Heath tells his story. · Messages from Heath

A Celebration of Life

This past Friday (September 1, 2017), I was allowed to be transported to my grandfather’s funeral service, I want to take the time to thank everyone who was involved; my family for allowing me to be there, celebrating the man we loved and cherished and those within the prison system that made it happen. Thank you to the Chaplain, Warden, and Director for considering the request and, in compassion, allowing me to take part.

My grandparents have been my primary care givers for 20 years and it meant the world to me to go say goodbye to such a wonderful man. I appreciate the police officers that picked me up at the prison, escorted me to the service at the funeral home and, while doing their job, showed a huge amount of compassion and empathy. I thanked them over and over for giving me the opportunity to do it and, along the way, my head twisted to take in the world I hadn’t seen in 20 years.

It seemed even the trees had grown up while I was away, the fields replaced by buildings unknown, and the landscape was both foreign and known. My eyes welled with tears as I saw old places like the baseball field where I had once played, even if not well. I was stunned at the changes a town goes through. The town shrank from the place I remembered, the old sights faded into disrepair and, as I looked around, I ached over how much I missed. Yet, every other thought seemed a prayer to God, celebrating the so many firsts in 20 years.

I seemed a baby in the real world yet again, discovering that which was unknown, and wanting to stretch out every second of it. We parked behind the funeral home and, after one officer checked out the layout, we proceeded inside. It was the first time my feet had touched that ground in two decades, and I paused to breathe free air, take in the tree, the way even the shade held value. It was the slow, hungry walk of a man desperate to memorize what life was like again and I thanked my grandfather, in death, for granting me this gift. I could almost feel him there, walking beside me, smiling as he took in the wonder I once would have displayed in the woods at his side.

Once inside, I stepped on plush carpet for the first time in what seemed like memory; pausing every now again not to get too far ahead. The officers were with me, but old habits of not having to be told to stay close, pulled like reigns. As I turned left, seeing the coffin, it seemed for the first time that this was really real – grandpa was gone. My Aunt Janice was standing there at the front, we hugged and then, like miracles, people came in and up to me. I can’t name them all, some might not want to be named, but every embrace, every kind word, and expressions of love, soothed my soul. People I hadn’t seen in so many years I failed to recognize, and others that no amount of time could dim the impression their love had in me. My Uncle Woody, whom I had not seen or touched in two decades, came up to me and we hugged like long, lost brothers. Both of our stomachs seemed to push against the other, grief making them flutter, and it was hard not to sob out loud how desperately he had been missed.

Then, a face I had dreamed of since a boy, a woman so lovely and beautiful it made my heart ache, there stood my Aunt Margaret. “Do you remember me? she asked, and immediately the tears welled in our eyes. I sure did know her, the eyes were unmistakable, and she melted against me. There we stood, alone in love, clinging together as if we could make up for decades of being without. Our whispered I missed you, heartfelt I love yous, and those soft kisses that I so adored as a boy.

Oh, how I had missed my aunt Margaret, the rest of the time I was there we clung to one another. Everyone else seemed to pass in a blur, my eyes and heart full of emotions long since forgotten, yet they returned with force that overwhelmed me. I hugged everyone that would let me and, looking up, found both Donna and Sam there beside each other; the two women that have done so much to care for my heart, cheering on my progress and growth, and teaching me to be a man that even I can be proud of.

Aunt Margaret, I, Sam, Janice, and Donna sat in the side area reserved for close family and there, surrounded by those incredible women, I felt a love like I hadn’t felt in years. It was clear that grandpa’s spirit was there; the love that shaped his heart binding us together, and I thanked God over and over that I had such an opportunity.

My shoulder caught Margaret’s tears; I kissed the top of her head, and had three women on my left, right, and back to stroke their support. My uncle Joe David came to hug me and sit by Margaret, and others came over to pay respects and to find me. Oh, to be held so completely by sweet Christina with her red hair, be held by Mrs. Sjostrand, and reminded fondly of my art teacher’s class, and the enthusiastic embracing of Matthew. Gilbert and his family, Margaret’s children, they had no idea how much those small expressions of love meant to this starving man. The Sjostrands for hugging and loving on me twice, others that came back for more, but nothing matched the power of a long lost aunt the boy in me always adored. I was a boy all over again, telling her I wanted to be a brain surgeon and that I was going to take care of her.

So much has happened, so many years passed, but I thank grandpa for bringing us all there that we might rediscover our love. As a family it was such a beautiful day, loss and gain in equal measures, and both Rev. Sjostrand and Janice did a wonderful job sharing their messages.

You know how often when you are in church, the preacher is sharing his lesson, and you can’t help thinking he or she is talking to you? Be it the Holy Spirit prompting you to pay attention or a guilty conscious, we have those moments when we feel drawn. I wanted to stand up and share my love on the Word with all there, and remind them that grandpa was alive in each of us. People change by taking in from others different ideas or beliefs, and each of us had taken in grandpa’s love and example over the years. We have seen the life of a man that had a heart for God and, in his life, he lived out those commands. Grandpa came to see me in prison, forgave me when he could have chosen not, and always sought to tend the boy he knew I was at heart.

The service ended as it had began, filled with affection and tenderness and, as I came back to prison, a million memories crowded my mind. Tears threatened to spill of their own accord, my thanks to the officers endless, and the promise of new beginnings, which was more than I could have hoped for.

I talked with the escorting officers about child abuse, the impact on children, and how I believed we could make a difference that helped, not hurt, those that get into trouble. The ride back was fast, the surrounding land a blur, and the last 3 days I have cried more than I have in years. Well, besides when I have recounted by email my childhood; that was a different kind of release.

Those that have been blessed enough to experience these things with me know I am grateful and thank God for all that came into being. All things are possible with God, we know that, but seeing Him at work before your eyes as He pulls at many hearts is something completely different.

Forgive me if sharing this was too personal, but I wanted everyone to know what it meant. Many can’t understand how going to a funeral can be a celebration of life but, when you live in a tomb, life takes on all new meaning. Please keep up the prayers for my family, me, and pray that soon we can see grandpa’s hope realized.

I love you.

If you’d like to contact Heath, please visit his website for details here.

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3 thoughts on “A Celebration of Life

  1. You have inspired me from the moment I realized your story. People of this type of abuse and manipulation have to stand together or we fall alone. God bless you. And God bless your family for coming together and showing you love and support. Your Grandfather will wear your badge of honor all his days in Heaven. I wear them now.

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  2. Thank you for sharing Heath. Your words open my heart and tap God’s love, it’s infinite.
    I’m a psychologist and have been treating, for 17 years, adults who were abused as children; I’m also from Lonoke; so, my empathy and compassion and understanding for your story are long-standing. And I’m sure, I can’t begin to understand what it’s been like for you. I pray for justice for you Heath. And in the meantime, I’m so moved by the show of love and compassion you experienced at your grandfather’s funeral. Thank you again for sharing. We need people like you in the world.

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