A CHILD’S FIRST EXPERIENCE WITH DEATH|
By Juanita Morris Hawkins, A West Virginia Native
As I look back on my childhood up until I was six years old, I think I was one of the happiest and most contented kids in the world. All I had ever known was love, security, a feeling of belonging, and knowing I had a place in the world and wouldn’t have changed it for anything.
I had grown up in those six years on my grandparents’ 200 acre farm. Our house was just a short distance from my grandparents’ house and I spent most of my time with them.
Mom was always busy doing something around the house and Dad was always working. When my grandfather was at work off the farm, he worked for the State of West Virginia in Charleston. I don’t remember what he did there. But, when my brother and I caught a first glimpse of him coming around the bend on our dirt road, my brother and I would start running as fast as we could to meet him and fling ourselves into his arms.
The creek curved right where the road came into view of their house and sometimes in the summer, my brother and I would be in the swimming hole waiting for him. He would walk over to the edge of the bank and sit down and inquire what his “little devils” had been into that day.
We would be bursting to tell him everything. He would sit there patiently listening to us. Sometimes we would tell him we had been berry picking and had brought him home “lots and lots” of berries and grandmother made us a cobbler for supper. He would laugh and tell us he could eat more than we could and we would argue who would win.
He was everything to my brother and I. His word was law and we respected every rule that he gave us to abide by. He didn’t have many but we would never have wanted to disrespect him and break his trust in us. As I look back across these many, many years, I think of all the life lessons he taught me which are still a part of me today.
I always loved the farm animals and tried to make pets of them all. One year when I was about five years old, one of their hens had quite a brood of little chicks. I fell deeply in love with one of them which I promptly named Henry as I thought he looked like a relative called Henry.
My Papaw saw my devotion to that little chick and he told me that Henry was mine if I would help take care of his needs. Of course I agreed immediately. I spoiled that chicken until I don’t believe it knew it was a chicken. I loved it dearly and he knew how much I loved Henry.
One day a pack of several wild dogs crossed the hill and came down into our valley and got into the chicken lot and chickens were screaming and going wild. They killed several and took off back up the hill, but when Papaw and I got to the chicken lot, one dog was left in the enclosure and he had killed and was eating my Henry. I can’t remember just what I did at first but I can remember screaming and screaming for Papaw to kill that dog.
Somehow he caught the dog and put a rope around his neck and tied him to a post. He picked me up and took me to the house where he and grandmother washed my face and helped calm me down. I looked at my grandfather and said “I want you to kill that mean dog. He killed my Henry and I hate him.”
Grandfather sat there in silence for quite awhile thinking. Then he looked at me and said “You know, that old dog looks almost starved to death. I bet he hasn’t had anything to eat for days and days.” I didn’t want to hear anything sympathetic about that dog and said, “He killed my Henry and I want you to kill him!”
Still, he sat there without saying anything for a long time and then he finally said, “I think we should show that old dog some mercy.” I then asked what “mercy” was. He explained that it was undeserved favor. He said he bet we could teach that old dog a lesson he would never forget and teach him that there was a penalty for coming onto someone’s property and killing their chickens.
Of course I was still thinking he deserved to be killed but I was curious as to what he would do to the dog. He said he had an old trick he would try and teach the dog a lesson he wouldn’t soon forget. So, I tearfully agreed. He got an old tin can out of the trash pile and filled it full of small rocks and he put holes in it so he could tie it to the dog’s tail. I said what will that do, what kind of lesson will that teach him?
He said “Well, when I turn him loose with the can on his tail making an awful noise, he will start running across that hill he came here on, and by the time he gets to the other side, and the can finally drops off, he will have learned a valuable lesson. He said that is what “mercy” is all about. Showing forgiveness and teaching a lesson at the same time.
Well, I was still mad at that dog, and still thought he should have received capital punishment, but I thought perhaps Papaw knew best.
I guess he did as we never had another visit from that pack of wild dogs nor the one who had killed my little Henry. From that day forward I was to never eat chicken again in my lifetime.
But, I did finally realize what he was teaching me about “mercy” and I still have that lesson deep in my heart today.
