In the valley of the shadow

We buried my father one week ago today.  There’s so much I want to tell you about the death of my dad but in order to do so I need to tell you just a little about his life.

As I look back over my journey of last couple of weeks, and really my whole life with my father, one bible passage comes to mind as a particularly perfect pericope for telling our story. There’s so much more than I can possibly share in one blog post but I invite you settle in with a favorite beverage to look over these snapshots from the life and death of Mathel Grant Knight

23 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

Daddy provided everything an iron worker could for his wife and two daughters – even beyond our true station in life. I grew up in a split-level house that rumbled and groaned with low roar of low-flying planes leaving or approaching the Atlanta airport.  Dad worked his fingers to the bone as a welder of iron and throughout the 1960′s, 70′s and 80′s helped build the Atlanta skyline into the thumping metropolis she now is.  We had the finest in southern food, a backyard farm bursting with corn, tomatoes and beans and just enough stuff to believe we just might not be a working class family.

Mathel was born in 1939 to Ruby Lee Knight, a strong Christian woman who raised her nine living children without the help of the man who fathered the lot.  Mathel’s father, a cruel man, left Ruby and his children for flimsy woman and strong drink.  Life for Ruby and her children was one of hard labor and hard living but thoroughly undergirded by an amazing love that kept the family thriving amidst the bleakest of conditions. While her children may have wanted for the finer things in life there was never a lack of fierce love of family and God.

 

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

Grant Knight met Beverly Raptis purely by accident. No really, his brother David had a little fender bender (rumor has it that the bump was not all together accidental) with my mom and one of her best friends Donna.  Uncle David called dad who was working in another state at the time and told him to get back down to Georgia, he had someone he wanted him to meet.  Uncle David married Donna and Grant married Beverly.

I was born a couple of years later in 1969.  Sister Jessica was born almost seven years later.

As the years flew by and I because a teenager searching for meaning in Conley, Georgia (barely aware of who I was and who I was to become) I was drawn to what my mom and dad called “the wrong crowd”.  As my love for books turned to a distorted search for belonging, mom and dad moved us away from the darker influences and to what they believed would be a better life.  Indeed, moving a little further south to the rolling green pastures of Tyrone proved to be the adjustment that would provide a far better education and social circumstance than if we had lingered in the slowly dilapidating neighborhood of Conley. Mathel would move heaven and earth, and bear deep wounds, so we might have a better life than he had lived and he feared we might.

 

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

One evening, infused with the hubris of higher education, I sat on the back porch with dad as my as the warm smell of freshly laundered clothes wafted down from the laundry room, and dad kicked off his steel-toe work boots. We chatted about my first year at UGA and the family’s life back here in Tyrone.  While we sipped the last of the evening’s sweet tea (we never kept a pitcher of tea over night, it was either consumed or poured out) I was feeling particularly puffed up and began what I thought was a magnanimous speech of gratefulness but what turned out to be a self-indulgent, haughty monologue.

I thanked dad for all the sacrifices he made to give us, give me, a life far better than he’d known himself.  I expressed (what now I know was condescending) thanks for providing for me an education far better than he had enjoyed. I spoke of being humbled by all he had given up to give us everything he never had.

He listened patiently and then when my self-congratulatory balloon settled back on the patio chair he educated me for real with very few words.

“Kim, I didn’t sacrifice anything.  I have lived exactly the life I’ve chosen and loved the work I’ve done.   I love your mom and you girls and would not trade my life with anyone.”

 

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

As a child My dad picked strawberries in pesticide soaked fields that would send fruit to the grocery stores of the south. My daddy smoked from a very young age. My pops a blue collar man – an iron worker – who for as long as I knew him, was exposed to the worst of conditions to build this country we take for granted, gave me everything such a man could give his daughters. Iron and steel slivers in his fingers and eyes, asbestos inhaled on dozens and dozens of sites that we now enjoy as the sparkling spires of the Atlanta skyline are the fibers that knit the soul before you now.

