Farewell to a Patriarch

Now that the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season is over, I have some time to reflect.
Christmas at our house seemed to have gone smoothly this year. The decorations went up quickly and almost all of the lights seemed to work, the children had their Christmas lists prepared and we got all the shopping done. Even Christmas morning went off without a hiccup – no one complained about anything they did or didn’t receive. On Christmas Day, dinner preparations were underway and it was almost dinnertime. I had silently said to myself that this had been one of the most peaceful Christmases in quite some time.
However, at 3:40 pm on Christmas Day, my world seemed to stop and the day became a blur.
As I was getting ready to get dinner out of the oven, my cell phone rang. The caller id said it was my mom (who lives in a different state than me) and I thought it strange that she was calling in the middle of the afternoon on Christmas Day. As I answered the phone and could hear her voice, I knew immediately that something was wrong. Nothing could prepare me for the shock I was about to receive.
My mom called to tell me that my grandfather had just passed away.  At first, I couldn’t make sense of what she was saying because nothing what she was saying seemed possible. The details were sketchy, but I was able to ascertain that my grandfather had been at my uncle’s house celebrating Christmas when he was alive one minute and gone the next. I frantically searched my house for my husband, blurted out what my mom had told me and then I just sat and sobbed.
My grandfather meant so much to me. He was the person I could always call and just talk to. In many ways, he played both the role of father and grandfather for me. 
What at once was a day to celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior, it now became a day to mourn the loss of a loved one. My grandfather had gone home to be with His Lord in Heaven.
We arrived in Boston on Saturday afternoon and I caught my breath as we approached the landing. Would Boston be the same without the welcoming hug of my grandfather?
We met up with family and each of us tiptoed around the inevitable…the sending off of our beloved patriarch.
Nothing could have prepared me for the visitation on Sunday afternoon. I knew how much my grandfather loved his God, his country, his family and his neighbors, but I never fully comprehended how much all of them loved him back until that service. New England is cold in December and this particular afternoon was not only cold, it was pouring down rain. For over two hours, people stood in line (some of them in the rain) to pay their respects and say goodbye to my grandfather. We heard story after story of a man that was loved, admired, respected and for sure was going to be missed. I saw children crying….children who viewed my grandfather as their own adopted grandfather. As much as all these people were there to console us, the family, I felt compelled to tell them how sorry I was for their loss as well and to remind them that my grandfather loved all of them dearly.
As the visitors tapered off, my husband and I were standing near my grandfather’s casket. A young woman and young man walked in. She was sobbing. We looked around at some of our family members and tried to figure out whom this young woman was, but no one knew. Finally, my husband asked them how they knew my grandfather. This is a story that touched my heart.
This young 25-year-old woman named Taylor had only known my grandfather for nine months or so, but that nine months changed her life. She worked as a bartender at a local restaurant and every Tuesday afternoon for nine months, my grandfather visited this young woman, had supper, brought her a joke and just talked to her about everything. He poured his life into this girl just like he had to me so many times. As I listened to her, I pictured Jesus sitting at the well with the Samaritan woman. My grandfather was gentle like Jesus. Even in my rebellious years, he never judged me, never said an unkind word and always just loved me through it all.
My grandfather once said to me during a visit, “You are a better mother than I ever imagined you would be.” That word of encouragement has gotten me through many days as a mom. I’ll miss his gentleness for sure.
The funeral and the burial are always difficult because of the finality of it all. Up until the morning of the funeral, I couldn’t bring myself to say goodbye. I knew it was going to be difficult and I could only do it once. As the minutes became less and less before they would close the casket, I knew the time had come. My heart broke and I once again sobbed. The service was beautiful and exactly how he would have wanted it.
At the cemetery, he was buried with full military honors…something that was dear to his heart. The day was bitter cold, but the sky was clear and the sun was shining. My grandfather disliked the wind and the leaves…especially those of his neighbors that blew into his yard. So I found myself smiling while listening to the Marine Corps bugler as a slight gust of wind blew over his gravesite and a single leaf blew over the top of the flag-draped coffin. I’ll cherish that gentle whisper from Heaven forever. 
We made arrangements with my aunt and uncle to visit my grandfather’s house the next day. As we entered his beloved “Poet’s Circle” neighborhood, his friend’s flagpole flew the American flag and Marine Corps flag at half-mast. His friend, Ed, had done this everyday since my grandfather had passed. This was also the same man that stayed the entire four hours of the visitation and attended the funeral and burial. Ed claimed it was his small way to repay what my grandfather had done for him. Ed had recently gone through a bout of cancer with many daily treatments of radiation. My grandfather had driven him into Boston everyday for his treatments without ever asking for anything in return. That was the kind of loyal, dedicated and humble friend my grandfather was.
We spent some time at my grandfather’s house just going through every room. I tried to take a snapshot of it all in my mind. This had been the only home I ever knew of my grandparents because they had lived there since 1969 and for a slight period of time, my family had lived there with them as well. As I walked from room to room, I realized that my grandfather had every intention of returning home Christmas evening…everything was in it’s place. James 4:14 came to mind, “Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” That verse had never been more alive for me than in that moment.
We had many great moments and memories with family during our visit to Boston and it wasn’t until we returned home to Dallas that the reality of all that had happened set in. Strangely, while in Boston, I felt a closeness to my grandfather because of all that was familiar. But now that I am home, I am reminded that I will never again hear his voice, endure (yes, if you knew him you know exactly what I am talking about) his sense of humor or listen to his endearing message he left every time he called, “Hello, this is your children’s handsome great-grandfather calling.”
The Holy Spirit has gently reminded me that my citizenship is in Heaven (Philippians 3:20). I know that someday we will be reunited and I know that my grandfather will be there among many waiting to welcome me home. For that, I am very thankful.

