My granddad died when I was 16.
I know because I was in the room when it happened. I watched him die.
This is him:
And he has an incredible story.
William (Bill) Carter Brown was in the Air force as an airplane pilot during World War II, and he flew every bombing mission over Germany during his service.
He piloted a Boeing B-17 “Flying Fortress”, one of the first multi-engined bomber planes ever made by the U.S. As WWII began and the demand for them increased, they became the first modern aircraft that was mass-produced. They were massive, hence the name. Easy targets but able to carry about 4000 pounds worth of bombs.
(Left: My granddad on his B-17. Middle: My granddad with his company. Right: A picture from his Air Force training book.)
The B-17’s would fly in a box formation, so that their nine machine guns could provide overlapping fire to protect each other as they flew and were attacked by smaller fighter planes attempting to bring them down before they reached their target and were able to drop their massively destructive cargo. Unfortunately this formation caused them to be vulnerable to ground-based anti-aircraft guns, however, B-17’s were one of the most durable planes ever flown, with stories of planes losing major sections of their body (such as the tail fin) during a mission and the crew still making it home safe.
This is what my granddad flew over 30 times into enemy territory. He would pilot the plane, set the course, and then sit back and wait. Once they entered enemy territory, all he could do was sit and pray to survive while his crew prepared to drop the bombs and bullets began ripping through his plane. Once the bombs were away, he’d turn the plane around and return home, once again, hoping to survive the trip.
Definitely not a low-stress job. But he did it, and lived to tell about each mission.
After the war, my granddad came home to his fiancé, married her, had two children (including my mom), worked as a furniture salesman, and lived in Ohio.
(Left: My granddad and grandma on their wedding day. Right: My uncle – age 11 and my mom – age 5.)
I’m not sure if it was due to post-war issues or how he was raised or something else, but he wasn’t the greatest father to my mom. I don’t know much about what it was like for her as a child, but I know that as an adult, my granddad wasn’t very loving to her. There was tension around her education, her marrying my dad, and the general lack of his involvement in her life. I know it was painful for my mom.
But all that changed about seven years before his death. All that changed after my grandma died.
For whatever reason, after his wife’s death, he did a total 180-degree turn in his attitude. He was interested in my mom and her life, he was interested in me and my sister’s lives, he developed a relationship with my dad, he would call regularly to talk to my mom and hear how we were doing, and he would welcome us into his home a few times a year when we would drive out to Ohio to visit.
I remember my sister and I stayed in his guest bedroom and played darts on a cheap Velcro bull’s-eye. We’d also watch TV on a super old school-television that only got like 3 channels that we had to change by cranking the metal knob on it like we were cracking a rusty safe.
(These are two posters of B-17’s that I gave my granddad and hung in the room I slept in as a kid.
I asked to have them after he died and they now hang in my house.)
His house was old and smelled weird with outdated carpet and tile. He always had whole milk in the fridge and his bedroom had two single beds that him and my grandma slept in until she died (he kept the bed up after she died). But we loved seeing him. He was lively and funny. We usually had to shout so he could hear us but even when he couldn’t, he would smile and nod and just watch us from his chair.
He laughed a lot and loved to talk about his time in the Air force. He played with our dog when we visited and loved to watch morning game shows with us.
(My mom and granddad a few years before he died.)
The last 7 years of his life were wonderful. He was involved at a church, had some close friends, and was a loving father and grandfather to my mom and our family.
But then he got sick.
It started out with him getting dizzy spells every once in a while, one time resulting in a large bruise on his face after a hard fall.
And eventually, he ended up in the hospital.
I don’t know all the medical details of what actually caused his death, but I remember him being in the hospital for about a week, each day him getting a little bit worse.
At one point, he would joke with anyone that left the room: “Okay well thanks for stopping by! If I don’t see you again, you know where I’ll be!”
The next day he was much worse. My mom led us all taking communion together with him in his hospital room while he was still able to participate.
The next day he slipped into a coma.
And the next day he died.
We were all gathered in his hospital room.
Me, my sister, my dad, my mom and my uncle among others.
At that point machines were keeping him alive and it got to the point where my mom and uncle made the decision to pull the plug and let him die peacefully, surrounded by family.
I sat on the windowsill when it happened. It was probably the furthest I could have been from him and still been in the room.
I was scared.
I didn’t know what it would be like to watch a person die, let alone a person I knew and loved.
I looked at my granddad lying in the bed. He was usually so full of life, and now he was lying there, completely unaware of anything and unable to interact.
And he was about to die.
My mom, tears streaming down her face, was sitting next to her dad with her hand lovingly on his arm.
She looked up at the nurse and with a slight smile, gave the nod.
The nurse pressed a button (which I guess is how they ‘pull the plug’ nowadays) and walked out of the room.
The machines quieted and all we could hear was my granddad’s breathing.
His breaths got slower and slower and further and further apart.
Until he finally took his last breath in and let it out.
And then the most amazing thing happened. To this day, it might be the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen.
As he let his last breath out, his eyes, which hadn’t been open or aware for a number of days, opened.
And as they opened, he looked straight ahead towards the ceiling with a look of unmistakable recognition and joy.
And in that moment I realized he was looking at Jesus.
The look lasted for just a second, then his body relaxed, his eyes glazed over, and he was dead.
I couldn’t move.
I sat there looking at the body of my granddad, which I realized in that moment was only a physical shell and that my granddad was in a completely different place with his Savior. This was just his body. And I had seen the moment that his spirit left it to go be with the Lord. We had all seen the moment he looked God in the face, felt His presence, and then left this planet.
I couldn’t believe it.
My mom looked up at me and smiled a sad yet joyful smile as if to say: That was so cool.
I looked at her with awe and was too moved to smile back.
I started to cry. Not out of fear of pain, but out of joy and wonder. All the fear and mystery and uncertainty about what it would be like to watch my granddad die was gone. All that I felt was this unbelievable joy at having just seen one of God’s children see His face for the first time.
Like my daughter’s face when I come home from work or when you see a loved one coming out of the airport after a long vacation.
Bill saw Jesus.
And I’ll never forget the power and the beauty of that moment.
I’ve never forgotten that moment and I am so grateful for the experience of seeing my granddad become truly alive.