CHAPTER 1 Grandpa and JFK Jr.
MY GRANDFATHER WAS a man’s man. I remember him being big and strong, even with the prosthetic leg he had from the knee down. When he put it on, he would say, “It’s time for me to become the Bionic Man,” and back then I believed he really had a super-robot leg like Steve Austin on the TV show.
He adored his grandkids. There were five of us: myself, my sister and brother, and my two cousins who lived next door. Whenever my grandfather came over, he would show up with gifts for all of us. And not just little gifts—he went all out. One day he showed up with Kick ’N Go scooters, the kind with a pedal on the back that you’d stomp to propel the scooter. These were the toys of all toys back in the day and cost about a hundred dollars each. My grandfather bought five of them: one for each kid. I’m sure the neighbors thought he was spoiling us, but he didn’t care. He loved us, and we loved him.
Sometimes I would go and spend the night with Grandpa and Grandma at their home in Brooklyn. On those nights when he came home from work, he’d bring this huge hero sandwich from a deli, the largest sandwich you ever saw, and he’d hold it up in front of the two of us. Then he’d start eating from one end and I’d start eating from the other, and we’d have a race to the middle of that hero sandwich.
As you can imagine, he was my hero. He was Grandpa, and there was nobody more alive than he was.
One morning my parents came into my room and woke me up. But they were not as happy and jovial as usual. They sat down on my bed and told me something I didn’t want to believe, that I couldn’t believe. Grandpa had died.
Grandpa? Big, strong, happy Grandpa? He was gone? It didn’t happen, it couldn’t happen, not to Grandpa.
I was eleven years old and my grandfather was dead. It was the first loss of my life, and a pain hit me that I had never felt before.
But he was only the first.
Over the years I experienced other deaths. My cousin John, who was like a brother to me, died of cancer not two years later. My grandmother, Grandpa’s wife for thirty-eight years and widow for nineteen more.
I know this is sad, but hang on. There’s a point.
I’ve seen other deaths, too. As a pastor, I get called to preach at funerals. I get called to go to hospital rooms and emergency rooms and talk to people who are dying and to the people they leave behind.
Death is a part of my life.
Guess what? It’s part of yours, too. WHO’S GOT A TICKET?
Remember those ticket machines you see at bakeries and ice-cream shops? The sign says take a number, and when you come in, you grab that little ticket and stand around, trying to find something to do, until the clerk calls out your number. You hand the guy your ticket, give him your order, and then all in a rush you’re done and out of there.
Well, the moment you were born, you grabbed a ticket. And no matter how you spend your time kicking around in this world, finding something to do, at some point you’re gonna have to give up that ticket. You’re done, and you’re out of here.
Just like that.
A few years ago I turned on the TV and saw pictures of a small private plane next to images of John F. Kennedy Jr. “Plane missing, presumed dead,” the caption read. Pretty soon the presumed became fact. The heir to the Kennedy legacy, a handsome young man whose life and political and business future were constantly mused about by media stars and pundits, was dead. Gone. Life over, story over, musing over. All that fame, fortune, and favored-son glory didn’t mean a thing when his plane slammed into the ocean.
You see, it doesn’t matter if you’re a hero to your grandson. It doesn’t matter if you’re a boy who beat cancer as a baby, a grandmother who cooked unbelievable lasagna, or even the famous golden boy of the political world. You are going to die. And you don’t know when.
As they say in the movies, “Nobody gets out of here alive.”