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Meeting Grandpa Willis

A trip to my fiancé’s hometown left us with hearts swollen and tender

Meeting Grandpa Willis

(fzant/iStock)

I spent Christmas week visiting my fiancé David’s hometown in Bismarck, N.D. His parents had requested that we visit them there this Christmas, because David’s 96-year-old grandfather Willis recently had a stroke and we suspected he might not be around for next Christmas. 

There in snowy Bismarck, David and I visited Grandpa Willis several times at the skilled nursing facility where he now lives. I could tell David had a hard time seeing his once-strong, vibrant grandfather basically bed-ridden, his right hand useless and stiff from the stroke. This man has been a well-revered Baptist pastor for many, many decades, and even now he still serves as pastor emeritus at his church, still tunes in online every Sunday for service, still reads theological books for leisure. In many ways, he reminded me of my own father, and my heart warmed to this humble, dedicated man who fears and loves the Lord.

On our last day in Bismarck, we visited Grandpa Willis again right before we left for the airport. Knowing it might be the last time he saw either of us, Grandpa had obviously thought carefully over what he wanted to say to us. When we entered his room, he was bright-eyed and clear-minded, sitting upright in his armchair, dressed in the red plaid button-down shirt David’s parents had gifted him for Christmas.

The moment we sat down, Grandpa got down to business. He turned to me and asked, “Who’s the leader in your marriage—David or you?” 

“David,” I said automatically. I was a pastor’s kid who grew up in the church and was thoroughly schooled in orthodox theology. I knew what the right answer was.

Grandpa smiled: “You responded really fast.”

I thought it over, and edited my answer: “Well, I know the husband is the head of the house. But I think it will be a challenge for me.” 

Grandpa nodded. “Good, as long as you’re aware of that.” Then he turned to David: “How are you going to lead your family?” 

“Um,” David said. “I’m learning to trust in God.” 

Grandpa looked at him for a moment and then shook his head: “That’s not specific enough.” He then said, “If there’s something I wish I had done differently in my marriage, it’s that I don’t get so busy with my ministry work. I remember Ruth (his wife, now deceased) telling me, ‘Willis, I wish you’d call me honey more often.’” Grandpa turned to David: “Remember to show affection to your wife. And for me, no matter how busy I was, I still always made it home for dinner.”

I had expected Grandpa Willis to say something super theological, like quoting Ephesians 5:22-33 or 1 Timothy 2:8-3:13—so it was a nice surprise to hear him share something so practical and personal. Yet what he said was fully Biblical too—to be a good leader of the household is to be loving and self-sacrificial, as the Bible commands husbands to be, and that can be as simple as calling the wife “Honey” and showing up for dinner regardless of the workload. 

Later, I got a better picture of what kind of marriage Grandpa Willis shared with Grandma Ruth, who died 10 years ago from congestive heart failure. Grandma Ruth spent the last weeks of her life in the same healthcare facility Grandpa is currently in, and at the time, Grandpa was living in a senior community housing right across the field from the facility. It was so close that every morning, Grandma Ruth would sit in her chair looking outside her window, waiting to spot Grandpa walk out of the house, lock the door, and trudge towards her. 

“Quick!” she would exclaim to her daughter or anyone who was with her at the time, “Grab my lipstick!” By the time Grandpa reached her room, she would be ready with bright red lips puckered to greet him with a smooch. And every day, all day, Grandpa Willis would sit by her side and not leave until nighttime, even during the last days of her life when she was barely conscious. 

As Grandpa Willis reminisced on those final days, his face scrunched up and he began wailing. It was the kind of moaning and weeping that spills out from a fresh wound. I was so taken aback by his sobs that I sat frozen for a few seconds, and then hot tears stung my own eyes. I looked up at David, and his eyes had watered up too, even though he’s the kind of guy who rarely cries. 

Ten years had passed since his wife died, but Grandpa still wore his wedding ring, still hung a picture of them by his bed, still referred to Ruth as his wife. He misses her every day. He longs for the moment when he goes back to his heavenly home and sees her again. What a marriage!

