Superbowl Sunday had us on the edge of our seats. It wasn’t the TV though, that had captured our attention. It was something much more important and final. Grandpa Richard was breathing his last breaths of life. At 81 years old, he had been diagnosed with advanced stomach cancer. Months later, he was in hospice. And on that night, the finish line was quickly approaching.
The journey to this point was swift and undeniable. It had been days since he had experienced full consciousness. His soul was on the verge of departure, but his body was clinging to life. Each faint breath of air was another second coming off the clock.
In moments like these you find yourself incredibly aware. The soft flicker of a face is suddenly pronounced. A simple shudder rocks the room. The rise and fall of a chest is as dramatic as the ocean tide rushing into shore before retreating again.
It’s also in moments like these you become incredibly selective. Where you stand, who you’re with, what you pray for—each is chosen carefully. But most of all, you find yourself selective with your words, as if each letter and tone carry significant weight.
This was especially fitting in Grandpa Richard’s presence. He had always been a man of few words, but a man of many thoughts. A conversation would be going full speed ahead, tumbling down the tracks with utmost momentum, but when it was his turn to contribute he would pause. Sometimes his pause was brief, other times it would last several seconds, but no matter the length of time, it was always evident and purposeful.
We consume more than we ever have before, both in terms of material and information. We spew our words and thoughts like there’s a never-ending supply—as if volume is what matters, not quality. But when you spoke with Richard, you were reminded that content was vitally important. You’d remember that well-crafted one-liners can be much more thought-provoking than ten thousand words of non-sense. To me, Richard’s slowness to speak exuded wisdom. To others, it may have been a nuisance or even a sign of age.
On Saturday mornings, Bekah and I would sometimes venture an hour north to their house to help with a few chores and grab a bite to eat afterward. After the cancer diagnosis, Bekah’s visits nearly doubled. The stated purpose was house-cleaning, but more than anything she just enjoyed being with them. Upon her returns, Bekah would give me a full status update on Grandpa. Nearly every time she would comment on his words, how they were getting even slower and less cohesive. At first I was skeptical to assign his word-choice to age, but soon Bekah’s family also noticed the changes. Eventually, reluctantly, I did too. Cancer had brought with it a brutal companion. Dementia.
A few months after the diagnosis, it was impossible to miss. Conversation that used to flow was now jagged. It wasn’t the pace that changed as much as it was the rhythm. He was still deliberate with his words, but fierce obstacles now stood in the way. Each constructed sentence required a deep search for substance. Dialogue was strained and to alleviate it, I found myself tossing him softballs—key words and phrases that he’d normally knock out of the park with terrific responses. But by now, it was a struggle to simply make contact.
I wasn’t yet worried about Richard’s death, but I did become conscious of the trending decline. I knew that every conversation with him from there on out was something to be treasured and thoughtfully pursued. I wanted to be as intentional with my words as he had been with his entire life.
Just a few months later, Grandpa Richard entered hospice and Bekah and I made the trip up north the following weekend. Grandma Doris greeted us cheerfully upon our arrival, but there was a noticeable difference in the air. You could actually feel the acknowledgement wafting through the room. Grandpa was going to die. We all knew it.
We immediately headed toward the living room and found him sitting in his favorite chair. Bekah and I each took to his side and tried to enjoy our visit as if things were ok. He gave us a smile that was sincere but was deeply mixed with sadness. Bekah, Grandpa, and I each knew what we were trying to do. There were only ounces of coherence left and we were determined to soak up every last bit of it.
Some people think an ideal moment will happen right before death. Famous last words are idolized, as if some mystical sentiment will be offered upon departure. Perhaps the waning moments of a person’s life are cause to deliver a beautiful idea or tender expression. But why wait? I was looking to capture that moment right then and there.
Only a few minutes passed before it was clear that things were not the same, and my opportunity to hear wise advice may have already passed. Our conversation, while incredibly precious, was also labored and erratic. The worst part was that Grandpa knew it. You could see in his eyes that there were things he wanted to say, but no idea how to get them out.
As a last resort, Grandpa abandoned his tried and true slow delivery and began saying much more. If careful selection wouldn’t work, then maybe something good would come out if he just said everything. What followed was a higher volume of jumbled words. I could string together concepts and ideas, but the final product was mostly a disconnected speech. It didn’t take long for Grandpa to realize his attempts were futile.
He breathed a heavy sigh, let his shoulders drop, and shook his head. He gritted his teeth in frustration and for several minutes we just empathized together. And just when I thought all conversation was lost, Grandpa whispered something that changed my life.
“I need an axe.”
“I need an axe to chop out all the junk between the important words.”
Five seconds of pure, uninterrupted silence followed before he broke his stare, shrugged his shoulders, and shook his head again. He looked up at each of us, almost apologetically and eventually smiled. There was disappointment in his eyes, but little did he know, he provided me with a moment I will always treasure. He gave me a statement that proclaimed his being.
Grandpa was a man of a few words, but a man of giant expression. His entire life, he had chopped out all the junk between the important words. He was highly selective of what he said, how he said it, and who he said it with. He was intentional.
I think we have this idea in our heads that at the end of our lives, we will start to live with purpose. We will suddenly notice our clock is ticking and then choose to make the most out of it. But again, I ask, why wait?
Richard didn’t wait until his last moments to speak with purpose. He didn’t wait to be thoughtful and considerate. He wasn’t procrastinating. My questions is, "Are we? Are we procrastinating?" Because if we are, we may find ourselves in a position where all those things we were storing up to say may end up drifting just beyond our reach.
If Richard were here, he’d tell us something. Don’t wait. Take hold of an axe and chop out all the junk in between the important words. Say what you mean to say. Do it with purpose and conviction. Say “I love you.” Cut to the chase. Speak with boldness and passion. Your words are as precious now as they will be during your final breaths. Don’t wait to use them. He certainly didn’t.