My Grandfather's Eulogy
This morning we buried my grandfather, Tillman Cavert. I was asked to give a portion of the eulogy, so I did. I think he would have liked it. Several who heard it asked for a copy -- I've included it here.
1916 - 2013
It was November. I’d just turned eleven. The clock read 5am. Granddaddy cut the engine and grabbed his flashlight. Before he opened the door, he pressed his index finger to his lips. I nodded. We stepped out and down, crossed a ditch and then began slipping through a tall stretch of pines. I’d slung my rifle over my shoulder. A Winchester, pre-64, .243. That’s rifle-talk for coolest-stinking-thing-an-eleven-year-old-has-ever held. He’d given it to me. His steps were longer than mine but I tried to match his footprints -- placing my boots in his imprint. It’s quieter that way. Every few steps he’d pause, press a branch out of the way and allow me to grab it so that it didn’t brush my clothing or smack me in the face.
The ‘Honey Hole’ was legendary. Quite possibly the hottest hunting spot on the property and, for some reason, I’d been picked to sit it this morning.
It was a dark, charcoal morning. No moon. Cold, too. We were blowing smoke. Trees rose up on either side creating a funnel.
As was his custom, granddaddy walked ahead of me while holding the flashlight behind him, flooding the ground in front of me in soft white light. I wasn’t special. He did this for all of us.
In his mid 60‘s, he still worked out all the time. Still ran 3 miles everyday in his Vibram soled hunting boots. Said he had to stay in shape for his sheep hunts which were vertical. I could see his muscled calves rippling through his pants leg. The stories about granddaddy were legendary, too. Over 100 big game hunts in dozens of countries around the globe. More than 500 big game trophies. 125 entries in the SCI record book alone. A dozen trips to Africa. He’d taken a brown bear that stood nine feet. An even bigger polar bear above the 80th parallel inside the arctic circle. Several elephants with ivory as tall as me. Two maned lions -- one of which he let me sit on. He was the reigning world record holder for the Mouflon sheep which he shot behind the iron curtain in Czechoslovakia. In his office, behind locked glass doors, he kept all his rifles. The wood on each darkened from the oils in his hands. We used to smear the glass with oil from our noses. Several hunting magazines were calling him ‘one of the greatest big game hunters of all time.’ Pictures, solidifying his place in hunting lore, hung on the walls of his office. There were others, too. Pictures of Granny. Various shots of all of us from dance recital to ball game. His military career as a flight instructor teaching the pilots of liberator bombers headed to the European theatre. His law practice. His stint in the Tennessee legislature. Maybe my favorite was the one where he, with suntanned and bearded face, sat atop a downed 15,000 lb elephant.
Granddaddy cast a big shadow.
The terrain changed on the ground in front of me. Sort of a soft, marshy bottom. The thought of the Honey Hole stirred me. Yet to shoot my first buck, I was bubbling with the hope that, like him, I, too, might take a trophy in these South Georgia woods and join the ranks of the storied.
Finally, we entered the canopy. Acorns crunching beneath our feet. He led me to the stand, and held my rifle while I climbed the ladder. When I sat, he was standing there. Eye level. He’d followed me up -- To catch me if I fell. He placed my rifle across the rest in front of me, re-confirmed the condition of the safety and gave me his signature thumbs up. He was about to climb down when I tapped him on the shoulder, violating the no-talking rule. I whispered, “Grandaddy?” He looked up. Waiting. “How could you see where you were going?”
He inched closer. Bringing with him the smell of Chapstick. His breath on my face. He spoke softly, “I know where I’m going. I been here before.”
Over the years, I noticed he did that flashlight thing for most everybody. He did it in life. It was how he walked. And none more so than with Granny. I can’t possibly encapsulate their life in this moment but please allow two pictures.
A year ago, he was having chest pains. We dialed 911 and the paramedics rushed him to Baptist. Granny and I sat in the waiting room anxious for any word. Granny paced. Tapping her foot. Finally, she pointed her finger in my face, “Charles, I don’t care what they say, you get me back there right now.”
Given that it was 3 am and she was a little unstable, I asked her to sit in a wheel chair and then I punched the automatic door button and smiled at all the nurses as Granny marched me back to his room.
Granddaddy isn’t the only one to cast a bit of a shadow.
