He gripped the worn pencil with his gnarled but steady hand. With determination, he pushed through his hesitance and formed the curving first letter of his name. He paused between strokes, as if exerting great physical effort. All three letters completed, he assessed his work. “Sam” was displayed on the lined wide ruled paper, letters uneven and light, but clear and certain. He looked up, gray, full eyebrows raised in an unspoken question. “Awesome!” I smiled back. In relief, he dropped his pencil, leaned back in the kitchen chair, and exhaled.
For half a century, Sam’s life had revolved around one answered prayer. Some pray for success. His prayer had been for survival. At 30 years of age, had been lucky, he knew. He had a wife and three children and a small farm in the country. He started and ended each day keeping his farm, but worked as a butcher in town during the week. Times were hard, and they struggled. When he looked back, years later, he knew he had taken it for granted.
I was a young child when I realized that not everyone’s grandmother lived in a wheelchair. I was completely devoted to the kindest person I believed to exist on this earth. Her limitations surrounded her, and if I was with her, my arms and legs were an extension of hers. I reached for her, and took the yarn from the upper shelves in her sewing room. I walked for her and got the mail. I bent for her and picked up the dropped spoon. I trimmed her silver, shoulder-length hair, admiring it’s satin glimmer. She couldn’t come to me, so I came to her, even if it meant a several mile bike ride up steep and lonely roads. I never minded, even for a moment, secure in my importance to her, basking in her appreciation and embracing purpose.
Eventually, I knew her story. She was a woman of very few words. She really didn’t need to say much when my grandfather was around. He was the one who told me her story. He had mastered the spoken word and was an excellent storyteller. Another time and place he may have been an Oscar winning actor, putting hands and shoulders into story-enhancing gestures that commanded attention. Sentences and paragraphs dipped and peaked in superlatives, many of them in his first language, which was French. I guessed at their meanings. My less-vociferous grandmother also used several, in exasperation, on a regular basis. But her expletives were almost endearments. Her husband could be a bull in a China shop. But he was devoted to her.
Her prognosis was bleak.
Over and over again, Sam kneeled, bargaining with God. He repented of drinking, vowing to never touch another beer or vodka if she lived. He promised devotion to her. He never doubted God’s existence, and never doubted God’s control over their lives. God answered his prayer. She lived.
Paralyzed from the waist down, Victoria was confined to a wheel chair. After a year in the hospital, she came home. There were no electric wheelchairs, handicap-compliant ramps or special lift vans back then. She was now labeled an invalid and a cripple. She rarely left the house. Her arms grew strong as she wheeled herself around her home, caring for her family, helping keep a farm without ever walking its paths or entering its sheds. But Sam never forgot his promise. He never did drink again, and they made it work, despite the challenges. God answered his prayer, and that “yes” from God determined his path for his entire life.
“Many of my friends in the hospital died. I did not. I’m thankful that I lived. I have nothing to complain about.”
The day came that my grandfather, a man who became shorter and more stooped as the years passed, could no longer care for his wife’s physical needs. She had to move to a nursing home, and he could not go with her. The nursing home was 45 minutes away. He visited her as often as he could in his little red Toyota truck. I was away at college and visited when I was home. She sat up as royally in her automatic bed as she had for years in her wheelchair. She still never complained. But they missed each other, all day, every day.
“I have something very big to ask of you.”
I had just finished another college year and would be home for the summer. I was going to be a teacher. “Do you think, is it possible, maybe, for you to teach me to read?” He was in his 70’s now. “I have always wanted to learn, but I never had time. I have time now.”
He did learn to read and write that summer. Those are among the most precious hours of my life. He was diligent. He got discouraged and almost gave up, several times. We pushed through. Sneaky as I was, I gave him assignments that would enrich not only his intellect, but also his spirit. He was a good Catholic and revered God and His Word. I showed him how to open his Bible and look up the verses. He was fascinated at how the Bible had been “all marked up with numbers.” I chose verses that would encourage Him. His faith was strong. He never doubted one word of Scripture.
“How do you get to heaven?”
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16,”
“What does it mean? I asked him. For a man who had always believed, but had also believed that much more was needed to get to heaven, this clearly seemed too good to be true. “Do you believe?”
“Of course I do,” he replied.
“Then you’re all set. He loves you. He died for you. You believe. You’re going to heaven.”
“But I have done a lot wrong.”
“Are you sorry? Have you confessed your sins? If so, Jesus paid for them.”
“Yes, of course.” He tried to be a good Catholic. That was covered. He absorbed it all as it came together in his mind, what we had read, what I had answered. He smiled. He asked, hesitatingly, “Then I’m going to heaven?” He clearly couldn’t believe it.
“Yes.” Relief showed in his relaxing shoulders. He smiled bigger.
“That’s what the Bible says.”
He changed that moment. He wanted more of this good news. He began to read the Bible hungrily. He decided to begin with Matthew. Oh, no, I thought. Those genealogies at the start of the book will put him to sleep. I tried to redirect him to other chapters, but he was undeterred. “No, I want to read the New Testament straight through! And I’ll start at the beginning!”
It’s never too late. That was what I learned the summer of my grandfather. While my grandmother lived peace, it was that very same summer, late in the game, that he found peace. The course of their lives was steered by one answered prayer. What dream have you given up, thinking that the time has passed? Never give it up. There may still be time to find that joy.