The Hardest Blog Post I’ve Ever Written

My grandfather, Mendel Ham, grew up on a farm in rural South Carolina. Although racial inequality was rampant, I’ve been told that one of his best friends was an African-American farm hand. And that pretty much sums up my grandfather. The stares and jeers of others weren’t strong enough to break his spirit.

Throughout my childhood, Paw Paw, was a figure of strength in my life. He was my rock.

I didn’t know him as a young man, but I try to envision him approaching my grandmother to ask her on their first date. Or, as an eighteen-year old marine, serving our country in Japan, which he once told me was the loneliest time of his life.

I only know about his younger days from the stories he shared over our weekly breakfast when I was in high school or the occasional reminiscing of my own father as he shares old family photos.

There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t thank God for those memories with my Paw Paw. Those memories are all that I have left. A year after his much-deserved retirement, Paw Paw began a battle with cancer that ravaged his body.

I remember the hope I felt when he told me, “When you finish your freshman year, I’ll be done with my treatments.” But that’s not how his story would end.

On Sunday morning, June 24, 2001, Paw Paw took his own life.

The Day I Saw My Rock Crumble

June 24, 2001 was a beautiful summer day in coastal North Carolina. I was home on summer break and had just left church with a friend, headed to the Goody Goody Omelet House for lunch. My cell phone rang. It was my mom and she was crying. Through her tears I heard, “Something has happened to Paw Paw.”

My friend and I rushed home. Before the car had come to a complete stop, I jumped out of the passenger seat and began running toward my parents who were in the garage. My father was pacing and seemed angry. He was shouting, but I couldn’t make out the words. My mom was frantically trying to comfort him and I was confused. The emotions were thick, like a heavy humidity that filled the air.

Somehow, in the midst of the hysteria, I heard someone say, “Paw Paw shot himself.”

The crushing weight of the news collapsed my knees from underneath me. I fell in our yard as confusion mixed with heartache to create a nauseating sensation. I wanted to yell. I wanted to cry. I wanted to throw up. Somewhere inside I hoped that this was all a mistake, that somehow, this wasn’t real.

In moments that seemed like hours, we learned that Paw Paw was still alive, but on life support. To this day, I’m not sure how I gathered the strength, but I went with my dad to see his father. Fear filled my young, nineteen-year old mind, but I stood by my father as we went into the trauma unit to see Paw Paw.

The hallway to his room seemed endless, a never-ending pathway to a place I didn’t want to go. As we turned a corner, I saw him. Paw-Paw was lying on a bed, his life sustained by a breathing apparatus affixed to his mouth. His head was in bandages. His eyes were closed. The rhythmic beep of the heart rate monitor acted as a countdown timer. My grandfather was going to die.

I was simply an onlooker, able to experience the moment, but paralyzed from speaking. My father was in front of me, slowly approaching his dad. As he dropped to his knees, I gently placed my hand on his shoulder. I could feel his anger and his heartache on my fingertips.

Through questions and tears, I heard my dad say, “You were a great father.”

The memory of those words will forever be imprinted on my soul.

Shortly after that exchange, our pastor and friend, Tim Russell, came in to pray with us. We stood in a circle, our hands on each other’s shoulders, and we prayed for Paw Paw.

A few minutes later, the countdown timer stopped as the heart-rate monitor flatlined. My grandfather had taken his last breath.

Perspective in the Midst of Tragedy

For years these memories have haunted me—circumstances beyond my comprehension. And the more people I talk with, the more I realize that these stories exist for all of us.

Only in time have I come to realize: Sometimes questions have no answers.

The truth of that statement doesn’t make it any easier to write. I want answers. I want to know why. But I’m learning that, maybe it’s not our purpose to have answers. Maybe it is our purpose to choose how we will respond when answers aren’t readily available. Maybe the answers we’re looking for will only be found through perseverance.

In these moments, we must recognize our ability to continue with strength that isn’t our own. It is in the valleys of life where God has taught me that He is my rock. And as I press into my faith, I’m reminded that I have been given a choice. These moments will define me, but I get to decide how.

I have come to realize that I have the power to carry on my grandfather’s legacy. I will remember him for who he was, not what he did.