When we found him, he was propped up in bed, his shirt unbuttoned. Electrodes taped to his chest. Machines beeping. Nurses scurrying. A pained look on his face. He saw me but there was no thumbs up. The young doctor, a stethoscope in one ear, was ‘listening’ to Grandaddy’s heart, and probing him with questions. You might remember that Granddaddy had a rather sharp memory. The doctor asked, “Sir, have you ever had any surgeries -- of any type.” The doctor waited. Testing Granddaddy’s faculties. Granddaddy stared at the ceiling and chewed on his answer. Lining it up. I judged the look on his face and thought to myself, Oh, this is gonna be good. I might have my details mixed up but his answer sounded something like this: “Tonsillectomy, June 1931. Appendectomy, August 1937. Had my wisdom teeth removed July, 19 --...” Granddaddy continued rattling off a lifetimes’ worth of surgeries and their corresponding dates. The doctor glanced at me raising an eyebrow, saying, “I guess we can cross off any questions pertaining to ‘loss of mental acuity.‘“
When they finished what Granny had started calling an ‘interrogation,‘ I rolled her up next to his bed where she slid her hand up under the sheet and grabbed his. Feeling the familiar soft touch of her hand, he opened his eyes and began talking to her, asking how she was doing, if she was cold, thirsty, did she want me to get her a blanket. I stood there, leaning against the wall, watching Granddaddy soothe Granny, taking her mind off him and his pain. He did that for over an hour until her eyelids grew heavy and he asked me to take her home.
A week and a half ago, Granddaddy returned from a battery of tests at Mayo. He was tired. Run down. He’d started the final slide and we could all see it. Granny, too. She was worried. Pacing. She needed a task. Anything. Granddaddy was having trouble catching his breath so I got him on the bed, wiggled the oxygen tubes around his ears and clicked on the machine. When he’d caught his breath, he glanced out of the corner of his eye, and said, “Ellen? Honey?” Granny sat on the edge of the bed. He lifted his hand, “This nail is still really hurting me.”
Granny grabbed a bag from her bathroom, sat back on the bed and tended to Grandaddy’s hand, trimming a nail and running the emory board back and forth. While the chaos of Granddaddy’s declining health swirled around us, the two of them sat intent on each other -- comforted by the presence of the other. It was one of the more tender moments I’ve seen in my life. Not because of what she was doing for him. Although that was tender. But because of what he was doing for her in seeing that she needed to be needed and that what she offered was more than enough.
Later that night, we found her curled up in bed next to him. Holding hands. Still just two kids in love. Granddaddy did a lot of things well. Most things. And 73 years with Granny is, hands down, the best of them all.
Each of us in this room has a Granddaddy-story. It’s why we’re here. We have each followed in the steps of a tender, magnificent, giant of a man who held the flashlight for each of us.
If you’re sad, shedding tears, don’t fear. We’ll see him again. The truth is this -- God has wiped the tears from Tillman Cavert’s eyes. Granddaddy is whole, healed, his calves are rippling again with muscle, and he is in the very presence of The King -- God Most High. If these thoughts are new to you or if you personally have doubts about whether or not you’ll see him again, there’s a remedy for that. It’s value is priceless but the price has been paid. Just see any of us after and we’ll walk you through it. We don’t want you to miss the banquet.
Closing thought -- Last August, dad brought Granddaddy to the hunting camp for the opening of deer season. Four generations in one hunting camp. One morning, I drew the long straw and getting him to his stand fell to me. I got his chair, cushion, shooting sticks, binoculars, shooting bag, belt, cartridges, rifle, thermocell, bugspray, sweater, snake leggings, cap. By the time I actually got him in the truck, I’d broken out in a sweat.
We idled around the property. A charcoal morning. No moon. He squinted, having a tough time making out the road in front of us. Both of us were abiding by the no-talking-rule. There was no hurry. I took my time. Wrapping myself in the blanket of his shadow.
I parked in front of his ground blind. Set up his chair, his shooting sticks. Clicked on his Thermocell. Loaded his rifle. Laid it across the rest. Confirmed the ‘safe’ condition of his safety. And then returned to the truck. In the dark, he clung to me as I slowly helped him down. His hands were shaky. Breathing labored. We crossed the road, through the slight ditch and up to the blind. I lifted his feet across the zippered opening, and then settled him in his chair -- there to catch him if he fell. In the dark, I lifted his hand and placed his index finger on the safety so that he too confirmed its condition, and then I laid his binoculars in his lap. Finally, I knelt, tucked his pants legs into his snake leggings and sprayed his shins and ankles with bug spray. Above me, I heard him whispering, almost mumbling to himself. “Charles, I don’t know how you can see anything in here, it’s so dark.”
The whisper echoed. My life come full circle. I stood, inching closer, bringing with me the smell of Chapstick. My breath on his face. I whispered, “It’s okay, Granddaddy. I know where I’m going. You’ve led me here before.”