In August the year I was six years old, my grandparents were heading down the holler to go to the church and meet up with some others to clean the church before the service the next day. They were almost at the church when our neighbors from the next farm down the road from us stopped them and said they were on their way to Charleston to get some groceries and supplies and wanted to know if they would like to go along.
My grandmother declined as she told them she had to help clean the church. My Papaw decided to go along as he said he needed some supplies for the farm and it would save him a trip.
My Mom had told me that my grandparents were going to clean the church and would be back later in the afternoon. My brother and I made several trips down to their house checking to see if they were home. Finally we went and grandmother was there but not grandfather. She told us he had gone to Charleston with our neighbors to get some supplies.
We kept waiting and waiting and it was almost dark when a strange car rounded the bend and stopped in front of grandmother’s house. A strange man got out and walked to the house. He said something to grandmother I couldn’t hear but I saw her almost fall and she said for us to run home and tell our mother to come quickly that there was an emergency.
My memories from then on are hazy in my mind. People started coming to the house and my brother and I were taken to our house while my aunt stayed with us.
I kept asking what was wrong and never got an answer. She had a baby about five months old and I remember her sitting in our rocker with the baby in her arms when a man came in.
He whispered something in her ear and she cried out “Oh no!” and she let go of her baby. I made a grab for the baby and got her before she hit the floor. I knew then that something horrible had happened.
I was to learn later that on the way home from Charleston, the neighbor that was driving had been drinking and on that narrow river road, he swerved the truck and it ran into an overhanging rock. My grandfather was riding in the bed of the truck and his head hit the rock. He never regained consciousness. Three people died in the truck that day. My grandfather being one of them.
Of course I didn’t know any of this until years later. Everyone was keeping my Papaw’s death from me but I knew something bad was wrong. Then they brought his body back to the house to lie in state until his funeral.
I remember all the adults trying to keep my brother and me out of the room where he lay, but I found ways to slip in and I remember standing beside his coffin demanding that he wake up and go play with my brother and me.
I did this several times and then I heard someone say in another room that someone should tell me that he was dead and would never get out of that coffin. I tore out of the house and ran as fast as I could up the side of a hill to hide in the woods.
As I sat there trying to catch my breath, I remembered my little Henry and then I knew what death really was. My grandfather would never play with me again. He would never laugh his wonderful laugh again. He would never swing me up on his shoulder and run down the hillside with me and my brother again. Like my Henry, they would put him under the dirt. My pain was indescribable.
The next day people seemed to come from everywhere. I had never seen so many cars on the farm or so many people. All my aunts and my mother and grandmother were in tears. I felt numb. I didn’t know what to say to anyone and I can’t really remember talking to anyone.
So many people came to the funeral they set up loud speakers outside and I remember people sitting on the lower hillsides to hear the service.
Then they closed the casket and moved his body to the cemetery out from the house on a flat hillside where all our forefathers were buried.
All I can remember of that was when they started to lower the body in the ground, my grandmother fainted and I thought she had died and I became hysterical. Some of the men carried each of us back to the house. To this day, I cannot remember who it was. I thought until she came out of her faint that she was dead also.
I was so traumatized by all that happened and the loss of my hero that it took years for me to admit to myself that I would never see that wonderful Irish smile of his again nor hear his wonderful laughter. I don’t know if they had not brought his body home and left it there if it would have been easier for me to accept.
Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so graphic for me. But I do know that it would have taken the same amount of years for me to accept that the man I adored and who had taught me so many lessons that are still a part of me today. Now that I am growing older and think of him, I just feel so deeply blessed to have had him for those precious six years.
The lessons he taught my brother and I are still with us today and I have tried to teach them to my own grandchildren. I fail though trying to tell them of the love and adoration that still abides in my heart for that wonderful Irish man and the magic of his smile.
He was my first experience with death and I cannot say that I ever really made peace with it.
I know that it happens to all of us and I find myself so many, many times seeing him in my mind teaching me about “mercy”. Papaw, I never forgot your lesson and I never forgot my little Henry.
Juanita Morris Hawkins