It seems like yesterday, but it was 12 long years ago that my Pappa, James Melvin “Bucky” Waters, passed away.
Pappa was from a very large and athletic family, raised on a working farm in rural Yazoo County, Mississippi. Growing up, my two other brothers, Jim and Wyatt, and I watched Momma and Pappa model for us how a loving couple should act. In the early 1960s we lived in the small town of Florence, where Pappa was the coach and principal of the school and my Momma, Lucy, worked also.
It was a beautiful spring day. Pappa was outside raking up the leaves from the recent winter into the ditch to burn. He was also trying to get rid of the fire ant beds that had popped up from a hard rain overnight. The way we did it in those days was to pour gasoline on the fire ant bed, toss a match on it and run out of the way of the flames.
On this particular day, I was supposed to be inside with my Momma. But being the rambunctious two-year-old that I was, I had slipped out and was standing mesmerized, watching my Pappa burn those fire ants without him knowing I was there. I got too close and caught fire myself. Without thinking of himself, Pappa instantly went into the fire and rescued me, but in the process of getting me out of the fire he was badly burned. It’s one thing to say you love someone. It’s a powerful lesson to have someone show their love in such a way!
Our house was on a short, dead-end road, so not many people drove down there unless they were visiting someone. I honestly believe that Harold Lusk was an “angel” sent directly from God as he drove down and saw the commotion. He immediately went into action, taking my Pappa and me to O.E. Perry’s Rexall Drug Store for some immediate help, then on to the Baptist hospital in Jackson another 20 minutes away. It would be the beginning of several painful months of multiple surgeries for the both of us. My Pappa’s hands were badly burned. In addition to my internal burns, I had third degree burns mostly from my waist up, requiring many surgeries and skin grafts over the next 14 years.
As a boy I remember it as a very hard and trying time of adversity for me and my family. As a father now, I can only imagine the pain and grief my Pappa felt. It was also a lonely time for my brothers who went to live with my grandmother way down in Hattiesburg while my Momma stayed to care for us in the hospital. But through the pain came an awesome blessing as I was raised to believe that God had saved me, and that He had saved me for a reason – something I believed with all my heart!
Fast forward to a single moment in 1999. I was at home reading a message in the church bulletin by John Case, my pastor at Christ United Methodist Church in Jackson. The message was short, simple, to the point. It said:IF YOU HAD AN HOUR TO LIVE … Who would you call? What would you say? and, WHY HAVEN’T YOU SAID IT?
That simple message touched me as I thought back to that life-altering moment decades earlier. So I sat down and wrote my Pappa a two-page letter telling him how much I loved him, how much I respected him and how I appreciated the way he and my Momma had raised us. I told him that I hoped to be as good a husband and father to my family as he had been to us. Pappa was a man of few words – putting that love into words was not something that was required in those days. But I knew he loved me by the way he treated me. His actions spoke.
For some reason I felt the urgency to get the letter in the mail that day. The carrier had already come, so I drove to the main post office downtown and put the letter in the drop box. My father got that letter in the mail the next day and read it. I know this because my Momma called me and said that was a nice letter that I had written, subtly pointing out that it was addressed just to Pappa. I told her I felt the need to write Pappa and share with him these things, and that seemed to satisfy her curiosity as to why I hadn’t included her.
The next morning Pappa had a massive stroke that left him unable to talk for the rest of his life. But I felt that I had been blessed by God by acting on His message and writing that letter to Pappa. It gave me the strength to go on during those final two long and trying years of his life. Often I wish I could talk with Pappa just one more time, but I feel so blessed to know that I shared with him how much he meant to me, how much he has molded me and how much I loved him. I can’t imagine what I would have been feeling if I hadn’t.
I have a favorite saying that guides my life and actions: “What’s it all about? LOVE!” Share and show your love for others! Please, take the time right now to let those special people in your life know how you feel. You never, ever know if you will have that opportunity to do it again.
Carpe diem … seize the day!
If you’d like to know how to do a tribute to a parent like Joel did, check out The Forgotten Commandment by Dennis Rainey. This FamilyLife resource will walk you through the process of honoring dad or mom in a special way.
Joel Waters has carried on the athletic and parenting legacy of his father. He played baseball at the University of Southern Mississippi and lives in Jackson where he attends Christ United Methodist Church. He has been married to Susan Steel Waters for 32 years and their children are Sam, Swayze (kicker-punter for the Toronto Argonauts) and his wife Kendal, and Shelby Waters.