My grandfather died a week ago tonight. (Don’t worry, not many more entries will begin this way.)
He left us less than three months after his wife of sixty years, which is not surprising, but no less hard. This feels like the second half of a whole is gone. In September, when my Grandma died, we felt truncated and sober. Now sometimes we lose the feeling in our legs and we must reach down and check that they’re still there–he did show us how to stand on them, didn’t he?
On Monday night we prayed and my mom said that it felt like some of the light and salt had gone out of the world. It did–it does. There is no better way to explain him than to tell you how he lived.
In 1954, he graduated from medical school in Iowa, got married, and, in 1956, moved down to a tiny town in north central Missouri to start a practice. And he stayed. While other doctors moved in and out of town, he always stayed.
In college I wrote a paper on small-town doctors, and in the process I interviewed both my grandparents. I dug that paper up last night and reread it and found myself smiling at the difference in the stories each of them wanted to tell. My grandma, who had a love of a good story and an even greater love of her husband, showcased him as the compassionate hero of the town. She talked about the time the child with the suicidal mother called in the middle of the night and he had to go and talk her down by himself, because the sheriff decided he wanted a full night’s rest. She talked about how he regularly treated the local prostitutes, one of whom would periodically slit her wrists, and then call him at his house for a ride to the hospital. The other had such great respect for him that she named her son after him and once asked him to testify for her good character in court. (He declined.)
Grandpa told different stories, though. Smaller stories, which always focused not on himself, but on the things he got the opportunity to learn or to love. He told me about coming out to the barn once and finding a lamb that had gotten into the feed box and was gorging himself. Annoyed, he knocked it out and went on with his chores, and when he came back later it was dead. “That was a good lesson to me not to be too harsh with people as well as animals,” he told me. He always said these things in a soft, light tone, not as if he were preaching it to you, but as if he were preaching it to his own heart and it was just possible you might benefit from it too.
He also talked a lot about delivering babies. Delivering babies was his favorite thing. I knew that, but I asked him why. “Everybody’s happy, even the baby,” he told me. “The baby’s crying, but happy.” He loved life, he loved its beginnings, and he loved its preciousness just as he loved the God who saw fit to give it to His people. Probably half the population of Brookfield over the age of twenty-five was delivered by my grandpa. Sometimes, growing up, I would be approached by strangers who told me wide-eyed how he had attended their entrance into the world: farmers, Walmart greeters, tired single mothers in screen-print t-shirts. All of them spoke of him not only with respect, but with a sort of foreign joy. When these same people would approach him, he would tell them, with quiet but evident pleasure, “Oh, I didn’t recognize you. You’ve changed.”
I meant to say more, but I am worn out and a bit overwhelmed by even beginning to tell these stories and here is why: we all, my siblings and cousins, even my mom and her brothers and sisters, we all grew up being told what a good man our Dr. Howell was. My grandma ceaselessly sang his praises to her children and later to her grandchildren. Not only my mother, but also my father, consistently used him as an example to us of patience and humility and godliness.
But here is how I am wonderfully baffled: this was not just the mythos surrounding a beloved figure. Everything we experienced of him bore it out. It was all true. I am sitting alone on my bed right now miles from most of my family, but I can confidently speak for all of us: he was the best man we knew. He is still the best man we know.
This is important. I am typing very slowly now because I am fighting for the words to tell you how important. For a while in his seventies and eighties my grandfather led a Bible study at a maximum security prison about an hour away in Moberly, Missouri. When the prison officials first asked why he wanted to do such a thing he simply said, “Well, I believe that the Word of God changes lives.” He said this because in the early 1940’s in Cumberland, Iowa, the Word of God changed his life. The Word changed his life and continued to change it. My grandfather and his kind are important, because in a world full of fear and violence and bitterness, where even as Christians we cling harder to irony and mockery than to truth, they are proof that God can clean a sinful heart so new and clear that goodness can can shine through it like morning sunlight and fill the room. They are proof that holiness is real and strong and will triumph. And that holiness is what Jesus means for each of us.
About two weeks ago, when we got to my uncle’s house for Thanksgiving, I walked into the kitchen and Grandpa was hunched over the table, thin and gaunt, focussed on finishing a sandwich, breathing heavily with each movement. I asked him how he was. “Greatly blessed,” he said. He knew. Oh, he knew.
Ho! Everyone who thirsts,
Come to the waters;
And you who have no money,
Come, buy and eat.
Yes, come, buy wine and milk
Without money and without price.