My grandfather, Mendel Ham, grew up on a farm in rural South Carolina. Although racial inequality was rampant, I’ve been told that one of his best friends was an African-American farm hand. And that pretty much sums up my grandfather. The stares and jeers of others weren’t strong enough to break his spirit.
Throughout my childhood, Paw Paw, was a figure of strength in my life. He was my rock.
I didn’t know him as a young man, but I try to envision him approaching my grandmother to ask her on their first date. Or, as an eighteen-year-old marine, serving our country in Japan, which he once told me was the loneliest time of his life.
I only know about his younger days from the stories he shared over our weekly breakfast when I was in high school or the occasional reminiscing of my own father as he shares old family photos.
There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t thank God for those memories with my Paw Paw. Those memories are all that I have left. A year after his much-deserved retirement, Paw Paw began a battle with cancer that ravaged his body.
I remember the hope I felt when he told me, “When you finish your freshman year, I’ll be done with my treatments.” But that’s not how his story would end.
On Sunday morning, June 24, 2001, Paw Paw took his own life.
The Day I Saw My Rock Crumble
June 24, 2001 was a beautiful summer day in coastal North Carolina. I was home on summer break and had just left church with a friend, headed to the Goody Goody Omelet House for lunch. My cell phone rang. It was my mom and she was crying. Through her tears I heard, “Something has happened to Paw Paw.”
My friend and I rushed home. Before the car had come to a complete stop, I jumped out of the passenger seat and began running toward my parents who were in the garage. My father was pacing and seemed angry. He was shouting, but I couldn’t make out the words. My mom was frantically trying to comfort him and I was confused. The emotions were thick, like a heavy humidity that filled the air.
Somehow, in the midst of the hysteria, I heard someone say, “Paw Paw shot himself.”
The crushing weight of the news collapsed my knees from underneath me. I fell in our yard as confusion mixed with heartache to create a nauseating sensation. I wanted to yell. I wanted to cry. I wanted to throw up. Somewhere inside I hoped that this was all a mistake, that somehow, this wasn’t real.
In moments that seemed like hours, we learned that Paw Paw was still alive, but on life support. To this day, I’m not sure how I gathered the strength, but I went with my dad to see his father. Fear filled my young, nineteen-year-old mind, but I stood by my father as we went into the trauma unit to see Paw Paw.
The hallway to his room seemed endless, a never-ending pathway to a place I didn’t want to go. As we turned a corner, I saw him. Paw-Paw was lying on a bed, his life sustained by a breathing apparatus affixed to his mouth. His head was in bandages. His eyes were closed. The rhythmic beep of the heart rate monitor acted as a countdown timer. My grandfather was going to die.
I was simply an onlooker, able to experience the moment, but paralyzed from speaking. My father was in front of me, slowly approaching his dad. As he dropped to his knees, I gently placed my hand on his shoulder. I could feel his anger and his heartache on my fingertips.
Through questions and tears, I heard my dad say, “You were a great father.”
The memory of those words will forever be imprinted on my soul.
Shortly after that exchange, our pastor and friend, Tim Russell, came in to pray with us. We stood in a circle, our hands on each other’s shoulders, and we prayed for Paw Paw.
A few minutes later, the countdown timer stopped as the heart-rate monitor flatlined. My grandfather had taken his last breath.
Perspective in the Midst of Tragedy
For years these memories have haunted me—circumstances beyond my comprehension. And the more people I talk with, the more I realize that these stories exist for all of us.
Only in time have I come to realize: Sometimes questions have no answers.
The truth of that statement doesn’t make it any easier to write. I want answers. I want to know why. But I’m learning that maybe it’s not our purpose to have answers. Maybe it is our purpose to choose how we will respond when answers aren’t readily available. Maybe the answers we’re looking for will only be found through perseverance.
In these moments, we must recognize our ability to continue with strength that isn’t our own. It is in the valleys of life where God has taught me that He is my rock. And as I press into my faith, I’m reminded that I have been given a choice. These moments will define me, but I get to decide how.
I have come to realize that I have the power to carry on my grandfather’s legacy. I will remember him for who he was, not what he did.
As I think back now, Paw Paw and I had a little secret. We parted ways with a handshake almost every time we said goodbye. And hidden inside his weathered palm was a twenty-dollar bill. These handshakes, coupled with his soft chuckle, are the very thing I will hold on to.
His generous spirit gave me far more than twenty dollars with each handshake. He was passing on his legacy to me. And that is the legacy I will pass along to my sons. It is a legacy of strength mixed with gentleness, faith mixed with action, and joy in the midst of pain.
Whatever adversity you face today, I pray that you understand that you still have a choice to respond. In fact, your response has the power to create a legacy that will be a beacon of hope for those who are walking through the valley.