As I think back now, Paw Paw and I had a little secret. We parted ways with a handshake almost every time we said goodbye. And hidden inside his weathered palm was a twenty-dollar bill. These handshakes, coupled with his soft chuckle, are the very thing I will hold on to.

His generous spirit gave me far more than twenty dollars with each handshake. He was passing on his legacy to me. And that is the legacy I will pass along to my sons. It is a legacy of strength mixed with gentleness, faith mixed with action, and joy in the midst of pain.

Whatever adversity you face today, I pray that you understand that you still have a choice to respond. In fact, your response has the power to create a legacy that will be a beacon of hope for those who are walking through the valley.

MH

For more stories like these, check out my book, Redefine Rich

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About the Author

Matt Ham is primarily a husband and father to three boys. As an author and speaker, he is dedicated to guiding others toward the understanding that “Your Whole Life Matters.” Through his RICH Principles he helps folks discuss the truly meaningful things that .

His first book, Redefine Rich, is a journey of uncovering a deeper, more fulfilling life by shifting your perspective. It is available in both Kindle and paperback on Amazon: here

To contact Matt or inquire about his speaking schedule, visit www.mattham.com/speaking

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  • Brenda Watkins

    Your Paw Paw sounds like a wonderful man. Great memories you have there, Matt. Love the post…such important points you make.

    • Thanks B! I appreciate you reading and sharing! It looks like you’re enjoying your new job – miss seeing you at the office, but glad you’re happy! Have an awesome Wednesday!

  • You are right on target Matt. Hope you and Mark never forget the Godly man that he was and that you tell great stories to those boys. So glad you were old enough to remember. This is all a part of “your” story now ~ so use it to glorify HIM!

  • Quite honestly Matt, it wasn’t my father that taught me how to be a grandfather…it was Mendel. I have often told people this as I have taught my SS class and in other arenas as well. I am glad that I took the time to tell him the same thing face to face over breakfast at his house one morning. I vividly remember going out to eat as an entire family one night at The Outback and he graciously paid for everyone’s meal. That also has stayed with me and I always try and pay it forward in honor of what he showed me that night. Money in and by itself is nothing unless it can leave your hands in the demonstration of unconditional love and sacrifice. He was a great man and his legacy lives on through you. Proud of you nephew for giving your grandfather his due honor and your gratitude.

    • Thanks Big Al! I remember the words you shared at his memorial and appreciate you sharing today! We all need a little Mendel reminder from time to time!

  • sweet memories of an incredible man! he has left his legacy, and this preggo is choking back tears.

    • Thanks Libs! Its ok, this non-preggo has all morning!

  • I truly hope that you understand the power of your own written word. From one writer to another, you’ve moved me beyond belief. I may not always find the right comment to leave…. But trust that you are a very inspirational, well versed, equally well written, gift. Have a great day, ol’ friend.

    • Hey Jaclyn – thanks so much! That means the world to me. Where are you writing? Would love to read!

  • Deborah

    He was and is very very proud of the man you have become. You are carrying on such an incredible legacy for the Ham men and doing your best to honor God with your life. Mr. Ham was an incredible man and I was honored to know him. This was a beautiful tribute to him and brought tears. I am very proud of you as well.

    • The responses to this post today show how great Paw Paw really was and how great God is!

  • Matt, I had the honor to work for your grandfather at the Star News. He was such a great boss, mentor and even felt like a father to me sometimes as my family was 300 miles away and I was a young twenty-something trying to find her way in the world. I could tell you numerous stories of the times Mendel taught me something important. He always came to work with a smile, never failed to say good morning, called me Missy, and knocked on his office window to get my attention when he wanted me to come to his office for something. I was not always an easy employee to manage. I felt like he might threaten to take my car keys away from me sometimes when I misbehaved!

    After working for him about ten years, he supported my decision to move to another department as a manager and then let me come to his office and cry in frustration nearly everyday. He reminded to eat that elephant I was dealing with in the new job just one bite at a time. He was such a great man! I am not sure I would have survived my 30 years here at the Star News without his guidance and teachings in those early years.

    Mendel enjoyed life. He would have cookouts at his house for his employees and colleagues under the “Ham Dome” in the back yard. He was so generous.

    I went to visit Mendel just a couple of weeks before he died. He was so proud of me as I had just been promoted to Human Resources Director. And I was proud to make him proud.

