The holidays were not kind to my extended family. My Aunt Loez Stewart, wife of my mother’s brother Bill, left us at Thanksgiving at age 92. My Uncle Jewel Whisenant, husband of my mother’s baby sister Frances, followed soon after, shortly before Christmas. And in the early morning hours on Christmas Eve, that silver-haired daddy of mine took the Express Flight to Heaven.
Most of my cousins lost their last aunt and/or uncle during this sad time. Charlie, Sharon and Beth lost their sweet mother, Mike lost his dad, and Gwen, Gary and I lost our father. Only my mother is left – as Beth told her, “Aunt Vete, you’re the last ‘tater on the vine!”
I adored my Uncle Bill and Aunt Loez – and their unique love story earned me my first money as a writer, with both a newspaper article and essay in a Cup of Comfort anthology about Uncle Bill’s “Two Dollar Wife.” He left us years ago, but last time I saw her, many of her memories lost to Alzheimer’s, she told my mother and me “Bill’s around here somewhere, giving me the devil like he always did! He’s still in the service, you know.” (Uncle Bill left the Army in 1950) Mother thought it was sad, but I knew Uncle Bill was probably right there with her, and it made her happy, and that’s what counted.
Uncle Jewel Whisenant and my dad were running buddies in their wild youth, before they went to war, married those Stewart girls, and settled down. Jewel had a true battlefield conversion. He was badly wounded in one of the big European battles, and woke up to find himself on a stack of dead soldiers, with a tag on his toe. A nurse heard him groan, and he was rushed into surgery. He’d been shot in the head and lost one eye, and a bullet hit him square in the heart. What saved him was the steel-jacketed Bible Aunt Frances sent him just before he went overseas. The bullet stopped in the chapter on Lazarus, where “the young man arose from the dead.” He was bigger – and louder – then life, and at his funeral all of the ministers he’d trained mentioned his frequent use of his favorite word – “Aaaaaamen!” He and Frances and Dad and Mother were close friends, although Mother wasn’t much of a fan of his song writing/singing abilities.
Looks like Daddy’s already got his wings, and Mother must be tired from listening to Uncle Jewel’s latest tune Aunt Frances died in 2005. During one of our last conversations, she told me confidently that “he’ll be following right behind me, he can’t survive long without me.” Well, he fooled her … I could just see her standing at the door to Heaven, tapping her foot and asking “What took you so long?” And she might have had a few choice words to say about all those church ladies who flocked around him, one of whom even proposed to him. He politely turned down the offer. He might have had dinner with a couple of the ladies, but his heart belonged only to Frances. Also, Mother reminded him, when he said he was taking a lady to dinner, that her sister had threatened that if he did survive her and find another wife, she’d be sitting on the headboard glaring down on them!
And now for the greatest loss … I knew the day must come, and it did, but somehow I don’t feel that he’s really gone yet. I used to wonder how and when it would happen … Only suicides and prisoners on death row know the hour and the manner of their death. I had hoped it would be like so many obituaries say “He died peacefully in his home, surrounded by his loving family.” It didn’t happen that way, but it was okay. I just talked to a friend who lost her dad a couple of years ago about that. She said she and her sister stayed with their dad all night, but when they left him briefly the next morning he slipped away. She said they realized he didn’t want them to see him leave – like my dad, they’re from that Greatest Generation, and want to be in control and to keep their family from going through painful events. Dad wasn’t alone in those last hours, though. His grandson Kenneth, who’d been working all night, was on his way home at six a.m. He got to a crossroads and had to make a decision – turn left and go home to sleep, or right to the nursing home to sit with his PaPa. He went right, and sat with his grandfather for two hours, talking to him even though he never woke up. Shortly after he left, after mentioning to the nurse he didn’t seem to be breathing right, we got the call that Dad was being rushed back – for the third time in a month – to the ER. Mother was distressed as we hurried to get ready, but she said “he’s already gone. I knew from the beginning he wouldn’t make it through this time.” When the doctor solemnly told her they’d done all they could, but Dad had passed away, she said quietly “I know.”
This is how I envision the scene when he reached Heaven’s Gates. St. Peter looked at him, said “Well done, thou good and faithful servant, I don’t even need to check the book. Go on in, there’s a whole bunch of people waiting for you.” The Pearly Gates opened, and he walked into his mother’s arms, holding her tight for the first time in 81 years. His papa was standing next to her, and he said “Son, I’m so sorry I had to leave you before you were even old enough to remember me, but your mama and I have always been watching over you, and we are so proud of the life you led.” His brothers and sister hugged him next, Aunt Genieve standing on two good legs, no longer bound to the wheelchair she’d used for most of her life. Then his little buddie Trent, forever almost five, came running and his PaPa picked him up with a big grin. Trent’s brother Jeremy came along at a more dignified pace, and all the other loved ones lined the street of gold that Dad followed to stand at the feet of his Redeemer. Daddy believed that, and I so hope it is what happened.
