Donald Rae Leggett
April 23, 1923 - April 24, 2012
My Grandpa Don passed away this week after a very long year of managing his declining health. He had just turned 89 years old the day prior, and had a healthy, happy birthday from what I've been told. He shared many smiles with his kids that day, and was very conversational and alert. That makes me smile.
The day following his 89th birthday, he was saluted, celebrated, and blessed by 23 family members as he took his final breath and entered the kingdom of heaven… actually, as he walked into the kingdom of heaven… walked for the first time in 22 years. That is certainly something to celebrate.
It has been an emotional week ~ and a rather special week. I have a very large family, the majority of whom live right here in Knoxville. There have been hundreds of tears, embraces, stories, and sorrows shared as we have all reflected on my grandfather's life. A World War II Veteran who fought at Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. A handsome, charming man who was full of life and loved women, playing cards and watching sports. A husband. A father of 6 children, 13 grandchildren, and 21 great grandchildren. A son of God.
I had full respect for those who spoke at his funeral service for not sugar-coating the other part of my grandfather's life ~ the part that was not lived with complete honor and integrity. I respect that it was important to them to be truthful and forthcoming in these moments.
My grandfather actually left his wife (my beloved grandmother) and his six children when the youngest was just a toddler. This, of course, left the family in shambles resulting in years of heartache, struggles, resentment, and pain. I have always marveled at my mom and her siblings as I have watched them love and take care of their father with little thought of the life with which he left them all to endure. That is what I call true forgiveness. That is what I call grace.
My Uncle Larry beautifully articulated the single event that changed my grandfather to the core ~ 22 years ago when he had both of his legs amputated. That was the point in his life when he stopped being so selfish. That was the point when he finally acknowledged and apologized to his children for what he had done to their family. That was when he began taking responsibility for himself and his actions.
Furthermore, my grandfather took on his new disability like a champion. He never once complained about being confined to a wheelchair, no longer having the freedom to walk, having the constant pain he had. He embraced it, endured it, made jokes about it, and completely owned his body in its new form. I love and admire that about him.
My most favorite blessing the entire week has been the time I was able to spend with my grandmother the day my grandfather passed. Oh my gosh, I love her. I love this woman so deeply.
She and my grandfather are still married, but haven't been together for 45 years. He left her and never came back. Over the past 10+ years they have formed a nice friendship, sharing conversation on the phone a couple times a week, always sitting beside each other at family events. She loves him. She created six children with him. But she has also suffered a lot because of him, and she doesn't forget that. I'm proud of her. I admire her resilience. I adore her gift of giving and loving. What an inspiration she is to me.
As she fought back tears she explained to me why she was unable to go see him at the hospital on his last day. She told me she was able to speak to him through the telephone, while he listened in his incoherent state, and she told me that she said "I love you. And I forgive you for everything you did to me and to our family. And I will see you again."
That is what I call grace.
As long as I live, I will never forget the special conversation my grandmother and I had that night, or what it felt like to hug her in her most fragile state. And to think, I almost didn't go over to see her that night…
My grandfather's passing also gave Richie and I the opportunity to further teach Sam and Charlie about life and death, heaven, funerals, God, bodies on Earth, bodies in heaven, and paying proper respect.
They went to the Receiving of Friends and handled it beautifully. When someone mentioned to Sam that he should say good-bye to Grandpa Don, Sam looked at his body and then looked at me and comfortably said "He's not in there. He's in heaven."
Charlie was very curious about his body. He touched his hand. He asked me about his new body. He asked me if his hands were fake. He seemed comfortable and accepting of it all.
I was extremely proud of both of them. We stressed how important it is to be quiet and respectful, and to speak to and embrace all of the people there who are feeling very sad. They did all of that exceptionally well. They will grow to be better men because they had this experience.In loving memory of Donald Rae Leggett. I'm so happy to know you are standing tall watching over us tonight.