This photo was taken of my grandfather on Christmas Eve...the night before his going home.

William C. Helliesen - January 8, 1926 - December 25, 2013

Erin Olson

Founder and CEO of Sandalfeet Ministries


Yvette - January 5th, 2014 at 2:30pm

Beautiful Erin.

Chris - January 5th, 2014 at 4:49pm

Nicely written sis

Zora - January 5th, 2014 at 8:38pm

Erin this is beautiful. I am sorry fornyour loss, but what a legacy you have.

JenittaEskew - January 5th, 2014 at 9:55pm

So sorry for your loss, I know that heaven is rejoicing with him there. What an amazing life and impact he had on so many.

Geoff Langos - January 5th, 2014 at 10:14pm

He was an awesome inspiration - I always loved seeing him when I was growing up. He was always smiling, cracking jokes, and just fun to be around - he defined being a "happy man!" My daughters had the opportunity to meet "Uncle Billy" and I am so glad they did. The first time, we were living in Boston (temporarily) and he invited us out to lunch and then over to his house to see his trains. Recently when his sister, Florence, passed away, we all saw him again. As soon as he got to the hotel (for her funeral) and realized their was an indoor pool, we went over to the mall to buy a bathing suit and jumped in with all of them! That's just how he was. He lived in the moment and made everyone laugh. We should all inspire to live life with a smile, impart genuine kindness, and be friendly to everyone. This is how I will remember him.

Linda Helliesen - January 8th, 2014 at 2:43pm

Erin, thank you so much for sharing your well-written, heart felt article. Your grandfather, my uncle was a wonderful and loving human being. The 4 Helliesen brothers always had a twinkle in their eye, a story to tell and and a joke to share! They were all like that! I wonder what their father was like and if he was as happy go lucky as the others. (My research shows that Grandfather Haakon / Harry Helliesen could be very difficult and I think out of the 4 brothers, my father probably followed closer to that path, most of which was caused by a drinking problem.) While isolated from my father's brothers and sisters, I held and hold a great respect for these young women and men who were children of a immigrant father - whose grandfather went missing around the time their father came over from Norway. Each one of the "boys" went into the service of our country with pride, enthusiasm and patriotic honor. Each of the boys were dedicated to their families. I met and spent time with your grandfather when my Uncle Harold passed away. We spent hours talking and I learned a lot about his life before and after his mother passed. You honestly glean insights into someone after a loved one has passed. After my father passed, your grandfather and I spoke several times and your grandfather helped me, and contributed to information, when I was doing the research on the Helliesen story / memories. He, and my remaining aunts and uncle filled me in on so much information and stories ... much which could never be used for various reasons - but all stories fun to hear about. I am sincerely happy that I had the opportunity to meet your grandfather - no, I really didn't know him - but my father was always fond of his youngest brother. RIP and God Rest your soul Uncle Bill ... a true inspiration to many!

Bill Bergeron - January 15th, 2014 at 9:04am

You have a wonderful gift Erin, thank you for sharing this.

Elsie - July 6th, 2014 at 11:16pm

Beautiful, inspiring story.