In the Valley of The Shadow
We buried my father one week ago today. There’s so much I want to tell you about the death of my dad but in order to do so I need to tell you just a little about his life.
As I look back over my journey of last couple of weeks, and really my whole life with my father, one bible passage comes to mind as a particularly perfect pericope for telling our story. There’s so much more than I can possibly share in one blog post but I invite you settle in with a favorite beverage to look over these snapshots from the life and death of Mathel Grant Knight
23 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
Daddy provided everything an iron worker could for his wife and two daughters – even beyond our true station in life. I grew up in a split-level house that rumbled and groaned with the constant roar of low-flying planes leaving or approaching the Atlanta airport. Dad worked his fingers to the bone as a welder of iron and throughout the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s helped build the Atlanta skyline into the thumping metropolis she has become. We had the finest in southern food surrounded by heaping helpings picked a backyard farm bursting with corn, tomatoes and beans – just enough stuff to believe we ate like royalty.
Mathel was born in 1939 to Ruby Lee Knight, a strong Christian woman who raised her nine living children without the help of the man who fathered the lot. Mathel’s father, a cruel man, left Ruby and his children for flimsy women and strong drink. Life for Ruby and her children was one of hard labor and hard living but thoroughly undergirded by an amazing love that kept the family thriving amidst the bleakest of conditions. While her children may have wanted for the finer things in life there was never a lack of fierce love of family and God.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
Grant Knight met Beverly Raptis purely by accident. No really, his brother David had a little fender bender (rumor has it that the bump was not all together accidental) with my mom and one of her best friends, Donna. Uncle David called dad, who was working in another state at the time, and told him to get back down to Georgia, he had someone he wanted him to meet. Uncle David married Donna and Grant married Beverly.
I was born a couple of years later in 1969. My sister Jessica was born almost seven years later.
As the years flew by and I because a teenager searching for meaning in Conley, Georgia (barely aware of who I was and who I was to become) I was drawn to what my mom and dad called “the wrong crowd.” As my love for books turned to a distorted search for belonging, mom and dad moved us away from the darker influences and to what they believed would be a better life. Indeed, moving a little further south to the rolling green pastures of Tyrone proved to be the adjustment that would provide a far better education and social circumstances than if we had lingered in the slowly dilapidating neighborhood of Conley. Mathel would move heaven and earth, and bear deep wounds, so we might have a better life than he had lived and he feared we might.
3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
One evening, infused with the hubris of higher education, I sat on the back porch with dad as the comforting smell of freshly laundered clothes wafted down from the laundry room, and dad kicked off his steel-toe work boots. We chatted about my first year at UGA and the family’s life back in Tyrone. While we sipped the last of the evening’s sweet tea (we never kept a pitcher of tea over night, it was either consumed or poured out) I was feeling particularly puffed up and began what I thought was a magnanimous speech of gratefulness.
I thanked dad for all the sacrifices he made to give us, give me, a life far better than he’d known himself. I expressed (what now I know was condescending) thanks for providing for me an education far better than he had enjoyed. I spoke of being humbled by all he had given up to give us everything he never had.
He listened patiently and then when my self-congratulatory balloon settled back on the patio chair he educated me for real with very few words.
“Kim, I didn’t sacrifice anything. I have lived exactly the life I’ve chosen and loved the work I’ve done. I love your mom and you girls and would not trade my life with anyone.”
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
My mother and father understood their marriage as complementarian, but would have never used that word. They talked about my father being in charge, the only leader in the family. While our lives may have appeared to conform to what we now label as “traditional family values” they truly moved through their marriage as full partners. Through the years, they took turns leading our family, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, as best as they could and trusting the other to lead when it was their turn.
And when the time came for my mother to be cared for in her dying years my father was her everything – nurse, cook, advocate and ally. Regardless of they many hapless wounds they inflicted on their children, they are for me a fine example of Christians living as truly complementary partners. And by the grace of God I am learning daily to live that out with my own partner who in the end, my mother and father both blessed.
