This week’s post is more personal than school leadership related. Recently, my wife’s father-in-law, David L. Fulbright, passed away.
He was a former teacher, minister, and counselor. He was also a great story-teller and Papa. As the family sat by his bedside in his remaining hours, I had some quiet moments that brought back memories of my own childhood that I wrote down. Later as I was flying home from a leadership event in Atlanta, I pulled out the story and finished it—bringing my thoughts full circle from my own childhood fears to the thoughts on David’s passing.
This story is a tribute to his memory. Maybe it will provide perspective for you when you’re facing your own challenging moments:
My Aunt Ruby had a color television, and every Saturday I’d ride my bicycle a mile up the gravel road, past cow pastures and the pole barn, to sit in her living room floor and spend hours with Bugs Bunny and American Heroes. If I stayed till lunch, we would eat Pimento-cheese sandwiches or fresh strawberries in late spring.
One Saturday when I made it into her driveway, I dropped my bike in the grass by the front door and suddenly stopped. Swarming by the front steps around her geraniums were honeybees. I was eight years old, and even though I could bait my own hooks and shoot a gun, I was terrified of bees.
Once my dad had let me help him pull honeycombs from his beehives. He had dressed me up in coveralls with gloves and boots, taped my clothes around my wrists and ankles for safekeeping, and placed a netted hood over my head. Absent of a gas mask, I’m sure I looked like a backwoods version of a first-responder donning his HAZMAT suit in preparation for entering a chemical spill.
Daddy was wearing the same, and when he lifted the lid on the first boxed hive with his gloved hands, I could see webs of droning bees, masses or crawling, buzzing, stingy creatures swarming the honeycombs.
“Look down here,” he said as he removed one of the rectangle combs dripping with honey. “This largest bee is the queen bee. All the worker bees are male. They protect the hive, find pollen, and mate with the queen bee who lays eggs for future bees. If another queen bee is born, it is either killed or leaves to start its own colony.”
As he removed honeycombs into mason jars, I looked up from the science lesson and could see dancing, brown bees swarming around Daddy’s hood. And then I glanced around, taking in the entire scene, realizing how closely surrounded we were by buzzing, stingy bees.
Just then, Dad looked back at me. “Hold still. I think a bee has gotten inside your hood.”
I panicked and began to cry. Dad knew this wasn’t going to end well. With a single bee trapped inside the hood and buzzing by my ears, I was beside myself with fear. He stepped forward and began swatting my hood trying to kill the bee before it could sting me. I began screaming. He kept swatting. Smack! I could feel the sting to my scalp.
He rushed me to the house and deposited me with Mom who wrestled the beekeeper clothes off me and treated my wound with Calamine lotion while they tried to soothe me by saying, “Don’t worry. When a honey bee stings, he loses his stinger which makes him die.” A small part of me felt better knowing the culprit would meet his fate.
As I stood outside Aunt Ruby’s door, the images of bee stings flashed before my eyes. In reality, these bees were probably enjoying a lazy diet of pollen without a thought in the world of the peering boy. And even though there were probably only six or seven or them, in my eyes this was a swarm.
I was frozen with fear and just stood there crying. I have no idea how long I stood there. It never occurred to me to walk around the side or back of the house. All I knew was there were bees between Aunt Ruby’s living room and me.
Minutes later Aunt Ruby came out the front door intent on morning chores. She glanced up surprised to see me there. “Willy? What are doing? Why are you crying?”
She grabbed me by the hand and pulled me into the house. I was safe again. Past the scary bees and cozy in the refuge of my Saturday cartoon haven.
I remembered this story the other day when I was sitting by the deathbed of my father-in-law. He was only in his mid-70’s, but age had taken his mind, and over a number of weeks, he had begun to lose touch with reality. He had forgotten how to eat or drink. He had forgotten how to talk. He had fallen asleep and couldn’t wake up.
There was no way to know what his thoughts were as he lay there. Maybe he was reliving his own childhood. Maybe he was remembering the joys of watching his mother mixing cake batter, or his children being born, or the bliss of holding grandchildren. Maybe he was preaching his first sermon or teaching a classroom of eighth graders about Martin Luther King, Jr.
Or maybe he was afraid—thinking of the pain, difficulties and regrets that he had known in life. As the seconds lengthened between each short, shallow breath, we knew this was the end. Suddenly he stopped breathing but then began again. It was a roller coaster of emotions as we gathered around his bed. My wife told him how much we loved him, not to worry– we were all safe and taken care of.
His sister reminded him that soon he’d see their parents and other loved ones. We sang Amazing Grace. And then he stopped breathing for good. For a moment, I could feel a sensation in my mind or soul like being caught between two places—like I was witnessing a tug-of-war between heaven and Earth.
Maybe he was already in God’s presence. Or maybe angels were escorting him between the here and there. Or maybe he was standing outside the gates of eternity when he halted like I did outside Aunt Ruby’s door. He could see the doubts or fears that made him wonder if he would have the courage to step forward.
I’ll never know what it’s like on the other side until it’s my time, but I like to believe at that moment, God swung open the front door, looked at him, and said, “David, What are doing? Why are you crying?” And with a loving, fatherly grasp, he grabbed him by the arm and pulled him to safety…past the fears, past the doubts into the glowing refuge of safety, warmth, and relief.
And as God wiped away his tears, he reminded him that Death had lost its sting. The culprit had met his fate. There were no more regrets here. He was whole again. He was home…in a place where he had all the time he ‘d ever want for family reunions, pimento-cheese sandwiches, strawberries and time with the One who takes away all our fears and makes all things new.
Now It’s Your Turn
Holidays can be both exhilarating and overwhelming at the same time. So don’t forget to connect with others who can encourage and offer hope even during tough times. If you’re reading this during the holiday season, I hope you’ll take time to focus on what matters most, reconnect with others, and recharge your emotional batteries so that you return to your work with purpose, hope, and determination to serve others.
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