performed “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” one of my grandfather’s favorite spiritual hymns.

Why should I feel discouraged/ Why should the shadows come/ Why should my heart feel lonely/ And long for heaven and home/ When Jesus is my portion/ A constant friend is He/ His eye is on the sparrow/ And I know He watches over me… A quartet performed “How Great Thou Art,” the hymn my grandfather most loved to sing. But the highlight of the musical portion of the service came when Cora Bannister, a dear friend of my grandfather’s, performed her soulful rendition of “Amazing Grace.” The depth of Cora’s love and friendship came shining through in her performance. The church was silent following each musical number.

However, I vividly remember sitting in the front pew and wanting so badly to applaud. But I respected the silence as a reflection of our collective solemnity.

My brother, Layne, cousins John and William, and I then ascended the dais, and shared our memories of Papa with all our family and loved ones in attendance.

My brother spoke eloquently of his childhood memories of my grandfather. He also recalled a dream he had the night my grandfather passed away. In the dream, my brother found himself in a large field surrounded by large oak trees. The branches of the trees formed a natural canopy. As he walked beneath the branches, he came upon a wondrous sight. At the end of the path was a magnificent oak that appeared to rise a hundred feet into the air.

Its enormous branches offered shade and protection and my brother gazed upon this iconic tree that represented strength and protection.

My brother said he believed the tree was a metaphor for my grandfather’s love. Papa was our protector, our source of strength and a father figure during our formative years and throughout our lives, my brother said.

My cousin, John, spoke of how all seven grandchildren formed a strong attachment to my grandfather. He said my grandfather engaged us with humor, and revealed his love for us through countless acts of service. When my cousin, William, spoke it was clear he had not had time to process the reality of Papa’s loss. He wept openly as he attempted to share some of his fondest memories of my grandfather.

I approached the altar and acknowledged the depth of William’s feelings and the sentiments expressed by my brother and John. Then I began my eulogy of Burnie Slate, the finest man I ever knew.

Papa believed in a power greater than our own, I said, and he helped bring all of us to a more expansive understanding of life and what matters by living such an exemplary life.

Papa dedicated his life to serving others. The stories of selfless acts of kindness abounded on that Sunday afternoon. Most of all, I spoke of my grandfather’s final days, how he was surrounded by so much love, and how his words were filled with a profound sense of gratitude.

I quoted my favorite philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson. “From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things, and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all,” Emerson observed in his essay, The Over-Soul.

“The body falls away but the spirit never dies,” I said. “Papa’s spirit lives within each and every one of us.”

As I watched the video, I was struck how my initial nervousness faded and I gradually grew calmer and more peaceful during my time before the congregation. I spoke with confidence and exuded a poise I never knew I possessed. It was like looking at myself in a mirror and seeing someone else staring back at me. I caught a brief glimpse of the infinite potential my grandfather could always see in me.

I concluded my eulogy by declaring my commitment to live up to his sterling example. Sitting on my sofa in my house four and a half years after my eulogy, the tears finally began to fall. I couldn’t hold them back any longer, nor did I wish to do so.

This Christmas was special for a number of reasons, not the least of which was we kept Papa in the forefront of our minds. If there was ever a man who truly understood the spirit of Christmas, it was my grandfather. We all laughed as we recounted the humorous stories he used to regale us with, and cried whenever we spoke of our memories of his final days. It has been the most beautiful and cathartic experience of my life.

Mostly, I keep thinking about the solemn pledge I made in my eulogy — to fulfill the limitless potential Papa saw in me and become the man he always knew I would become. So, I begin 2012 with a sense of purpose and the deepest sense of gratitude for the countless blessings of my grandfather. I know that would make him proud.

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