Death on Ash Wednesday: In Memoriam

ash wednesday

James Napier was a man of stark truth.  A man of black and white.

His affability was matched by his billowing voice, a voice that was as inviting as it was stern and filled with rigid conviction.

“When this old body takes its last breath…I’ll be at the right hand of the father…”

He died on Ash Wednesday, a fitting time to die if a time could ever fit.

Having a conversation with him a couple days before he passed…was difficult.  At that moment, when I wanted to be optimistic and he wanted to be realistic without becoming morbid, anything that one could talk about becomes irrelevant.

When death is literally seen approaching the door, about to let itself in, what does one say at that moment?  What does one think in anticipation of that meeting?

At that moment, things aren’t complicated.  Life is easy.  Death is easy.  Speaking is difficult…but speaking is all we have.

This was the last of words I would speak to him.  I have spoken many words to him throughout the years.  Anyone that knew Uncle Jim would doubtless agree; they too had spoken many words to him.  Jim was that warm summer evening that invites a person onto the front porch, asks them to have a seat, take a sip of a tall glass of sweet tea, smell the honey sickle and enjoy his company.

When Jim was around a few things were going to happen.

One, you were going to get called “son” or “honey.”  It was his way of claiming you with his words.

Two, you were going to get an embrace, accompanied by a smile that took up the entire real estate of his face.

And three, you were going to get genuine conversation.  Jim was capable of talking about the mundane and the sacred, both with unmitigated vigor.

“Honey” he said, “I’m not worried about a thing.  Imma doing alright, but the doc told me, he said, Mr. Napier, you may not make it out of here.”

This.  This is real life.  The stark truth staring him, and our conversation, in the eye.  I asked about his visitors and those who had called him.  He replied that “there were plenty of folks who had called and seen him” and “he had plenty of family and friends who loved him.”  Indeed he did.

That’s why I called.

I wasn’t particularly close to any of my extended great uncles or aunts.  I did not know anyone from my grandmother Napier’s side of the family.  I knew all of my grandpa Napier’s brothers and sisters, but Jim held a special place for many of us simply because he was present.  I don’t say this to suggest that others weren’t.  My perspective is only mine and I allow that it may be fallible.  But what I do know is Jim held a special place in my grandpas heart, and as such, he held a special place in mine.

As I sat on the front pew of my grandpa’s church, at his funeral, listening to my aunts and uncles speak about their father as he lay before us, Jim sat beside me.  He sat upright, stately, a man that had gotten older but still carried his dignity and manhood with care.  He sat beside me, one hand on his cane, the other on my knee, an expression of comfort toward one who would somehow speak to folks who had lost a parent, grandparent, brother and friend.  Just moments earlier I watched as he walked up to the coffin in which my grandpa lay, his eyes becoming misty, as he beheld his brother and friend lifeless.  I don’t understand the loss of losing a brother, and at this time, Jim had just lost his first.  You could tell the pain was deep.  The loss was real.

Jim sat beside me.  He encouraged me as I sat before my family, and my grandpa’s church, about to eulogize my grandfathers nearly 90 years of life.  Once it was my turn to speak, Jim was my familiar face to look at.  It was hard to look at my parents, or aunts or uncles.  Many of them had tears.  I didn’t want to cry…so when I looked at people, I looked at Jim.  He would just nod his head in agreement with my words, a tall order for a man that didn’t agree unless he meant it.

Afterward, Jim embraced me and said, “your grandpa would have been proud of you…you did a fine job son.”  How can I, a grandson of just 33 years old, speak anything meaningful to a man who lived with my grandpa far longer than I?  If Jim was being kind, at that moment, it was much appreciated.

I would say if my grandpa had a brother that was a best friend it would be Jim.  Now, as with any sibling relationship, it wasn’t always peachy.  They would disagree.  They would trust one another.  They would take advantage of one another.  On and on.  They were family and it had all the warts one would expect.  BUT…it also had affection and brotherly love.

During my grandpas final months, when I was able to speak to him, of the things he would talk about when talking mattered, he’d tell me we need to go four wheeling again and he’d also mention “ginsenging” with Jim.  Ironically, in the last conversation I had with Jim he said, “the last time I went four-wheeling was with your grandpa.”

Maybe they weren’t the kind of men to hug one another and say “I love you,” but they did in fact love one another.

The very last time Jim went fourwheeling was with my grandpa.  They used to go often.  Just imagine the movie, “Grumpy Old Men,” only with a West Virginia hills backdrop and probably a little more laughter than you’d hear complaining.

I can hear them now…my grandpa would reply to Jim ”Why son you’re crazy…” to which Jim would reply, “Son, I’m not.  I tell you the truth.”  This would be followed by laughter…only my grandpa didn’t laugh when Jim laughed, unless, of course, it was the rehearsal of a childhood memory in which both men shared.

Those of you who knew my grandpa, French Napier, know that he wasn’t the easiest person to convince of something.  If my grandpa had an idea, that idea wasn’t gonna be shaken easily.  If he had a plan, that plan wouldn’t be shaken easily either.