Mom died nearly three years ago and the man that I grew up with evaporated into a ravaging grief that turned him into a caged tiger. He said every day that the only place he really wanted to be was with mom. Though he continued to work in his garden and bake cakes enjoyed by nearly everyone in Tyrone, he was a lost man without my mother. When his diagnosis came he said he was ready. None of us knew exactly how ready he was.
As a child, my dad picked strawberries in pesticide soaked fields that would send fruit to the grocery stores of the south. Daddy smoked from a very young age – an iron worker – who for as long as I knew him, was exposed to the worst of conditions to build this country we take for granted, gave me everything such a man could give his daughters. Iron and steel slivers in his fingers and eyes, asbestos filled his lungs and nicotine-laced tar clogged every organ it could reach.
One week after the diagnosis, his lungs erupted in a bloody coughing fit that would land him in the ICU of his local hospital. My younger sister Jessica was by his side for the entire journey.
For the next week we would stand in the valley of the shadow of death, a dark and dreary valley indeed, as we watched our father go on ahead of us.
Images that will haunt me or bless me the rest of my days:
- The sheer terror in his erstwhile strong and laughing eyes as he struggled against the restraints of his ER bed and the tube down his throat.
- The love and pain on my sister’s face as we witnessed his rapid descent toward no turning back.
- The devoted presence of my mother’s sister Nancy as she sat in rooms, whispered sweet words of hope and cried tears of deep loss.
- The look of regret as the team of doctors and nurses met with us to tell us the truth.
- The kind eyes and gentle hands of the nurses in the 5th floor hospice unit at Emory University Hospital.
- The sideways glances of his family who stiffly greeted me as they arrived from Florida.
- The feeling that my soul was dilating to birth a pain like no other.
- A father’s brow furrowed in pain.
- The sounds of the morphine pump seeping his relief.
- The lonely people in other rooms with no one pacing, praying or weeping over their fading light.
- A closed-off 15 year-old who was witnessing, for the second time in less than three years, the death of a beloved grandparent.
- Her tears when she confessed the loneliness of her disbelief.
- The tears soaking his hand as his pastor prayed.
- The feeling of his life ebbing away in flutters beneath my palm. Flutters that echoed the first stirrings of life as my daughter became known to me in my womb.
- The moment of all emotions and none, of all words and none, when he was pronounced dead at 1 p.m. Oct. 17, 2013
5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
And if the crushing grief was not enough, layers upon layers of inexcusable pain were heaped upon my head by those who should have been my greatest comfort – family.
I walked the halls of the hospital and the corridors of the funeral home without the presence of a partner for even the faintest hint of comfort. Why? Because to do so would have whipped up unnecessary drama and pain for dad’s family as well as my partner.
On top of the soul-wrenching grief, I was shuffling through feelings of shock at family members who would neither look at or speak to me as we gathered around his open casket – all because of their silly notions about my “lifestyle.”
Also was the staggering disappointment in most of my mother’s family (except Nancy, Candace, Nathan and Paw Paw.) who were nearly as cold and distant.
At funeral I had to withstand the cold waves of anger and disapproval as sat weeping in the front row of the chapel.
What else did I experience in the presence of mine enemies?
Revulsion at a mother who would not speak to or acknowledge her own son because he drove hours to support me and serve as a pall bearer for his beloved uncle.
Disbelief that a family so proud of their family bond had no idea how much their brother loved and accepted his daughter.
Utter astonishment that dad’s siblings refused to help their brother’s daughters pay for the Christian funeral he wanted.
Sadness as I watched his family dishonor their mother’s compassion and grace while they stood firm on some bastardized, self-righteous religiosity laced with a deadly blend of ignorance and arrogance.
Pity for a people who are so self absorbed, so limited in reason that the death of their brother seemed a fitting place to stand on a false gospel of prejudice and exclusion, disgracing the name of Christ as they seethed about the presence of their brother’s gay daughter.
Bitter awareness as I looked hypocrisy in the face as she wept for the man we all claimed beloved.
