It was 25 years ago this month that my Grandpa Thompson passed away. I just realized that today. On the calendar, 25 years is a long time. Yet in my mind not all that long ago. When I look in the mirror, it’s easy to see I’m not the 18 year-old kid who preached his funeral. Time passes. Quickly and relentlessly.
I was blessed to live near all my grandparents. I got to see them all the time. Grandpa and Grandma Thompson lived the closest. A short half mile down the gravel road on the farm. In the summer of 1981 they had been married for 56 years. That the marriage happened at all was a tribute to my Grandfather’s considerable charm and persistence. In a letter my Grandmother wrote to my cousin, she said, “I once told your Grandfather it would be a cold day before I would ever marry him. And it was. 34 degrees below zero on Christmas Eve in 1924.”
Grandpa Thompson was quite a character. A gifted conversationalist, it was a skill that served him well as a salesman and in talking his way out of speeding tickets. He possessed a keen wit and dry sense of humor. He was a great story teller and an excellent woodworker. He taught himself to paint in his 70’s. With his green thumb he loved to grow raspberries and roses, yellow being his favorite.
Best of all he was a quietly strong Christian role model. A Grandpa who was a wealth of wisdom and seasoned life experience for his grandkids.
About a month before he passed away, a big storm blew through. Summer storms in our part of Iowa always come from the northwest and this one had been building all day. It wasn’t a matter of if it was coming, but when it would arrive. We knocked off work at 4 pm, poured some lemonade, watched the horizon and waited. According to the radio, this one wasn’t some wannabe wind. It was going to be a “head for the basement and pray” kind of storm.
The clouds were more ominous than anything I’d ever seen. Rolling, dark blue, then fading to black. The radio station said this weather cell had spawned a couple tornados, leaving a trail of serious damage. I stayed out by the field taking pictures until I felt the air temperature quickly drop. Then it was a sprint to the house with my Shetland Sheep dog right on my heels.
Everyone went to the basement but me and my Dad. We looked out the window and watched the wind flip the switch to high. It was as impressive as it was sobering.
Then just as quickly, the switch flipped off. Completely off. It was the first and only time I’ve literally experienced the “calm before the storm”. Everything outside in an instant went eerily still. Not leaf moved. There was no sound. The sky was a scary green gray. The air felt charged.
It made my skin crawl.
Dad said, “Look out. Here it comes.”
The storm after the calm shook the house. Trees bending and shingles flying, it sounded like a train rolling through our living room. We went to the basement to ride it out. Time passes. Slowly and fearfully when you’re thinking your house could blow away.
After the noise died off, we went upstairs. The house was still there. But outside, what a mess. We’d be cleaning this up for days.
My cousin Jack, in a voice of urgent concern, said, “Man, we better get down the road and check on Mom and Pop. I hope they had time to get to the basement.” They were 81 and 82 years old. Trying to navigate those stairs in a hurry would be dangerous for them.
We jumped in the truck and headed south. All the way down the road we zigzagged to avoid the debris. Heading up the lane we saw chunks of corrugated steel roofing draped over power lines like laundry hung out to dry. A couple small buildings had fallen in. The tornado hit the edge of Grandpa’s farm. It tore the roof off the hay shed and sent it screaming across the acreage. There was a ten inch hole in the siding where the wind had javelined a tree limb into the side of the house. A huge branch was blocking the front door. Jack and I scrambled to lift it out of the way.
Flinging open the door we instinctively headed for the basement but there was no light on down there. Curious. We poked our heads around to look up into the kitchen. At the table sat Grandpa and Grandma, drinking coffee and enjoying an afternoon snack.
Jack went off.
“Pop, what the heck are you doing up here? Why aren’t you in the basement?! Didn’t you know it was storming outside?”
“Then why the heck are you up here? Don’t you know a tornado lifted the roof off the hay shed and blew it over your house? It knocked your chimney down!”
“I thought I heard somethin’.”
“Heard somethin’?! You’ve got a hole in the side of your house! Another twelve inches over and that tree’d come right through the window and killed you. Why aren’t you in the basement?!!!”
He looked at us and without pause graced our 18 year-old questions with an 82 year-old answer.
“Because if you’re gonna go, you may as well go eating pie.”
And with that he put down his fork.
I can’t speak for Jack. But in my memory that was perhaps the first time I realized that in the sovereignty of God, when it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go. The best we can do is make sure we’re living life to the full every day, even in the storms, until we go. In this, we have a choice.
Several weeks later the entire extended family gathered at our house for dinner. We grilled steaks and hamburgers, ate sweet corn, drank iced tea and enjoyed being together as we had so many times before. Grandpa Thompson was at the table, relishing the conversation and the laughter and his family when he fell out of his chair and died. A massive stroke or heart attack.
I think he was gone before he hit the floor.
He was drinking a cup of coffee.
And eating a piece of lemon pie.
“Show me, O Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting is my life.” – Psalm 39:4
Todd A. Thompson – August 21, 2006