My mother and father understood their marriage as complementarian but as simple working class folks would have never used that word. They never expressed a belief or lived in reality as if my father was in charge, the only leader in the family. While our lives may have appeared to conform to what we now label as “traditional family values” they truly moved through their marriage as full partners. Through the years they took turns leading our family, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, as best as they could and trusting the other to lead when it was their turn.

And when the time came for my mother to be cared for in her dying years my father was her everything – nurse, cook, advocate and ally. Regardless of they many hapless wounds they inflicted on their children, they are for me a fine example of Christians living as truly complementary partners. And by the grace of God I am learning daily to live that out with my own partner who in the end, my mother and father both blessed.

Mom died nearly three years ago and the man that I grew up with evaporated into a ravaging grief that turned him into a caged tiger.  He said every day that the only place he really wanted to be was with mom.  Though he continued to work in his garden and bake cakes enjoyed by nearly everyone in Tyrone, he was a lost man without my mother. When his diagnosis came he said he was ready.  None of us knew exactly how ready he was.

One week after the diagnosis his lungs erupted in a bloody coughing fit that would land him in the ICU of his local hospital. My younger sister Jessica was by his side for the entire journey.

For the next week we would stand in the valley of the shadow of death, a dark and dreary valley indeed, as we watched our father go on ahead of us.

Images that will haunt me or bless me the rest of my days:

    • The sheer terror in his erstwhile strong and laughing eyes as he struggled against the restraints of his ER bed and the tube down his throat.
    • The love and pain on my sister’s face as we witnessed his rapid descent toward no turning back.
    • The devoted presence of my mother’s sister Nancy as she sat in rooms, whispered sweet words of hope and cried real tears of deep loss.
    • The look of regret as the team of doctors and nurses met with us to tell us the truth.
    • The kind eyes and gentle hands of the nurses in the 5th floor hospice unit at Emory University Hospital.
    • The sideways glances of his family who stiffly greeted me as they arrived from Florida.
    •  The feeling that my soul was dilating to birth a pain like no other.
    • A father’s brow furrowed in pain.
    • The sounds of the morphine pump seeping his relief.
    • The lonely people in other rooms with no one pacing, praying or weeping over their fading light.
    • A closed-off 15 year-old who was witnessing, for the second time in less than three years, the death of a beloved grandparent.
    • Her tears when she confessed the loneliness of her disbelief.
    • The tears soaking his hand as his pastor prayed.
    • The feeling of his life ebbing away in flutters beneath my palm.  Flutters that echoed the first stirrings of life as my daughter became known to me in my womb.
    • The moment of all emotions and none, of all words and none, when he was pronounced dead at 1 p.m. Oct. 17, 2013

 

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

And if the crushing grief was not enough, layers upon layers of inexcusable pain were heaped upon my head by those who should have been my greatest comfort – family.

I walked the halls of the hospital and the corridors of the funeral home without the presence of my wife for even the faintest hint of comfort.  Why?  Because to do so would have whipped up unnecessary drama and pain for dad’s family as well as my wife.  Regardless of her absence I felt:

Shock at family members who would neither look at or speak to me as we gathered around his open casket – all because of their silly notions about my “lifestyle”.

Disappointment in most of my mamma’s family (except Nancy, Candace, Nathan and finally Nick Sr.) who were nearly as cold and distant.

Then upon our choice for her to finally be at my side for the funeral we indeed had to withstand the cold waves of anger and disapproval as my wife accompanied me to the front row of the chapel.  I  would rather sit in their disdain with my partner at my side than pine for absence when I needed her most.

It should not take courage for my spouse to hold my hand as I wept for my father but alas…

What else did I experience in the presence of mine enemies?

Revulsion at a mother who would not speak to or acknowledge her own son because he drove hours to support me and serve as a pall bearer for his beloved uncle.

Disbelief that a family so proud of their family bond had no idea how much their brother loved and accepted  his daughter – and her partner.

Utter astonishment that dad’s siblings would offer not one penny to help their brother’s daughters pay for the Christian funeral he wanted.

Sadness as I watched his family dishonor their mother’s compassion and grace while they stood firm on some bastardized, self-righteous religiosity laced with a deadly blend of ignorance and arrogance.