Boiling anger as “family” hurt my sister through juvenile behavior on social media all because she loves me unconditionally. (As my father, their brother, said of them numerous times “If they delete you, they delete me”).
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Through it all I have such goodness and mercy for which to be thankful.
Foremost on my gratitude list is a spring peace that bubbled under the slippery moss of grief, a peace that assures me that my dad’s suffering is done. I can only move forward with the blessed assurance that his tortured mind and disease ridden body is at rest exactly here he said he wants to be.
Second on my list is an appreciation for a sister who has a strength so different than mine. She was his constant companion, room-mate, caregiver for the last couple of years and she was by his side, broken and beautiful, to the very end. I trusted her every step of the way and there are not enough days left on the planet for me to tell her enough how much I love her.
Thank you, cousin Michael, for driving hours upon hours all to Georgia and for carrying dad to his resting place. Thank you so much for your incredible love and support. I am grateful for your kindness that surpasses my comprehension. You are the finest example of what it means to be family and a thoughtful, compassionate and wise Christian man in this world. I am sorry for the residual pain this is causing you. Grace and peace cousin, grace and peace.
Nancy and Trey and the Masonic Benevolent Fund – thank you for stepping up in ways that no one else in our family was willing.
I am humbled and honored by the brief respite just hours after dad’s death as colleagues of an amazing caliber and dear friends such as Susannah joined me for an impromptu wake at McGowan’s Pub in Oakhurst. Thank you for the fellowship and for raising a glass or two for the old man. I cannot competently express my gratitude for your friendship. Thank you too for the radical hospitality of the staff at McGowan’s – y’all treated me like I was one of your own.
I have so many people to thank and so few words to do so adequately. Some of you have been constant companions out here on the interwebs, praying and thinking and keeping watch with us. Some of you have shown up for toasts at a pub and gracefully fielded late-night, tearful phone calls and text messages. Some of you have driven hours and hours to be present all the way down in Tyrone and all the way up in Kennesaw. Some of you have brought us piles of food and some have dropped off sweet cards of tender condolences.My heart, soul and belly were filled with unmerited kindness in the form of comforting casseroles, cakes and crocks. Thank you for every morsel. Some of you put up with misdirected grief that came out as all sorts of shenanigans and some have known when to tell me to put on my big girl panties. I want to name you all but I would be up all night long typing names and still miss a few so just know how much I love you, how much I appreciate you and how healing your every effort has been to me. You are light. You are love. I am humbled by your friendship.
I want you to know, those of you who take even a moment to like my post about my dad, I know there is a little prayer, a tiny candle, a tender heart sharing warm light behind the click that says what you’ve no words to express. Thank you too.
So too I am thankful for presence of my father’s pastor, Danny of First Baptist Church, Tyrone. Danny offered a gifted pastoral presence that held any differences of theology or sociology in their proper, silent place as he cared for a family in despair. His presence was a balm and his message at dad’s funeral was real, gentle and healing.
Susannah – thank you for offering such a lovely prayer that held us all close and lifted our pain into God’s tender care.
We were all blessed by the tender words of love and respect spoken by my 89 year-old maternal grandfather, paw-paw we called him, as he stood and spoke at dad’s funeral.
I flush with embarrassed gratitude for friends and colleagues who drove their asses all the way to Kennesaw (I’m sure they packed their passports) to support me and pay respects to the man I love.
I felt the whispering of pride and joy seeing members of dad’s Masonic lodge take time to lead the grave-side service with all the tradition and flourish due a Mason.
I also felt a tiny twinge of glee knowing their odd ceremony caused the willfully ignorant a little discomfort and confusion.
And finally, I lift my adoring eyes to our eternal God who weeps with us and walks in that valley as a constant companion. Even as a feminist, even as one who eschews anthropomorphizing our Creator, I have always been comfortable calling you Father because of the earthly father I was blessed to know. Thank you God for the life I’ve been given – may I live it as honorably and passionately, come what may, as Mathel Grant Knight.