I emailed Grandpa only per my dad’s suggestion: He can’t remember your new last name. For some reason, I threw in my new contact information—phone number, address of the home my husband and I bought, and an updated email address. Now, of course, I’m staring at an (intentionally) missed phone call notification from him, knowing I should return it at some point.
Things changed when I learned of his extramarital affair.
Ten years ago I wouldn’t have been so tentative with Grandpa. Our homes have always been hundreds of miles apart, but even so, he was no mystery to me then. By the time I was born, he’d had 40 years of music ministry under his belt, and every visit to my family fell on the heels of some mission trip and came with gifts of CDs by Christian artists. He and Grandma would spoil the grandchildren with adventures around the country in their RV and pepper us with questions about youth groups and camps, music and church. They couldn’t hide their enthusiasm for the little believers following in their footsteps.
But things changed when I learned of his extramarital affair. I was home from college for the summer, assisting accountants downtown, resting, counting down the days until I would see my friends again. Grandpa had a stroke on the other side of the country, and the nurse told us that someone else was visiting his hospital bed after my grandmother would leave.
That fall I returned to classes comatose, slowed down by questions heaped onto my wobbly identity in Christ. I attended weekly Bible studies and wondered if I should trust my leader. I watched the employee of a campus ministry “resign” because police caught him trespassing on private property, and I guess that undermined his witness? I revisited memories of my grandfather and wondered which ones spoke of unadulterated love and which ones may have been laced with deceit. All this time I had thought Christians’ biggest errors were gossip and gluttony. I didn’t think truly reborn believers could—or would—inflict traumatizing wounds. But Grandpa sent that framework crumbling beneath me, and I sat in its rubble for a long time.
He replied to my email the next day: a sentence or two about his and his new wife’s health, a few more about their church and the choir, questions about our new house and where we’re going to worship. He even included a link where I could see him directing the choir on select Sunday mornings. Did I want to watch?
What still scares me about my grandfather’s affair all those years ago is that it seems it could happen to anyone. It could be me—with my profession in ministry, paid to love the Lord with my whole heart and care for others, insisting my own misguided agenda is righteous, trustworthy.
In fact, it was once me. In my first year as a working professional, I developed an emotional intimacy with someone at the office, when I was already in a serious relationship. And it was easier than I’d like to admit. I had just left friends at college, crammed things into my childhood bedroom, accepted a job completely wrong for me, and wasted my days commuting and then numbing with Netflix. I was lost and disappointed, and that’s all it took to start walking in my grandfather’s rotten shoes.
I don’t return my grandpa’s call for a couple of days. When I do, his wife answers and we speak for 20 minutes while he drives home from choir practice. Then he and I exchange mostly small talk about my little nephews, our new home, my husband’s birthday, and how the two of them missed our wedding.
It was just a week before the ceremony that I’d found out he wouldn’t be there. His new son-in-law was deathly ill, and they didn’t feel comfortable flying out—a fair reason to decline. I wish I could have received it that way, but I was too ready to be abandoned by him, and it felt like betrayal all over again.
What still scares me about my grandfather’s affair all those years ago is that it seems it could happen to anyone.
My grandpa says he was disappointed to miss the wedding. But his son-in-law ended up dying the day after.
Where would Love have gone? It’s hard to say—Jesus celebrated a wedding and attended to the sick and left the dying to die. These things are no surprise to me after years of reading Scripture, but I think if I had been there alongside the Lord, I would have second-guessed Him: Is this how the kingdom of God is built, Jesus? This is the most loving, redeeming thing for You to do right now?
What do I say to my grandpa? It’s easy for me to think the best place for him that day was in a chair next to my parents, rather than beside the bed of a son he’d known only a handful of years. And it’s easy for me to discount all his time leading believers when I look at his relationship with my grandmother. But just as I wouldn’t have expected Jesus to let Lazarus die, or anyone else for that matter, I shouldn’t expect my grandpa’s life and witness to be transparent to me, either. God is too powerful and His kingdom too nuanced for our transgressions to void whatever healing comes from our dirty hands. And the same is true for my grandfather. I may remember how Grandpa lost my trust, but God has always been working this man’s—and my—best intentions and worst mistakes in tandem, and likely in a way I’ll never comprehend.
“I’m glad you stayed with your son-in-law,” I say into the phone.
My grandfather and I hang up. What now? I wish there were a parable about a grandfather-granddaughter relationship I could reference. But I think the next best step may be sending him a few wedding photos, in a file format he can easily download. I’ll include my siblings and their spouses, cousins, family portraits. And maybe one Sunday, I’ll feel up to sitting at my computer to watch him direct the choir.
Photograph by Ryan Hayslip