Monday, December 20, 2010

A Eulogy for Elmer Smith

My 97-year old grandfather died this week, and I’m currently down in Southern Oregon to attend his memorial service and to help clean up his house.  This is what I read at his memorial service.

Elmer Smith came from the humblest of beginnings, but by the time he graduated from high school, his teachers were telling him he needed to apply to MIT. That was the sort of mind my grandfather had been given: intense, analytical, searingly precise. But my grandfather had other goals besides academic achievement. He wanted a wife, and he wanted a family. That was the sort of heart my grandfather possessed: generous, disciplined, searingly loyal. So he turned from MIT to Montana: he exchanged the dreams of a brilliant engineering career for a pair of lips that he first kissed on a quiet Kalispell street in 1933. And my famously skinflint grandfather would have called the price cheap.

Although I came into the picture much later, I have no experience of life without him. In my earliest memories, he is a constant figure: often present, always desired. He was not just strong: to my young mind, he was strength itself, and intelligence, and character. For many years, even as he entered his eighth and ninth decades, it seemed impossible that he should ever depart this earth. He was the earth, and the salt thereof. He was my hero, everything I ever wanted to be, the very special gift of a God who knows how much little kids need Grandpas. God gave many gifts to our family, but none more valuable or valued than a patriarch who loved his wife, who loved his family, and who loved me.

It wasn’t until about fifteen years ago, when my grandfather lost his eyesight, that we began to realize that the Lord would eventually take back those many gifts he had given. Five years ago, my grandfather broke his ankle, and began using a cane. Three years ago, he lost his beloved wife of 72 years to cancer. Two years ago, he broke his hip. Last year, he had to leave the property he had nurtured for 60 years. The brilliant and brash young man who had conquered his wife’s heart as easily as he conquered the Salmon River was now lonely, crippled and blind. God had given my grandfather in his youth great strength, amazing health, a warm home, and a loving wife; and as my grandfather aged, God slowly and inexorably withdrew each of those gifts. In the end, God recalled even His gift of rational thought. The time came, during his last weeks, when my grandfather’s reason rambled but loosely through his conversations.

But it was during this time, when almost everything God had provided him was removed, that we could see most clearly who my grandfather was at his core, and who he had always been. From his bed, unable to walk or see, he talked a great deal about fixing things, even if those things existed only in his imagination or memory. He talked continuously about family, even if the loved ones with whom he was conversing had departed years ago. And he talked ardently about his Lord. He felt God’s presence a great deal in his final days. When we gathered with him to pray or to sing hymns, tears would stream down his face, and his scattered wits would slowly recollect themselves. He prayed constantly for his family, and made each of us assure him that we would, in our turn, meet him in heaven.

Rest did not come easily to my grandfather, nor to a heart that had beat steadily for 97 years. But he is at rest now, at peace in the presence of the Savior he served faithfully, and reunited with the wife he loved passionately.

During these last weeks, I’ve thought a great deal about death, how it comes to us all, even the strongest and best. One day, I know, I will follow in my grandfather’s footsteps. One day, God will require from me an account of all the many gifts that I have received. I hope, when that day comes, that I will face it with the same fortitude and good humor my grandfather showed in his final years. I pray that I will have lived a life of enough faith and love that, like my grandfather, my own children and grandchildren and great grandchildren will be gathered around me. One day, I will follow my grandfather down the long valley of the shadow of death; and one day, I pray to meet him again when the world is made new.


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