Well, on our final four-wheeling trip, about a decade ago when Jim would have been 70 and my grandpa 78/79 years old (Jack Lalane had nothing on what these men were capable of in their old age), my grandpa had the bright idea of going up this steep bank with his four wheeler.  He said it was the “best way through” this spot.  Jim disagreed.  Jim, a little less reckless than my grandpa, wanted to drive around it.  I can hear him as clear as if it was this morning, Jim saying, “Now son, you’re too old to be trying stuff like that.  That just ain’t a gonna work.”

(Now this may sound crazy to you readers, but these fellas were used to making their own trails where there weren’t any trails…a slight grade of a hill wasn’t much of a deterrent.  We once drove off the hill from Justice cemetery down to Brush Creek.  You may be thinking, “well there’s aren’t any trails down that steep hill to Brush Creek!”  You are correct…there are not.  That is the point…they just made them.  When you went four-wheeling with Jim and French you followed or got out of the way.)

These words would be followed by Jim’s notorious chuckle.

My grandpa, French, would look at him, wave Jim’s concern off with his hand and he’d go headlong into his plan.

Well, this time, Jim was right and Grandpa was wrong.  Grandpa flipped the four-wheeler and if not for his uncanny ability to get out of tight situations that machine would have landed on him.  I didn’t know a 79 year old could move so quickly, but when grapnda had to…he could tap into that extra step.  Jim knew what it was like fourwheeling with grandpa, so on the back of his four-wheeler one could find a giant gray storage box with an array of tools to get them out of any situation.  He asked if my grandpa needed the wench, to which he got a negative reply…because of course he did.  We all got off our rides and flipped the machine back on its wheels…just another adventure when you were in the woods with Jim and French.

The very last time I went four wheeling with my grandpa and Jim was one of the best moments of my life, literally.  I had wanted to go again, afterward, but life got too busy and I didn’t make time for what mattered…cause everything else mattered over fourwheeling in the woods.

I loved being in the woods with my grandpa.  He would take us back into Brush Creek, point to a pile of bushes and tell us what used to be there.  He’d take us into hollers and ravines that were special to him, places where he grew up, where his dad grew up, where my grandma was raised, where my deceased Uncle Paul was born, to the place where the old school was, to the old tree his dad planted, to the site of the old church house and even to the hole he’d carved into a rock in order to take a nice cool sip of a West Virginia mountain stream.  He’d take us to the old cemeteries, many being slowly forgotten, and walk amongst the graves and tell us about these people…whom history was slowly swallowing.

My grandpa and Jim were walking dictionaries…something akin to what is today the “urban dictionary,” only they were the source of knowledge everything not urban.  If grandpa forgot a detail, to which he would never admit, Jim would promptly fill that space with content.

I loved spending time with these men.  They offered balance to one another.  They poked fun at one another.  They joked.  They derided.  They corrected.  They remembered…together…and for those of us who had the pleasure of being with them we were able to experience the priceless story of their world, as seen through their eyes, and listen to voices that would slowly be silenced but still desperately had things to be say.

They would re-member together, and in so doing, help us re-member too.

I knew I wanted to speak with Jim a final time.  I knew the news wasn’t good.  I called his room.  His wife, Willa Jean, answered the phone.  I asked if Jim was able to speak.  She gave him the phone.

He immediately said, “Hey son, how are you doing?” To which I replied, “Shouldn’t I be asking you that question?”

We spoke for a few moments.  I listened as Jim, with a steely resolve and confident demeanor, recapped how he’d ended up in the hospital and reaffirmed that regardless of what happened he wasn’t “worried.”

He said “Son, I’m not worried about me.  I just wish I could gather all of the family around me here and tell them how much I love them, how important they are, and how much they need to love one another.”  He said, “You tell all those boys, your dad and the rest of em, you tell em I love em and I’m thankful for em.”

That was his final request…when he was staring out his screened in front door and saw death coming for him…his final request was for family to love one another.  This was the same request as my grandpa

That was my moment…that’s why I called.

At that time when there is nothing to say because nothing matters when you are faced with what really matters, I told Jim that I appreciated him.  I thanked him for his support at both of my grandparents funerals.  I thanked him for his conversations and wisdom.  I thanked him for four-wheeler trips.  I told him he was loved and appreciated and that I would hold my memories of him and my grandpa dear to me.

And in his usual, affable manner, he said “Son, well I appreciate you telling me that…and you hold onto those memories as stories from two old men.”

I could tell he was getting tired in just the few minutes we spoke…his coughing getting the best of him despite what he willed.  I told him I was praying for him and that I was optimistic.

He didn’t correct me…but he knew my optimism was misplaced

He said, “well, son, thanks for calling me.  I’ll talk to you later…”  I replied, “Yes sir uncle Jim, we will.  I love you”…and He said, “I love you too honey. Bye Bye”

Saying goodbye is never easy.  Saying goodbye to people that are tangible connections to our past, to those who give us a sense of who we are…saying goodbye to them is even harder.

I got word of Uncle Jim’s passing from my Uncle Greg at 6:30pm, Ash Wednesday.  I was driving to church, where, ironically, I was about to receive the ashes of my own mortality on my head, a reminder that from ashes we have come, to ashes we shall return.

Uncle Jim had just made that return.

I can still hear his words echoing in my ears, “When this old body breathes its last…I’ll be at the right hand of the father…”

I’m not sure God is going to be able to handle the kind of conversations my granpda and Jim must be having right about now…

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