Five years ago I was heading back to Santa Barbara from Ensenada, Mexico, returning from a trip with a team of Westmont College students and other alumni. As we crossed the border I pulled my phone out to check messages that hadn't gotten to me while I was so far south. There was one from my mom, wanting me to call her - it was urgent. I did, and found out that my grandfather had passed away a couple days before.
It was expected, as he had been battling prostate cancer for several years and for a couple months we knew he could go any day. As we sat in the pews at his funeral, I looked around at all the men in the family; my strong and kind uncles and cousins and brother. I observed the women; my loving and wise aunts and mother and sister and Grandma. Although we and hundreds of others were mourning, strangely, I didn't really feel like my Grandpa was gone. I contemplated how to describe what Cliff Coon and his wife, my grandma Lucille, meant to our family and to so many others, but it was years before I found words that described it.
When I read A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller last year, I came across these words that finally explained my feelings.
"I knew he wouldn't die, because his life was like the roots of a tree
that went miles into the soil and miles around its trunk
and came up in my cousins, in their faces and their voices and their character.
I didn't think you could kill a tree that big."
And that was it. I got it. Cliff & Lucille lived a life of intention and virtue and achievement that grew roots so deep that though he passed away, everything they instilled in their six kids and fourteen grandkids and respective spouses was palpable and evident in the spirits and actions of each family member. It made sense why it often felt like he was still around... giving quiet words of wisdom, scribbling puzzles on napkins for people to figure out, tending his world class ivy garden while listening to the baseball game on the radio, writing his novels.
One of my grandfather's final wishes was that he and my grandma would pay for my sister and cousin Stephen to go to Uganda to visit our aunt Catharine. She has lived there for eight years and founded an organization called Hope Alive, a relief and development project focused on orphans and fragile families.
Last year, when the trip finally came together and Calista and Stephen were sent off, my grandma asked me if I'd like to go next year. I was floored. She said she had decided to send two cousins every year, an extension of my grandfather's original wish sprung from the joy she felt in sending her grandkids on this incredible experience. This is a sacrifice for her, and one that she has taken on with patience and generosity, and never with a hint that anyone owes her anything for it. She is faithfully ensuring that the third generation is inspired to live a life where their roots can grow deep too.
So off I go, along with my cousin Kevin, to Africa. 2010 is our year.
My grandparents live a life that has meaning, a life that makes for a great story. So do their children. The cousins, in our twenties and teens and gradeschool years, have been blessed with the encouragement and support to do the same.
So here's some more words from Donald Miller, in hopes that as the Coon family ventures out to Uganda over the years, we will take them to heart...
"No, life cannot be understood flat on a page. It has to be lived; a person has to get out of his head, has to fall in love, has to memorize poems, has to jump off bridges into rivers, has to stand in an empty desert and whisper sonnets under his breath... We get one story, you and I, and one story alone...
And once you live a good story, you get a taste for a kind of meaning in life, and you can't go back to being normal; you can't go back to meaningless scenes stitched together by the forgettable thread of wasted time."
Here's to a great story... for your life and for mine.