    For whatever reason, I was at peace with his decision to take control of his life at the end. I admired him for taking that control and doing it his way.

    And yes, he was a rock, for many of us.

    The thing I remember most about Mendel was that he loved his family more than life itself. And I see so much of him in you while reading your posts. God Bless you. Go and do great things! I know he is beaming with pride for you right now.

    • Sherry…
      Your words are a blessing and encouragement. Literally making me tear up – I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to read and share your personal thoughts about Paw Paw. I can hear him saying ‘Missy’ now!

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  • Jennifer Glasscock Marion

    This is beautiful, and I love the transition from calling your grandfather your rock at the beginning to declaring him your grandfather, and God is your rock at the end.

    • Thanks Jennifer! He was a wonderful man and a rock to many, but through the tragedy I was reminded of the true Rock! Thanks for reading!

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  • Al Sheneman

    Matt, very impactful. One of your best. Honored your grandfather and I know he is so proud of you. He was a great man and had a lasting impact on me. Showed me how to be a grandfather and all the qualities you mention. I am sure when he made his choice he did it with his family at heart and he just did not want to become a burden to Mrs. Ham or the boys. He has such a tremendous legacy.

    • Al I’ll never forget us doing his service together. What a lasting impact on me.

  • Matt, there is just so much here. Gems mined out of deep rock.

    It is not our purpose to have answers. It is our purpose to continue.

    Life will be full of moments that define you. It is your choice on how you will respond.

    I will remember my Grandfather for who he was, not what he did.

    Just as God loves us for who we are, not for what we do.

    Thanks for the reminder.

    • Thank you Laura. What great confirmation of HIS love for HIS children! Have a wonderful day!

  • Powerful to say the least. It is inspiring. You tucked your pain behind the words so that it didn’t burden your readers, and yet, they could still feel it.

    • Anne – thanks so much! I’m glad the story dynamics allowed the feeling to come through.

  • Kathy Shaw Spillers

    Very touching, Matt, and reminds me of my own Paw Paw, and my Dad as he became Paw Paw, too. Thanks for sharing.

    • Did you call him Paw Paw?

      • Kathy Shaw Spillers

        Yes, Matt, my grandfather on my Dad’s side was Paw Paw, and when my Dad became a grandfather, that was the name he chose as well.

  • Powerful entry!

    The description of your Paw Paw’s death transported me to the emotions of the night that my father died when I was just barely 18. The circumstances were very different. Heart attack when he was 56. Dead before the ambulance got there. But the emotions and the way I processed it in the moment were very similar.

    As I read that section, the tears poured out! But then they slowed. And the reason for them changed. They were are about my marriage and how I always wanted what your grandparents had. Instead, I am getting divorced which is something I said that I would never do because I didn’t believe in ending a marriage rather than trying to work through the tough times. (Still don’t, but the decision was made for me.)

    My tears dried as I thought on your Paw Paw’s legacy. Now I see things more clearly. I feel hope for my future, and for the legacy that I can still build for my children (and eventually my grandchildren) and reflect upon.

    • Kendra I can’t begin to yell you how encouraged I am by your words. I can hear the hope inside.of you and I pray that it will continue to rise! Thank you for stopping by!

  • Deborah L. Sheneman

    This is just beautiful Matt. Mr. Ham was a joy to know and I look forward to seeing him again one day in heaven. Such truth in what you have written. I know that I will not have all my questions answered about Stevie’s death this side of heaven. I did decide though that I would not let my grief cripple me. It was not an easy decision to make and I constantly had to remind myself that the best way for me to honor Stevie’s life was to live my own with purpose and point all who knew me to the “anchor” that holds regardless of what tragedy or storms come in this life. Tears flowed as I read this…tears of joy to know that two great men that meant and mean so much in my life also personally know that “anchor that holds like no other.” Love you buddy!

    • Debbie what a great testimony you have continued for Stevie! Out on the open sea, we have confidence that the anchor holds in spite of the storm!

      I can’t wait to see what He has in store!

      Love you!

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  • “…in regards to some questions, maybe it’s not our purpose to have answers. Maybe it is our purpose to choose how we will respond when answers aren’t readily available.”

    Yep. Thank you my friend for sharing this again.

  • Lynne Childress

    Thanks for sharing this Matt.