This story is by Robin D. Johnson and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The doctors said it was asbestos that had been secretly destroying his lung tissue and was now taking his life. I was speechless, even stunned. Recently in a pathology class it was explained how asbestos poisoning is one of the most lethal diseases out there. Adding to the shock was the consensus that my grandfather was the most energetic and healthy 75-year-old around town. He had shown no symptoms, had no health complaints, and my grandmother testified to his usual zest for life as they departed for Atlanta on a senior citizen trip. Grandpa was particularly excited about a planned ballpark visit to watch his beloved Pittsburgh Pirates. But after a day of sudden harsh coughing and a frightening struggle for air, an emergency room visit was necessary. He was the dude everybody thought would live to be a hundred, but it was not in the cards. The hidden asbestos particles had been doing their insidious work for decades. It was a somber journey when transported home to the West Virginia hills to die.
Grandpa worked for seventeen years in the coal mines of West Virginia, beginning at the age of sixteen in 1920. There was concern about effects from the omnipresent coal dust in those dangerous mines (‘black lung’), or perhaps from a lethal methane gas leak or the occasional ceiling collapse. In those days he made 75 cents per day for an eight-hour shift and was paid partially in company ‘scrip,’ which could only be spent in the ‘company’ store (reminiscent of the iconic Tennessee Ernie Ford song, Sixteen Tons). Some workdays in new tunnels he could never stand up completely straight. Other days he stood and worked in 6-12 inches of water the entire shift. Eventually union organizers from the northeast came in, the guns came out, and when the lead started flying-with the effusion of blood-he decided he’d had enough (especially with three young sons). Having an affinity for electrical work, he soon got out of the mines and with a sense of relief become a bona fide electrician in the above-ground world.
The Great Depression of 1929 affected everyone. Cash was in short supply, food lines were common, and millions of Americans were suddenly poor and out of work. As this lasted right up to and through World War II, the young electrician would go anywhere for work and a paycheck. One of his early jobs was at the production site for the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where he and thousands of others unknowingly helped build the atomic bomb. Later he would go to big cities like Pittsburgh and New York to help build skyscrapers, with my precious and supportive hillbilly grandmother in tow. Grandpa finally retired in 1968, but the seeds of disease were sown and stirring. Asbestos was commonly used back then as insulation in many of these large buildings.
My grandfather loved to compete, whether playing cards or games, debating the merits of political candidates, growing the prettiest roses, verbally sparring about the greatest baseball hitter, or racing me in the forty-yard dash. A halfway-decent athlete myself, I was embarrassed (shocked, actually) when he beat me in that sprint when I was sixteen. He enjoyed dressing up sharply, always within his means, perhaps due to the lack thereof when growing up in the remote and hard coal country hollows. As with many leaders and people of character and despite humble beginnings, my grandfather was self-educated and ever-learning. He was always working on his vocabulary and loved to read. Grandpa was not a know-it-all; he just wanted to know it all. He was always fun to be around, and if challenged for just one appropriate word for the essence of his personality, it would probably be enthusiasm. Surprisingly, this can mean divinely inspired, or the God within. He loved to travel when he could, although my sweet grandmother was barely lukewarm about that (probably because she was afraid of thunderstorms). I remember later in his life when we were chatting about El Capitan at Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, he excitedly proclaimed: “I’d really like to go there and explore.” My soft-spoken grandmother was surprised and asked, “Why would you want to do that?” He just looked at her with that usual sparkle and said, “Because it’s there!”
I delayed starting a new job out of state to spend the last few weeks of my grandfather’s life with him. It was indeed a special time. We always had things to talk about, and many good conversations. Sitting by his bedside, I reminded him of a walk we had taken several years before when he suddenly stopped, pulled out his wallet, and flashed me a quick peek at three hidden one hundred-dollar bills. He quietly explained that he received this money every month for ‘black lung’ benefits, because of his seventeen years working underground in the coal mines decades before. Grandpa claimed he had no known lung problems from those days, and it was “just like picking up three free big bills off the sidewalk every day” (but felt like he had earned them). While looking directly at me, he then said, “and if you ever get in a jam, and need a little extra help, you call me.”
His solid and unshakeable faith-bordering on excitement-for the eternal life to come initially surprised me. Not once in those few weeks was he ever down in the dumps. Grandpa never complained. When awake, he always had that sparkle in his eyes. The last 7-10 days I brushed his teeth, and every two days I would shave the face of this brave, heretofore physical, action-oriented man’s man. He was so thankful for everything and regularly inquired about his other grandchildren, monitored the status of his favorite sports teams, and repeated a few of his prescient quips about the politicians. He assured me he was fine and ready to move on, and we assured him my grandmother would be well taken care of. It was surprisingly a beautiful-even inspirational-time for me. Here was this energetic, strong, and courageous man who loved his family and had an unquenchable thirst for learning and living, manifesting humility and thankfulness while basking in God’s grace…and confidently looking forward to his long-term future, with no bitterness.
When I asked about doing electrical work in those huge buildings after the war, and if he had seen or been aware of that sinister asbestos, he calmly replied:
“Well, we could see that dust hanging in the air down the long corridors-it was just about everywhere- and we suspected it could be harmful. But you just didn’t want to rock the boat…you wanted your paycheck, and men had to feed their families.”
It was tough to swallow, watching this hero of mine with a genuine love for life-who everybody thought would outlive his peers-go down to such a nefarious disease through no fault of his own except a commitment to work hard.
In addition, the grandson had his own problems. I had been struggling spiritually and looking for answers to life’s deep questions, having recently spent a lot of time in confusing secular universities where Christianity was suppressed and sometimes even mocked. Most of the natural sciences, sociology, and psychology departments were in large part based on the ungrounded, materialistic, billions of years evolutionary worldview. Along with many other duped students I was essentially taught the no-hope construct that I was merely an accident of random cosmic happenstance, was not made in the image of God, had evolved from the primeval slime, and thus there could be no moral absolutes. The message: Life has no meaning, do your own thing, set your own rules, and if it feels good, do it! I was a confused young man.
Although no angel, I became increasingly uncomfortable with this evolutionary starting assumption and materialistic, no-hope philosophy. The joy was missing. But the two last weeks with my grandfather, his faith, and his enthusiasm-this undeniable God within- catalyzed a sea change in my life. I wanted what he had: that twinkle in his eye, that unshakeable confidence and faith, that former spring in his step, and hopefully that enthusiasm for life. I’ll never forget it, and I’ve never been the same. I was a bit sluggish on my journey, but he helped me have life, and even the abundant life. I am amazed at the blessings I’ve experienced, despite my many mistakes and sins. He once pointed out that Christians aren’t perfect people, just forgiven people. As far as Grandpa goes, I have no doubt he’s doing just fine. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if he’s giving Pirate great and Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente some batting tips right now. As Mark Twain once said of someone, “He had the calm confidence of a Christian with four aces.” That was my grandfather. He knew that he knew… the Truth. I’m really looking forward to seeing him again.