David and I both left that afternoon with hearts swollen and tender with inexpressible emotions. In preparation for marriage, I had been reading a bunch of books on marriage, knowing life as I know it as a happily single woman will be shaken apart. My generation is not ignorant to the fact that the majority of marriages seem to end in pain, divorce, and dysfunction. I’ve witnessed a few engagements break off because of family trauma and fear of marriage. One marriage counselor even described marriage, quite seriously, as “a living hell.” 

Yet no human relationship is greater or more important than marriage, the marriage books remind me. The Bible begins and ends with marriage. God chose marriage to reflect the gospel, so we can experience the transforming love of God for us. Just as Jesus died on the cross and gave Himself up for us, so we are to die to our own needs and interests and serve one another in marriage. That’s heavy. Kinda scary. Extremely intimidating. Can we really do this? Can I do this?

The more I read, the more I doubted if I’m truly up for this mysterious thing called marriage. I’d never been so-called “wife material”—I’m too independent, too stubborn, too selfish, too easily bored, too impatient to give and commit wholly and self-sacrificially to another man who, honestly, sometimes makes me want to smack him. What if I find him more annoying than lovely? Or he me?

Before we said goodbye to Grandpa, I had asked him for his favorite Scripture. He quoted Psalm 34 by heart: “I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad.”

There’s more to Psalm 34. David and I read it together at the airport. Nothing about that psalm spoke directly about marriage, yet everything about it did. When I first met David, Psalm 42 (“Why are you cast down, O my soul?”) had been my favorite, and it had been his too. Now we have a new favorite psalm, one that I hope we remind each other often: “Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together!”

Comments

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  • TT
    Posted: Tue, 02/04/2020 12:00 am

    Thank you, Sophia, for sharing this beautiful, tear-inducing story. We pray you and David will experience great grace and joy as you prepare for and enter marriage together. Forty-four years ago this coming August my wife Cindy and I made our vows vows and exchanged rings engraved with the reference, Psalm 34:3, inside each. We are still seeking to live into and up to that verse. Grace and peace to you both.

  • SamIamHis
    Posted: Tue, 02/04/2020 03:48 pm

    Sophia, this remembrance of your trip and meeting with Grampa Wills was tender and heart jerking.  We do well to learn from those older than us.  At 70 I am still shaped by what I remember of my parent's love for each other, through all the trials and rejoicings of their lives. 

    I am experiencing what would appear to be the final days of my own beloved.  We don't know how soon but the medical community uses the term end-stage freely.  A year ago his specialist gave him not even three months, and yet, we experienced a year of grace with no infections and no setbacks like the two years before.  What had been six month visits with this doctor has changed to "I don't want to see you for another year."  Even the required CAT scans have been deemed unimportant as the areas of concern are now revealed to be scar tissue from previous infections.  We have shared that we know this is the power of prayer and God's sustaining grace in his life, while at the same time thanking this man of medicine for his protocol and care.  We are unsure if he actually gets that he is an instrument in the Lord's hands, being the authority God has placed over us at this time.

    We have learned the shortness of life without actually knowing how short it may be and have placed that burden in the Lord's hands.  Each day we are blessed to wake up still together.  My own reflections on our marriage have become sweeter and more desirous of being the glory of my husband.  

    Our Heavenly Father does not miss an opportunity to glorify himself and marriage is wonderfully rich in parallels to his great and sacrificial love for us.  He constantly draws us to himself in the midst of it. What glory!

     

  • Janet B
    Posted: Tue, 02/04/2020 05:51 pm

    Blessings to you and David, Sophia.  Grandpa Willis gave you a wedding gift worth more than any other you will recieve, IMO:  the example of a love of a lifetime.  Remember it always.

  • VolunteerBB
    Posted: Wed, 02/05/2020 05:19 pm

    Wow, I couldn't get through the article or the comments without bawling!  Awesome stuff you guys.

  • Evie
    Posted: Thu, 02/06/2020 10:06 am

    Your article is beautiful, Sophia, both in its content and in the way you write. Thank you for sharing this personal experience. May you and David often look back lovingly on your time with Grandpa Willis. I have never felt like "wife-material" either, but God blessed me with a man who is good "husband-material", and we have so far experienced almost forty years together. Joy to you both!