Pictured below: standing, left, Gurnsey, Grandma Bina, little Norman, Alec. The little dark-haired boy with the puppy is my father, Sterling L. Hornsby, and next to him is his sister Genieve. The other photo is Dad on leave from the Navy, early 1940′s, with his sister
Dad loved his Minnesota girls, my son Baylor’s daughters Ashley, 15, and twins Amber and Autumn, almost 14. I kept urging him to get better because they really wanted to see him, and he would say he wanted to see them too, and he tried so hard to hold on. They arrived on Wed. morning, and we went to see him after lunch. He was sitting in a wheelchair, gazing at the Christmas tree in the lounge. His weary eyes brightened when he saw his girls, and everyone gathered around as a woman began playing the piano and the girls sang Christmas carols. It was a special afternoon, and later on it began to snow, and it snowed all Christmas Eve – not so special for the girls, but Dallas had its first white Christmas since 1926. I think Dad arranged it so they’d feel more at home. Mother asked them to build a snowman in the same place their daddy and his little brother Jeff made one about thirty years ago.
The days passed in a fog. We did what needed to be done, with help from relatives, friends and wonderful neighbors like my new sister Fran. She’d been a friend to my parents for years, but this time she went above and beyond friendship. When she saw me struggling to get Mother, her wheelchair, and her oxygen bottle into the car that sad morning, she looked at my face, and my hands shaking as I tried to use the keys, and simply asked “Do you want me to go with you?” “Yes!” “Do you want me to drive?” “I sure do!’ She was our appointed chauffeur for the hospital, the private and open viewings, the funeral, and the military ceremony. She fed us and cheered us up and enlisted the other neighbors in helping and keeping watch over Mother in the days to come. Fran, you will always be part of our family, and we all love you dearly.
There were so many things to do, sometimes we’d forget why it was we were doing it. Daddy sent a few reminders – when I was standing, lost, in the middle of the kitchen floor that morning, a spice jar jumped off the counter. Later, my niece was startled by a leaping salt shaker, and my granddaughter swore she was nowhere near the glass that escaped from the dish drainer. Then the pennies started showing up, and the quarters, and the Mercury dimes, and the box of silver dollars – the location of that box is known only to Mother and me, so don’t be looking for it! When I went to his closet to pick out his clothes, one of his ties appeared front and center – a blue tie with a design that said NAVY. Got it, Daddy! He looked so handsome, once we instructed the funeral director in how to properly comb his hair, his beautiful silver hair. His face was unlined, all traces of pain gone, only peace.
It was left to me to chose the photos and music for the DVD to be shown before the service. When the tech guy told me I could chose any songs I wanted, not just hymns, I knew just what to pick. Louis Armstrong’s version of It’s a wonderful world, Anchors Aweigh, fading into the Navy hymn, for the war years, Honkey Tonking by Hank Williams, and Sunday Mornin’ Coming Down by Kris Kristofferson were meant for his wild younger years, but somehow the music wasn’t quite in synch with the photos. When Kris sang “and the beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad, so I had one more for desert…” a photo of my nephew Rick holding his 8 month old son appeared – a bit of unintentional humor. Dad loved that song because it reminded him of how he used to be and wasn’t any more. Being a fan and friend of Arlo Guthrie, I had to include Someday, a beautiful and poignant song he wrote when his mother died. I ended with Alan Jackson’s When We All Get to Heaven, from the gospel cd we listened to the last time I took Dad to White Point Cemetery, where most of his folks are buried, for the annual meeting.
The funeral service was on New Year’s Eve. The people at my parents’ church made a huge lunch for the family, and we took home buckets of fried chicken. We also had fried chicken on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day … Mother hates fried chicken, saying she had fried too many in her life and would never cook or eat it again. The neighbor brought her some brisket, and we thanked him by sending him home with a bag of fried chicken. The service was lovely. My cousin Mike, who had just buried his dad a few days before, gave an emotional eulogy and tribute to his beloved uncle, and Mother and Dad’s long-time friend Brother Tom Heath did the service. My oldest son Baylor read the poem his 13-year old daughter Autumn wrote for her GREAT granddad, and my youngest son Jeff ended the program with a hymn he wrote, inspired by his grandfather, called The Sailor.
Because of the great number of veterans being buried in the DFW National Cemetery, we had to wait until Monday, Jan. 4, for the burial service. Dad got all the military honors he’d earned, proudly serving his country in WWII and for sixteen years after that. We were met at the funeral home by the Patriot Guards, and I can’t say enough about how special these men are, and how much we appreciated their being there to escort Dad to his final resting place and to honor him for his service to our country. It was a beautiful day, clear blue sky, but very, very cold and windy. It didn’t matter. The honor guard carried his flag-draped casket to the pavillion, performed the ritual flag folding, then presented it to Mother. She held up so well through everything until the bugler started playing Taps, and I went to her and held her as she cried.
Here are a few photos of that day:
One thing I’d worried about was that Dad couldn’t remember where his medals and ribbons were. When I started searching, I was guided to the suitcase and dresser drawers where they resided. In Heaven, everyone must have perfect memories again.
From his grandchildren:
And to end on a happier note – here is Dad with his oldest granddaughter, Terri, her husband Larry, and the latest additions to the dynasty, their grandson Gage and his twin, Clare
Goodbye, dear Aunt Loez, I know you and Uncle Bill are causing a ruckus in Heaven, and Uncle Jewel, I hope Aunt Frances isn’t too miffed with you delaying your reunion for so long. And dear, dear Daddy, I wish you fair winds and following seas in Heaven. And in the words of Arlo Guthrie,
“Someday we will meet again, when we meet, our sorrows end
If you only knew, I’ll be there with you.”