It’s been a year since we lost him, and there’s still an empty place in my heart.
I’d just finished a couple chocolate chip cookies and was rolling past the phone on the wall by the kitchen door when it rang. Immediately, I knew there was bad news coming even though nobody had answered yet. Mom hopped up to grab it, and I continued down the hall as if I could run away from whatever it was. “How is he?” and, “What do I need to do?” were the two things I heard Mom say into the phone that let me know my premonition was accurate.
On his way home from Church yesterday morning, Pop’s vehicle was hit broadside and he was taken to the local hospital where the doctors and nurses worked to stabilize him for a long ambulance ride to Jackson. They’d hoped to fly him, but the weather wasn’t suitable. Then, a short while later we got a call saying they had him loaded in an ambulance and were headed to Jackson a little after 1 PM.
Mom and dad went to the hospital to wait for his arrival, but I stayed home to avoid the boredom of a waiting room. Once the doctors had time to work on him and he was able to take visitors, I was going to go see him. In the meantime, I decided to write a little bit to calm my anxiety. With David Letterman interviewing George Clooney on one monitor pane and WordPress open on the other, I found sufficient distraction to maintain a workable level of emotional stability. Then, dad called.
“Hey, Robbie… They were on their way down…”
That was all my brain would let me process of what he was calling to tell me. I frantically poked at the phone screen through my tear-blurred vision hoping to end the call before what was roiling inside me spewed forth. As soon as I managed to sever the connection, a guttural scream let loose from deep in my core as though I was casting out my own life force to somehow try to catch one more glimpse of Pop as he crossed through the pearly gate.
I always knew the day would come when I would lose him. No amount of realization or preparation could have prepared for the hurt and sadness that I felt right at that moment, though. It was palpable.
If for no other reason than therapy for me, I’m going to list a few memories about Pop that for one reason or another stand out to me. I may have told them before or some of you may remember the events differently, but I don’t care. These are my memories. Feel free to leave any happy memories you may have of him in the comments below. I would love to read them if you do.
- I watched a tree fall on Pop one Saturday morning, and I mean a real tree in the woods, not an ornamental crepe myrtle. My uncle, Darry, pushed it over with their little dozer and it glanced off of Pop’s shoulder as they were trying to clear a swampy area along Nanih Waiya creek which runs along one edge of his property. It happened just before lunch, so they got Pop in the truck and took him to the house where he put some ice on it, drank a cup of coffee, ate some fried chicken, and went back to the woods an hour later with a belly full of Maw’s good cooking ready to go right back to work.
- When I was a young child I would often spend the night with Maw and Pop on the weekends. After working all day on Saturday doing whatever he had planned to do, Pop would go in, take a shower, and get cleaned up before Maw had supper ready. If there was enough time before supper and I’d been a good boy all day, he’d go get the big Farmall M tractor from the barn, let me climb up in his lap, and he’d take me just up the road to Mammy and Pap’s house where they’d be sitting on the front porch waiting for us to come up the driveway. As I write this, I can smell the scent of his Irish Spring soap and the laundry detergent Maw used to wash his overalls mixed with the hydraulic fluid and exhaust from the tractor.
- I remember sitting beside him in his worn out 1969 GMC truck, ‘Old Red’, and asking him why some of his cows had white faces and some didn’t. He said, “Doll baby, that’s just how God made them.”
- During my time at State, I went to see him and Maw 2 or 3 times a week to get my laundry done and to eat Maw’s fine cooking. One day at lunch, I said something about getting a tattoo, and he said if I got one, the groceries would stop. So, I’m ink-free to this day. Another time, he told me that he enjoyed me coming to see them so often, because if I wasn’t there, Maw wasn’t nearly as likely to cook if it was just the two of them.
- I remember when I was there for Thanksgiving a few years ago and told him I was getting divorced. I broke down and was sobbing in front of him for the first time in my life that I can remember. He pulled a chair up beside me, sat down, put his huge hand on my knee and said, “It’s gonna be ok, Rob.”
- When I was in high school, I had to write a paper for Ms. Canterbury’s Senior English class on someone I respected, and I chose him. As I interviewed him for the paper, he told me a funny story from his childhood about playing a strange form of baseball. They played donkey baseball. From what I gathered, you batted the ball like normal baseball, but then you mounted up and rode the bases on a donkey. If anyone ever invents a time machine, I hope they’ll get some video of that for me.
