The above portrait was taken in March 2016, a couple weeks after my dad informed me that Papaw had been diagnosed with Leukemia and given up to six months to live.
That led to the bucket list trip to California to see the great sequoia trees, which was a great last hurrah with Papaw.
The only problem was that it wasn't the last hurrah at all--he went on to live two more years!
My wife and I were due to have our daughter Scarlett in October, and we were really sad about the possibility that Papaw might not live long enough to meet her. Then Scarlett came along and Papaw was doing well and got to meet her. Then the Cubs won the World Series, which was an incredible moment for my Dad and Papaw as lifelong Cubs fans, and I thought man, Papaw got to see his granddaughter AND see the Cubs win the World Series. A heck of an October, and a heck of a way to go out!
...but he didn't go out.
He kept traveling and pitching in horseshoe tournaments and generally just lived it up, to the point where we got used to having him around. The fact that he would die soon got pushed to the back of our minds. We enjoyed another Father's Day with him, and more birthdays and Christmases. We not only enjoyed having him there, we enjoyed the most gentle and sweet version of him that we'd ever seen.
That's what made it pretty tough for us when he got pneumonia and began his downward spiral of health.
He'd had close calls and hard days before, but something told us that this was it. Dad was texting my siblings and I about how Papaw was really not doing well, and finally he made the tough call to tell us that yes, we should probably head over to Papaw's house asap.
Two years prior Papaw was told that his only medical option was an expensive one that might work but would only ease the pain and wouldn't prolong his life. So he said he wasn't going to spend the money just to die anyways, and he famously chose to say,
"I'm gonna live until I'm not."
How's that for an old-school approach to fighting cancer?
So at this point there was nothing really that the hospital could do for him. He was on hospice and in his own bed in the home he'd been in for nearly 30 years, prepared to travel the very last leg of the path he'd chosen.
Growing up I remember Papaw often had his Polaroid camera out at family gatherings.
I still remember the way he'd pop right in, take a quick shot, and then casually pull the film out as he backed out of the scene quietly. He was the only person in my life who I ever saw use a Polaroid camera, now that I think about it. So that was my nostalgic association with polaroids.
So for a long time I've wanted to shoot with a polaroid camera, but didn't know where to start. Well, I got my start this past Christmas when my parents got me a Polaroid OneStep 2, a super cool updated/revised version of the original OneStep camera.
What a great gift for a nostalgic photographer!
I've had fun learning it and carefully choosing when I want to take a $2 photograph, and as I was preparing to leave my house to go to Kokomo and see Papaw, I decided that this was such a time. I wanted to take a polaroid of Scarlett before I left so that Papaw could hold it and see what she looked like that day. Papaw loved her, and to me having him hold a familiar-feeling polaroid print would mean more than showing him a photo on my phone.
When I showed it to my Dad he gently tucked it into Papaw's hand, hoping that'd make it easy for him to see if he did wake up. I don't think he ever did see it, but I loved that he held it and that it was in his room with all his other family photos.
Papaw had moments where he'd wake up and ask for something but for the most part he was laying with his eyes closed, not communicating or responding.
The hospice nurse and chaplain told us that most likely he could still hear us, so we spoke encouraging words and sang songs over him.
Linda suggested I play "Freebird", and I sang the most meaningful version of it that I've ever sung. We sang several more songs and hymns, including a very sweet and sentimental version of "In The Garden" with his sister Janet. She told me that she thinks the music helped him sleep a little better.
I'd brought my Nikon D750 but left it in the car, wanting to make sure no one felt invaded by it before I went out and got it. But I also had wanted to just have my own experience without a camera body between me and the sentiments. It was really hard on me to see Papaw like this, and to know that he probably was knocking on heaven's door. I'm very sentimental and I also had regrets about not spending more time with Papaw when he was well, so I needed to process through those emotions without a camera. My sister was sweet in consoling me and encouraging me that we're all going to have some regrets and that Papaw didn't actually need much from any of us.
I finally did go get my camera after asking everyone if that was ok, and I'm so glad I did, because these would turn out to be some of our last moments with Papaw.
Most of the sweetest and most sorrowful moments didn't make it into my camera. And I'm ok with that.
Like the moment that Uncle Jeffy walked into the room and saw Papaw in this grave state for the first time. My uncles are loving but they're not emotional, and I'd be hard-pressed to remember the last time I saw Jeff cry. Even now it was just watery eyes, but that was significant for him.
It was significant for me, too, because I was still kind of gauging everyone else's response before I decided how I felt, and seeing the look on Jeffy's face when he came in told me that yes, this was probably the end.
Chris was surprisingly calm and at peace. My dad was at peace too, but still somewhat shaken by Papaw's sudden downturn. I think we'd all thought that Papaw would die more suddenly when he finally did go.
It's crazy how death has a way of shifting the way you see everything about a person.
