“I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” – Ephesians 4:1-2 NIV
When I was a teenager, I’d wager dollars to donuts that I was Garrison Keillor’s youngest fan. I would listen to A Prairie Home Companion on the radio nearly every Saturday night, a tradition that I carried on relatively consistently until last year when Keillor left the program. I even owned a cassette tape (remember those?) of a bunch of his stories from Lake Wobegon that I would listen to on my Walkman (remember that?) while I spent hours in the summer cutting the grass at my childhood home. I loved Keillor’s show, and could write volumes on why, but I’ll leave that for another post.
My grandfather, David Hannah, was the one who introduced me to this mild obsession. He had given me that tape, and there was something in those stories that Keillor would tell that spoke directly to who my granddad was: a focus on the simple enjoyment of the things that surround us, tinged with the humor, difficulty, politics and foibles that make up everyday life. Life can be beautiful, but it’s rarely ever clean, Keillor seemed to say. Through all of that what stood out about the fictional Minnesota community was the overwhelming goodness that was weaved in and out of each character and each situation. That, too, was my granddad. He struggled through life like everyone else. He had some major successes and some crippling failures. But through it all he was purely and unrepentantly good.
One of the daily rituals that he kept up through his entire adult life was his morning walk. A few times a year he would come up from Houston to visit us just outside of Baltimore, and each morning at 5am he would wake up, put on his tennis shoes, and go for a brisk walk. I’d often wake up and look out my bedroom window to see him, like a human metronome, pacing up and down the driveway, each step tick, tick, ticking away. I often felt embarrassed for still being in bed while he was out quietly taking hold of a new day. Although, not so embarrassed that it kept me from drifting back to sleep.
On his morning walks back in Houston some nefarious character would occasionally stop him on the street and forcibly take whatever he was carrying, which was rarely very much. At the time hearing about those muggings would make me feel sorry for him. As I’ve grown older, however, what I have come to understand is that what I should have felt was inspiration for a man who was disciplined enough to go about his morning routine no matter what happened the day before. Not in some defiant or spiteful way, but because his morning walk was an integral part of who he was. He knew that life was going to throw him hardship and pain everyday, but staying true to himself and his character was the most important thing.
When he was visiting and had finished his walk, he would come into my room and sit at the end of the bed. I’d always wake up, although I wouldn’t always open my eyes. I am a little ashamed to admit there were some times I would pretend to still be asleep. I really didn’t enjoy these encounters; I was a teenager and I wanted so badly just to go back to bed. But invariably he would wait me out and I’d pry my eyes open and sit up to listen to what he had to say. And he never disappointed. I remember him talking about things that seemed so fanciful at the time. Things like miniature computers that would allow you to take the tools of your trade with you wherever you went. Sound familiar? He always had a passion for education, and he would say, “Imagine a world where you could have hundreds of books in the palm of your hand.” I scoffed…I didn’t have that kind of dreamer in me.
David spent most of his life as a real estate developer, creating communities and helping to build out the fabric of one of the fastest growing cities in the country. But by the early 1980s he had moved on from that, and was beginning to focus on something much more daring. His latest endeavor, the work that was bringing him to stay at our house in the first place, was shooting rockets into outer space.
My grandfather was the man largely responsible for the successful launch of the first privately financed rocket into space. Now here he was, sitting at the end of my bed, telling me stories about what was next. Firing payloads for major corporations was the way he would finance the endeavor, but what really got him excited were the more ethereal opportunities: the pieces of human DNA that people would pay to send hurtling through the cosmos to drift among the planets and stars. Or the human remains that could be sent into orbit, circling the earth for eternity. Or maybe, someday, it was the people themselves. Human beings playing amongst the stars. What I didn’t know at the time was that for David, it wasn’t just the stars he was trying to get closer to, but God.
In fact, I only came to learn the full extent of his motivations a few months ago, in March of 2017. At that point in my life, as a 41-year-old husband and father of one, I was going through a bit of my own mid-life crisis. I’d turned to all sorts of people to help talk me through it, and I’d found countless supporters in that endeavor. But none of them had what David had. My granddad had a way of never letting his biases show through when he was giving advice. It was so refreshing because I always knew he had my best interests at heart. It was never about what he wanted, but about trying to help me figure out what I wanted. He also had what I thought was the perfect mix of a dreamer’s mentality coupled with an industriousness to get a job done. My grandfather believed that it took planning, collaboration and grit to make every dream come true.
David had passed away years earlier, but I was becoming more and more aware of how much I truly missed him. He was the mentor I was looking for. I began to feel a renewed connection to him that I wanted to explore, so I started to dig back into old articles and clippings I had stored away. I came across a piece titled “Mr. Hannah’s Rocket” by Stephen Harrigan in the November 1982 issue of Texas Monthly that I couldn’t remember having ever seen. It was the story about the greatest success of my grandfather’s life, the aforementioned rocket launch, and it was awash in the belief that exploring miles and miles above the Earth was the path that God meant for him to be on. Harrigan writes, “Hannah believed that the challenge he felt—to build and launch the world’s first privately financed commercial space vehicle—came from the best part of himself, and that the Creator was therefore manifest in that challenge.” I had yearned to have my grandfather back in my life, to point me in the right direction, and here he was through an unearthed magazine article discovered in a time of need, showing me the way. The message was clear: follow the path that God has laid out for you.
Even after all that, I struggled to accept what he was telling me. “It was just coincidence”, I said, that I was coming across all of this stuff right when I needed it. I was taking something from someone else’s life and making of it what I needed in my own life. My inner cynic was taking over. And then one of my pastors, Nate Lee, preached a sermon on Trinity Sunday which brought everything into sharp relief. Today is, as Nate preached it, “the day when the church celebrates the power, importance, indispensability and everlasting quality of relationship.” The everlasting quality of relationship. All along I was operating under the belief that death was the end of a relationship when in fact, in God’s world, it is nothing of the sort. God continues to deepen and strengthen our relationships with each other, even in death. What was happening between my grandfather and me was proof positive of that in my own life. I now had a much stronger, more meaningful relationship with a man who had been out of my life, physically, for seven years. But now here he was, as if back at the foot of my bed, speaking to me again. And the message was pretty clear. “Live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” This time around I am wide awake.