Pity for a people who are so self absorbed, so limited in reason that the death of their brother seemed a fitting place to stand on a false gospel of prejudice and exclusion, disgracing the name of Christ as they seethed about the presence of their brother’s gay daughter.

Bitter awareness as I looked hypocrisy in the face as she wept for the man we all claimed beloved.

Boiling anger as “family” hurt my sister through juvenile behavior on Facebook all because she loves me unconditionally. (As my father, their brother, said of them numerous times “If they delete you, they delete me”).

6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Through it all I have such goodness and mercy for which to be thankful.

Foremost on my gratitude list is a spring peace bulling under the slippery moss of grief, a peace that assures me that my dad’s suffering is done.  I can only move forward with the blessed assurance that his tortured mind and disease ridden body is at rest exactly here he said he wants to be.

Second on my list is an appreciation for a sister who has a strength so different than mine.  She has been his constant companion, room-mate, caregiver and care recipient for the last couple of years and she was my his side, broken and beautiful, to the very end.  I trusted her every step of the way and there are not enough days left on the planet for me to tell her enough how much I love her.

I love you my dear partner, though we process emotions at extreme opposites, and we don’t always understand each other’s way, I recognize the many ways, big and small, that you stood by my side and continue to do so as I slog through this one day at a time.

Thank you cousin Michael for driving your butt all the way down to Georgia and for carrying dad to his resting place. Thank you so much for your incredible love and support. I am grateful for your kindness that surpasses my comprehension. You are the finest example of what it means to be family and a thoughtful, compassionate and wise Christian man in this world. I am sorry for the residual pain this is causing you. Grace and peace cousin, grace and peace.

Nancy and Trey and the Masonic Benevolent Fund – thank you for stepping up in ways that no one else in our family was willing.

I am humbled and honored by the brief respite just hours after dad’s death as colleagues of an amazing caliber and dear friends such as Susannah joined me for an impromptu wake at McGowan’s Pub in Oakhurst. Thank you for the fellowship and for raising a glass or two for the old man. I cannot competently express my gratitude for your friendship. Thank you too for the radical hospitality of the staff at McGowan’s – y’all treated me like I was one of your own.

I have so many people to thank and so few words to do so adequately. Some of you have been constant companions out here on the interwebs, praying and thinking and keeping watch with us. Some of you have shown up for toasts at a pub and gracefully fielded late-night, tearful phone calls and text messages. Some of you have driven hours and hours to be present all the way down in Tyrone and all the way up in Kennesaw. Some of you have brought us scads and scads of food and some have dropped off sweet cards of tender condolences. Some of you have put up with misdirected grief that came out as all sorts of shenanigans and some have known when to tell me to put on my big girl panties. I want to name you all but I would be up all night long typing names and still miss a few so just know how much I love you, how much I appreciate you and how healing your every effort has been to me. You are light. You are love. I am humbled by your friendship.

I want you to know, those of you who take even a moment to like my post about my dad, I know there is a little prayer, a tiny candle, a tender heart sharing warm light behind the click that says what you’ve no words to express. Thank you too.

So too I am thankful for presence of my father’s pastor, Danny of First Baptist Church, Tyrone.   Danny offered a gifted pastoral presence that held any differences of theology or sociology in their proper, silent place as he cared for a family in despair. His presence was a balm and his message at dad’s funeral was real, gentle and healing.

Susannah – thank you for offering such a lovely prayer that held us all close and lifted our pain into God’s tender care.

We were all blessed by the tender words of love and respect spoken by my 89 year-old maternal grandfather, paw-paw we called him, as he stood and spoke at dad’s funeral.

I flush with embarrassed gratitude for friends and colleagues who drove their asses all the way to Kennesaw (I’m sure they packed their passports) to support me and pay respects to the man I love.

I felt the whispering of pride and joy seeing members of dad’s Masonic lodge take time to lead the grave-side service with all the tradition and flourish due a Mason.

I also felt a tiny twinge of glee knowing their odd ceremony caused the willfully ignorant a little discomfort and confusion.

My heart, soul and belly were filled with unmerited kindness in the form of comforting casseroles, cakes and crocks.  Thank you for every morsel.

