Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Last Time I Saw Him

                                                      The last picture I took of my grandfather, Roy Herbert Gray, 
                                                      weeks before he transitioned in February of 2011.

GRADY, Ark. – My grandfather and I were about to head to Star City to visit Aunt Rosie, at 95, our oldest relative who resided in a convalescent center. As we were about to get into the rental car, a large black and gray German shepherd from a neighbor’s yard broke free.

Growling and moving in attack mode speed, the k-9 zipped directly toward my grandfather. I fretted, having seen a similar dog attack my younger sister not more than 100 feet away in the same town. In my gut it seemed certain the dog was preparing to lunge for my grandfather’s throat. I braced for the worst.

 Granddaddy at 5-foot-7 leaned over, picked up a stick and bent his frame into the dog and screamed, “Get on out of here!” The dog stopped, sniffed him and made a u-turn. That was in the spring of 2006.

On February 15, 2011, after having been married to my grandmother for 74 years, Roy Herbert Gray got up, ate breakfast, lay back down and died in his sleep. He was 94 and a force of nature to me and legions of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Less than a year ago he was outside cutting grass, bailing hay on his tractor and hauling wood. He was the most physically agile human being I ever met at any age. Recently one of my uncles who is in his 60s could not keep up with granddaddy. He worked him so hard that he had to go home early. Granddaddy kept on working until sundown.

Back in 1996, granddaddy had to be hospitalized. At 80 and with chest pains, I wondered if this wasn’t the end of his life. I reached him on the phone in Pine Bluff. I was living in Salt Lake City at the time.

“How you doing granddaddy?”

“I’m alright son. The doctor says I need an angioplasty.”

“Are you gonna do it?”

“No siree. I told the doctor ‘there will be no cutting.’ I’m already 80 and I’m just not gonna do it.”

 “So, what are you thinking? Are you thinking this is the end?”


 “Are you thinking that this is the end? What are you thinking about?”

“What I’m thinking about is getting back and getting on my tractor. That’s what I’m thinking about.”

And he made it back to that tractor and rode it for another thirteen years with no angioplasty – eating eggs, bacon, biscuits and rice daily for breakfast.

Longevity in my family has, over the years, become my bragging rights or heritage. My grandmother is 90. Aunt Rosie lived to be 99. My father’s mother is 92. Granddaddy’s mother was 91 when she died.

He lived his entire life in about a ten-mile radius in Lincoln and Jefferson counties. It was a rich, textured existence, layered with a deep and abiding love for family and people. He was a part of the “Greatest Generation.”

Fortunately for me, I have pages and pages of interview notes from the times we spent talking about all he had seen in his life time. He saw us go from coloreds to Negroes to Afro Americans to blacks to African Americans.

He saw us go from a people barely being able to vote to seeing a black man as the nation’s chief executive in the White House. Last Christmas I did something I had never done; I drove an extra twelve hours out of my way to see him, on what had already been a grueling trip to Dallas. I had a nagging feeling.

We sat, laughed and talked. He was weak, had not been eating and slept a lot more than normal. I spent the night at their house in Grady and could hear the sound of my grandparents talking into the night, like they’d been doing for more than seven decades.

There was something comforting about their voices blending deep into the darkness. As I left, I stopped in his bedroom and he was sleeping. I hesitated but I woke up him to say goodbye.

We touched hands affectionately. I told him I loved him and I’d be back in the summer.
“Alright son,” he said to me.  "I’ll see you.”