I looked around his house and realized that I'd never really paid attention to just how many photos he had of his friends and family everywhere. And I realized that most of them had been there for as long as I could remember. He had a large Olan Mills type of photo of him with my sister and I in the corner of his room from when we were probably three and four, which would have been 1988, and had probably been in that spot ever since he got it.
Papaw wasn't great about articulating the way he felt about the people he loved, but now I saw that in his home he had surrounded himself with images of the people that meant the most to him.
Keenan gave Papaw a last hug before he left, just in case. I began to take photos of Papaw's home the way he had left it, including his signature New Balance shoes where he'd apparently left them for the last time.
I went back to Westfield for a meeting and then brought Karissa and Scarlett back to Papaw's house that evening.
We realized it was Scarlett's first time at his house since we usually did things at my parents' house. We love that she got to sit in his chair at least once.
The mood was reverent but not dire, as I think we all felt at peace with Papaw. Scarlett provided a nice spark of joy in the living room where our family had some quality time together.
Karissa and I took Scarlett in to see Papaw, and the timing worked out that it was just then that Papaw woke up to ask for something.
He looked up at me and smiled, and very warmly said, "Hi, Cameron!" and then I held Scarlett close to him and he ruffled her belly and said, "Hi, Darlin'!"
Then we had to step out to let Linda and his nurse care for him, and he went back to sleep after that.
That brief interaction with him was more than I'd hoped for, as I was hoping that he'd just be able to sense Scarlett's presence as he slept or something. These turned out to be my tender last moments with Papaw, as he would pass away the next evening.
I love that his last words that I witnessed were his expressed joy upon seeing Scarlett.
The next evening my sister Candace tearfully called me with the news while I was making dinner. I stayed composed on the phone but after I hung up I collapsed and sat down onto the kitchen floor, finally pouring out my grief. I felt it all throughout the process but couldn't really release it until the death was final. Karissa was sweet and sat down next to me and held me as I cried. It was hard to believe he was actually gone.
In the next few days funeral plans were made, and Dad and Chris worked to go through pictures to scan for Papaw's celebration of life slideshow. They brought some of Papaw's old VHS tapes to the Monday evening viewing at my request so that I could digitize them and use that footage in the video that we'd show at the end of the service.
Papaw was cremated, so we didn't have an open casket, but seeing his hat and jacket hanging on his old johnboat felt almost as final.
They did a great job creating a tribute to Papaw's life that people could touch and see and engage with. The presentation included a tribute to his military service in the marines, his horseshoe accolades (he really was very good), his fishing gear--including a couple of his best catches, and a neat piece that my dad had made for him commemorating the Kokomo Lady Kats back-to-back championship in the 90's. Papaw was a big Lady Kats fan, and Dad was able to get the original plate for the front page headline and have it signed by the starting five members of that championship team.
The military service at the beginning of the funeral was stunning.
It was a powerful picture of honor, reverence, and patience, as they slowly and deliberately handled the flag and presented it to my Dad and Uncle Chris. The 21-gun salute and playing of taps provided a striking and honorable sense of closure on Papaw's life. You can see this segment in the first part of the video posted below.
I sang "Simple Man" as a tribute to Papaw, and then sang "In The Jailhouse Now", one of Papaw's old favorites that makes his family smirk as they recall hearing Papaw sing it to them when they were young. Papaw wasn't much of a vocalist, but songs "In The Jailhouse Now" and "Way Down Yonder On A Yankety-Yank" were just the type of songs that he'd venture out to sing when he was feeling fun.
My Dad and Uncle Chris did a great job with the eulogy, sharing the journey that they went on as a family to create a new legacy for the Sprinkle name. After Papaw's chaplain shared a few encouraging words, Candace led the song "10,000 Reasons", and then we played the tribute video that I'd put together.
You can watch the whole service here:
Afterwards I was naturally feeling very sentimental.
I'd grown up in that church, and so had my mom, so our family has many memories in that room. Watching Scarlett run around on that purple shag carpet was a little surreal. We figured out how to turn off all the lights except for the purple star in the center of the ceiling, and it was kind of neat that way. To me nothing visually says "Morning Star Church" like a big, purple sanctuary, and the soft lighting created a nice condition for portraits.
My great-grandpa on my Mom's side founded this church, so it was neat to have a few moments alone in there with my daughter.
I really wanted to get a great shot of my dad before we parted.
Despite having a long and sometimes crazy life Papaw didn't seem to carry any resentment or bitterness whatsoever. He kept his life simple while still enjoying progressive technology, including an enthusiastic presence on Facebook. Despite all that he did wrong in the first half of his life, he made a lot of things right in the second half.
That's my Dad's story too.
Throughout the week-long process with Papaw's last days my Dad carried himself with both reverence and joy, grief and peace, sadness and hope, and a confidence in the redemption that he and his family has found in Jesus Christ. And you can see all of that on his face in the photo I took.
I was very proud of the way my dad honored his dad in every conversation and every decision, and it challenged me to do a better job honoring people myself. Papaw and Dad both evolved to become instruments of peace, and that's a legacy I look to continue as I let God do a similar work in my own heart.