And finally, I lift my adoring eyes to our eternal God who weeps with us and walks in that valley as a constant companion.  Even as a feminist, even as one who eschews anthropomorphizing our Creator, I have always been comfortable calling you Father because of the earthly father I was blessed to know.  Thank you God for the life I’ve been given – may I live it as honorably and passionately, come what may, as Mathel Grant Knight.

 

About Kimberly Knight

After working for decades in the technology sector, Kimberly Knight graduated from Candler School of Theology with an M.Div in 2009. During her time at Candler she served as an intern in the office of Religious Life at a small liberal arts college in the south where she facilitated worship services and faith formation study groups. Also while at Candler she launched an online congregation where she led progressive Christian worship, bible study and community events in Second Life. The merging of her theological training and technology background led her to serve as the online organizer for The Beatitudes Society for two years and then later as a marketing and social media consultant for The Center for Progressive Renewal. Kimberly has led social media workshops for communities of faith across the nation as well as presented a paper at the AAR, was a featured speaker at Big Tent and organizer of a round-table like event at Wild Goose 2013. Kimberly returned to that small liberal arts college in the fall of 2012 and currently serves as the Director of Digital Strategy. She has a long history of back-pew sitting, Wednesday night supper eatin' and generally trying God’s patience since 1969.

Kimberly currently lives in Decatur while her teenage daughter studies abroad for semester in France. She and her daughter are active members of Kirkwood UCC.

  • Carlos Araya

    I’m so sorry for your loss… Reading your stories helps me come to terms a little more with my own dad’s passing

    Thank you and stay strong

  • Bob Williford

    What an awesome tribute to your loving father……and an equally painful statement about family when family relationships should transverse all other issues at hand. Through the years, as a Pastor, weddings and funerals sometimes become emotional battle grounds for foolish and petty reasons. And I agree, 100%, that even issues that divide us outside such moments should be left at the doorstep…so to speak. Loving another person is not difficult when Christ is to be honored for He alone is Lord.

  • Bill Wright

    Hi, Kimberly…Know that you are being held in my highest and best thoughts. Twas a most beautiful tribute you wrote. Having thought about immortality off and on came to realize that true immortality is the memories we have of the person. By your tribute and your story, the memory of you dad, and hence his presence, lives on. Thank you…

  • gimpi1

    I lost my father 13 years ago yesterday. It still stings.

    All I can say to you is it will get better. The joy you took in his life will gain in strength, and the pain of his leaving it will weaken. You will find your memories a source of happiness, not grief. Time really does heal many wounds,

    As to your family, all I can say is I’m sorry. Those who can’t see past their own bigotry, who even in dire situations need to lash out, cause more pain. truly do suffer themselves. You can’t hurt someone else without incurring some damage yourself. This knowledge has helped me in trying to forgive people who hurt me. (To be honest, I’m still working on it, but I am trying hard.)

    Please take some comfort from an outsider. You are loved. People care about, respect and value you. You make the world better by your presence, by your work, by your love. It will get better.

  • Terri

    Kimberly, Very sorry to hear of your grief this past week, I also lost my parents 10 and 11 yrs ago at about your age. It’s heartbreaking, but you know you will see them again, in a better life. May you and your wife be blessed and comforted in your time of sorrow. I promise, from one daddy’s girl to another, that it does get easier with time.
    Terri

  • Rebecca Trotter

    I’m so sorry for your loss. And I feel very honored to read your beautiful tribute to your father. I suspect he would be honored and proud of you.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/kimberlyknight/ Kimberly

      Thank you Rebecca, every ounce of gentle compassion I experience out here is healing far more than you can know.

  • Ian Lynch

    Hugs. That is all.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/kimberlyknight/ Kimberly

      Thank you. That is everything.

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

    This is a very touching story. I really hope that the Lord will accompany you through this difficult time.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/kimberlyknight/ Kimberly

      Thank you.

  • http://prowebwriter.com Ava

    Gut-wrenching and so scary because it’s not far enough into the future when I shall pen one of these myself. I am sorry for your loss…so, so sorry.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/kimberlyknight/ Kimberly

      Thank you Ava.