- One of Pop’s index fingers was shorter than the other, and it was oddly rounded over. I asked Mom about it once and she told me he’d cut it off one day at work, but the doctor was able to sew it back on. However, it apparently started bothering him, so he pulled it off and threw it away.
- I remember getting a frantic phone call one autumn Saturday morning from him as I was getting dressed to go to Starkville to a football game. It was him.
He said, “Darry…”
I said, “No, Pop. It’s Robbie.”
He said, “Hey, Rob. I can’t talk right now. My shop’s burning down. I guess I dialed the wrong number. I’ll talk to you later,” and he hung up.
- Someone told me a story about Pop not too long ago. The fella worked for Pop for a while. Before he retired, Pop was a shop foreman and apparently, the people that worked for him recognized that Pop had a built-in anger meter. The madder he got, the higher he’d hike his pants up. If they saw his belt under his armpits and his cuffs above his socks, they knew he wasn’t happy. The high-waisted pants must have been of a superior aerodynamic design because apparently Pop could outrun a golf cart when he was mad and somebody was trying to get away from him. The fella talking about him also said that Pop taught him a lot about being a man and that if he’d have taken all of Pop’s advice, he’d have saved himself a lot of trouble over the years.
- There was a fella that worked for a cattle farmer not too far from Pop who was an expert at finding design flaws in mechanical equipment. One day he discovered just how much pressure being applied to a truck’s gas tank by a pointed stick was sufficient to punch a hole in it. So, he brought the gas tank to Pop and asked him to braise the hole closed. As most folks will understand, applying fire to something that might contain or once contained gasoline could end badly. But, the fella begged and Pop finally agreed. He plugged the hole and filled the tank with water and let it sit for two days before trying to work on it. Pop said, “I emptied the water out of it, lit my torch, and when I touched the flame to the hole, it went BOOM!!! and hit the ceiling in my shop. So, I figured it was OK to work on it then.”
- I remember the way the thick, green blades of summer grass felt between my toes, the smell of burning propane and hot peanut oil, and seeing him leaning over the pot of boiling oil as he slipped battered fish, hush puppies, and french fries into the oil before the Saturday night family get-togethers we enjoyed after he’d been fishing with one of his friends from work.
- I remember him sitting in a chair weeping beside Maw’s bed in the Baptist Hospital as cancer stole the love of his life from him. I know that he still loved her and missed her because at every family gathering he would get choked up as he blessed the food because she wasn’t there with us.
- A couple years ago, Pop had another accident where he got broadsided. The difference was that he was crossing the highway on his 4-wheeler when a car hit him at 55 mph. He shot straight up in the air. The wheeler went about 100 yards down the ditch and stopped when it ran into the fence. Pop came down out of the sky and landed head first on the pavement. The woman driving the car knew she’d killed him, but he popped right up and checked on them. The Highway Patrolman called Darry and an ambulance against Pop’s protestations. He swore he was fine and refused to get in the ambulance. Meanwhile, the local news pipeline (telephone and email communication) was ginning away telling everyone that he was in terrible shape and the ambulance was taking him straight to Starkville. Well, Pop agreed to let Darry take him to the emergency room in his truck where they told him nothing was broken and he’d be sore for a few days. The preacher and several others from the community were in the ER in Starkville waiting for him to arrive as he was pulling the handle on his recliner to watch some TV.
- I remember seeing Pop sitting in his Lay-Z-Boy recliner with his Bible, Sunday School book, and a pen as he studied and prepared to teach his class that he taught for nearly 70 years, I believe. I’ll forever remember the good man that tried every minute of every day to live the way he believed God wanted him to live. He was fair, honest, generous, kind, and loving.
This morning, I read something about how Heaven provides rest from life’s work. It seems to me that Pop was never happier than when he was working. I believe there’s a big shop and some cows out behind his house alongside the golden street where Maw is making lemon pies and waiting on Cecil to come in from playing on his tractors.
He was our Cecil, Daddy, Pop, and Mr. Crowell.
James Cecil Crowell
December 15, 1927 – February 11, 2018