3/26/2011 | Share this article:By Higgs ~
Standing there, staring at the six-foot deep hole in the ground now being filled, while the lyrics of “We Rise Again” by The Rankin Family resound from an apparently overused boom box, a single sad thought infects my brain: Papa believed in reincarnation. Feelings of remorse and pity and guilt overwhelm me. Papa’s burning in Hell. And it’s all my fault.
As I sat in the passenger seat of our Chevrolet Sprint, my two brothers in the back, my mother drove us home, and I cried for the entire two-hour drive. A normal reaction, one might assume, to the death and funeral of a family member, but my tears were more than those of a boy sad to know he would never see his grandfather again. Mine were tears of sadness; more especially, they were tears of guilt, and tears of anger. Again, sadness should not be surprising, and anger is often a normal reaction to death, but it seems far less normal for a thirteen-year-old boy to feel guilt over the death of his seventy-year-old grandfather.
It all began about six months earlier during a church service, where it was far from unusual to depart with feelings of guilt for the way one chose to live life. I cannot remember what was being preached this particular morning at the only Christian fundamentalist church in town, but the preacher gave a routine spiel at the conclusion of his sermon about how many of us were living for ourselves, rather than for God. He invited the congregation to publicly rededicate their lives to Christ; I could barely stay in my seat. Tears started flowing down my cheeks and I was unable to contain my sobs; I was crying like a two-year-old who got punched in the face (Don’t concern yourself with the blunt inappropriateness of this metaphor). Concerned, my grandfather (my other grandfather, not Papa) came to me as the service concluded and asked me what was on my mind.
Stuttering and stammering, I managed to say, “Papa is going to go to Hell someday. I keep picturing it in my head. I just wish he would become a Christian.”
My grandfather calmed me down and suggested that I talk to Papa about my feelings. He gave me some literature to share with Papa, which would help him understand how to get ‘saved’.
For the next six months I saw Papa at least once a week. I would mow his lawn, eat from his garden, and play catch out on the freshly-mowed lawn. I never gave him the literature, and I never talked to him about becoming a Christian.
Herein lays the guilt.
At the end of these six months, Papa was dead. Burning in Hell.
One morning in August, the August after that church service, I woke up to hear my dad in the kitchen talking to my mom. My parents are divorced, and although it wasn’t overly unusual to hear them in conversation, I was not expecting to see dad that day; I could sense the seriousness of their conversation from behind my bedroom door. I heard my dad walking towards my door, so I opened it.
“I’ve got some bad news. Papa’s in the hospital.”
So many questions ran through my head, I couldn’t keep track of them. They all came out at once.
“Why? What happened? He’ll be okay, right? What…”
Tears flooded my father’s’ eyes as he stopped me. “His cancer is back. Papa is dying. We’re going to go see him today.”
I had always known Papa had cancer, but I never understood the implications or seriousness of the situation. He lived with his cancer for ten years; it had gone into remission. I suppose I must have known he would die, but no one I loved had ever died before, so it was difficult to imagine at thirteen-years-old.
I began thinking of that time in church, when I had felt a conviction to tell Papa about Jesus. But I never did tell him, and now he was dying. That conviction must have been God giving me a final chance before Papa died. But I blew it. Today would be my last chance; today I would talk to him in the hospital.
We didn’t visit Papa for long.
I could tell he was dying, and although I was distraught with the knowledge that he would soon be tormented in eternal fire, the only words I tearfully managed to expel from my lips were, “I love you, Papa.”
“I love you too, Matthew,” he replied, tears swelling up in his eyes.
It was then that I realized how little we ever said this to each other. I could not remember ever saying those words to Papa, although I was sure that I must have at some point.
I never saw Papa again.
A couple days later, I decided I would stay up all night praying for Papa to be ‘saved’. I had been taught that God answers all prayer as long as we have faith and believe he is able.
I told God, I believe you can do anything, so let’s make a deal. I’ll stay up all night praying for Papa, and you do everything in your power to convict him of his sins and lead him to Christianity before he dies.
Not expecting a response, but instead assuming God’s acceptance of the deal, I started praying. And in less than an hour, I had fallen asleep.
The next day my dad was at our house again. Papa had died.
“Maybe he made a confession in his head before he died, without telling anyone,” was the comfort I received from some of my Christian friends and relatives. I never bought it.
Papa had died, unsaved, and was presently gnashing his teeth in hell fire, because I had not heeded God’s call for me to witness to him.
So when The Rankin Family song was played at the funeral, which included the line “We look to reincarnation to explain our lives,” it seems natural that my thirteen-year-old self would misinterpret the lyrics and worry that his grandfather may have held such heretical beliefs as that of reincarnation.
I will never forget the devastating feeling of guilt I felt over my Papa’s death and his subsequent arrival at Hell’s gates.
But now, looking back on that experience, and having since then put aside such horrific beliefs, all I can think of is how glad I am that instead of spoiling my last moments with Papa trying to convert him, I was able, instead, to tell him how much I loved him.
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