  • Ron

    As one who does understand God in anthropomorphological language, could I offer you my comfort in these words about a future day? “And God will dwell with them, and they will be his people. God will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe every tear from their eyes; and there will be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” Kimberly, today I am praying that our gracious God will comfort you and be your strength.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/kimberlyknight/ Kimberly

      Thank you Ron, your words of comfort means a great deal to me – especially in this context.

  • James_Jarvis

    I am so sorry to hear about your loss. I hope you know that you are in the thoughts and prayers of many people who know you only through this blog. We grieve with you.
    For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor
    principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor
    height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us
    from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8: 38-39

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/kimberlyknight/ Kimberly

      James, those two verses were the exact verses that I had printed in the bulletin for his service. For all the reasons.

  • Karen Guthrie Bigham

    Kimberly, what a moving post about your father. Thanks for sharing this time with all of us. I am so sorry for your loss but so happy that he was such a blessing in your life. I wish more of the family could have been supportive, and that the pain they caused you also subsides.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/kimberlyknight/ Kimberly

      Thank you Karen :)

  • http://lotuslandfineart.com/ W. Lotus

    All I can say to that is, “Amen.” Peace be unto you.

  • Kathy Makus

    I pray that your closed-minded family will experience and be transformed by the generous love of God. I also pray that same love surround you with comfort and hope.

  • Ellis Sims

    This made me teary-eyed and snuffly. It was a wonderful service and I was particularly inspired by the words of Pastor Danny. In all, the service was a fitting tribute to a fine man. Though I haven’t seen him in the last few years, much like the staff at the Tyrone Waffle House, I will miss him greatly. I continue to pray for you and Jessica and all the family. One day you will see him again and the reunion will be sweet.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/kimberlyknight/ Kimberly

    Ah, my sister just shared a great bible verse with me…1 Timothy 5:8

  • Ric Schopke

    May God’s peace be with you now and always.

  • Jessica Knight

    I love you too big sister! This too shall pass, and make us stronger in the process! <3

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/kimberlyknight/ Kimberly

      Yes ma’am.

  • http://somuchshoutingsomuchlaughter.com/ suzannah | the smitten word

    oh kimberly, what a beautiful tribute to your dad and aching reminder that love shows up. i’m so sorry for you loss and the horrible treatment you endured by the ones who should have loved best. blessings as you grieve and heal.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/kimberlyknight/ Kimberly

      Thank you Suzannah.

  • cassandratoday

    Count me among the tiny candles, holding you in the Light. We haven’t met, though Atlanta’s a surprisingly small town — we have mutual friends, and a good friend of mine just started attending Kirkwood. Though this post was a hard, hard way to meet, it shows what a beautiful person you are. Maybe our paths will cross before all is said and done. May the Spirit comfort you like an old, familiar blanket.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/kimberlyknight/ Kimberly

      Thank you Cassandra, hopefully we will cross paths soon.

  • Geoff C

    My heart aches for you, friend. I’ll never understand why funerals seem to bring out the worst in some at an already devastating time. But I’ve always found it brings out the best in some, too, and I’m glad you had those comforts. I’m sure your dad was ashamed of those people, and infinitely proud of you and your partner and the presence of you both at his funeral. What HE would have wanted is all that matters. I love you!

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/kimberlyknight/ Kimberly

      Love you too Geoff, just madly!

  • Terri Weaver

    Oh Kimberly, I’m so sorry your family continues to be a source of pain rather than of comfort. We too have walked that particular valley with my husband’s family this past couple of years. It is disorienting and a special kind of hurtful when those who should love us most unconditionally treat us as enemies. May there be balm for THOSE wounds as well as for the loss of your beloved parents. Know that I continue to hold you in prayers and the next time I get to Cartersville…I’ll be calling to come see you in Kennesaw.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/kimberlyknight/ Kimberly

      Thank you Terri, so grateful for your love and support. I am actually all the way in downtown Atlanta but dad wanted to be buried next to mom who was buried in the same cemetery as her mother.

  • jrieves

    I know you struggled with this post and I just want to say you done good.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/kimberlyknight/ Kimberly

      Thanks friend!