A Grandaddy of a Death


Ernest Keyes lies in what’s left of a plywood coffin. They buried him without flourishes or even a vault, only a piece of tin lain across the flimsy box top. I suppose they did that because they had no money to do more. Or maybe their patience had just run dry.

Ernest Keyes was my grandfather. Paregoric took him early, my mother just a dewy teenage girl.  To ease some rock-hard hurt, self-doubt, or maybe just to feel heavenly in his private hell for a while, my granddaddy turned to opium.  All over the mountains of Western North Carolina in the early 20th Century, opiates ran on stout legs, legal and easy to get.   Opium turned my mother’s father into an addict, then turned on him, hard. He let opium cheat him out of living even before he died. He cheated me out of knowing the man people loved.

I was a small boy when my Granny told me how he died. He had come home “full of that stuff” again, worse than ever. Dressed in sobriety, she said he was kind and beautiful. That opiate made him a devil of hell on earth. She told of him nearly turned the supper table over staggering back to the bed, where he flopped, face-down. She left the house, pulling the door to latch and muttering out loud to herself, “How much longer do I have to put up with this?”

Over her right shoulder came a clear, tender male voice. “Not long,” it said. She turned her head. No one there.  The hollow where they lived near Marshal, North Carolina, lonesome as ever.

By the time she came from work, the house stood dark as a well. She got a light on, made way back to the bed. “The flies had gotten to him,” my Granny told me. “I believe he was dead before is face hit that pillow.”

That day my Granny had a metaphysical experience with a real-world ending of a man.

Drowning in that addiction, he had ended himself well before he flopped down and died.

My granddaddy, as my mother saw it in her childhood, would pump his veins full of paregoric and any other opiate he could get, any way he could take it. She told of seeing an old glass medicine dropper whose tip he shattered off to make a poor-man’s syringe. At the spring behind the house, blood would tumble down his arm and off his finger. The track marks must have looked more like the work of gun shot than needle tip.

A trip to a sanitarium in Kentucky didn’t save him. All the loving and praying and enabling of his wife and two children didn’t either. But my mother remembers seeing her daddy sitting in the sanctuary of the little Baptist Church up the road from the house. Alone in there. I have to believe he came into that church a beggar. A traveler off his way, praying down mercy. Perhaps God found that early death the only true mercy the man could have. The only gift fitting his occasion.

My granddaddy proves it can get too late for an addict, far sooner than the addict thinks. And that a man or woman can die of addiction well before lying down.

I share all this to remind us all the opiate crisis of today amounts to a spray of gasoline on an old mortal fire. Opiates are nothing new under the sun. Heroin is old and new again. It’s new companion, Fentanyl, just a reincarnation of feel-good death serum.

Thursday night on Chronicle, Chasing the High, WYFF4 will train a 21st Century lens on living death as old as my granddaddy’s. Opiates, and the chorus of lesser drugs around them, are piling up young bodies and shattering families and human hearts. The folly of enabling will make an appearance. Human love of an addict too often only ushers Death through the door. And the way opiates take form now, Death can show up well before Addiction gets its shoes on. One pill of heroin and Fentanyl can kill with equal force of a gun.  No addiction required.

You’ll see, and feel, the effect. Please don’t turn from it. Lean into it. Watch this work with the children in your life. Rest on no comforts about Christian schools and good boys and girls. They get no immunity from this. Death can slip through such doors on quiet little shoes. It has. It will again.

My granddaddy let opium swindle me out of feeling his hand to my back. I came into the world far after he died and never knew him. I wanted to, I still do, for I have heard of his beauty. The big gems of his tears he cried as he carried my mother back to the farm where an aunt and uncle were raising her. She refused to live at home.  She was a child afraid of the father who loved her.  But somehow he loved that opiate more. Needed it more. Not long after, Death became the only companion who could stand him.

My granddaddy died humbly. Quietly. His mortal being now only a strip of dirt and lingering bone under a cheap hunk of granite in a little mountain cemetery. But if one soul hears of this and turns on heroin, turns to life instead of living death, then the death of Ernest Keyes is one Grandaddy of a departing. It will matter. The prayers he prayed alone somehow answered, after all.

Chronicle, Thursday night, 7:00, only on WYFF4


13 Responses to “A Grandaddy of a Death”

  1. Louise Campbell Says:

    Look forward to seeing this on Thursday. What a sad story your granddad! Lou

    Sent from my iPad


  2. Katherine Schonhar Says:

    Michael, this is such a familiar story. My grandfather, a minister, in Portsmouth, Ohio. He ran a mission for addicts, homeless family’s, alcoholics ect. My mother, her mother and her six siblings lived above the mission. My mother always said it was soap, soup and salvation was his motto. My mother played the piano for the services and her mother and sisters sang for the church services. Mother always said how wonderful he was and what a good man he was. He died in 1943 a few months after I was born. Well, before my mother died, her brother came to visit her for a birthday surprise, and he wanted me to know the truth. She was 80 and her brother 84. He knew I was never told the truth. It seems he was moved from the mission job in Portsmouth to Charleston, West Virginia to get help and assist at the mission there. It was a sad time for her siblings still at home. My mother was married, and her brother in the army at the time. He said it was bad at times living with all of this, so when he graduated he joined the army to get away. He laid it all out for me away from my mother who had Alzheimer’s at the time. He never got over the opium addition and finally was without a job. My grandmother had really never worked, had to work in the mission kitchen to have money. The family did live at the mission as they had done in Portsmouth. I am not sure I needed to know all of this, as my grandmother always told us what a great man he was and how he saved so many people and preached at the jails. I do know my mother did not have the idyllic life we were told about. I don’t know why people hide facts about their family’s, history, but I did like the stories my grandmother told, better than the truth! My grandmother died in 1968 still loving her Bill.
    Love you, Michael. Love your writings.

  3. Bridget Says:

    Boy, I love to read your writing. You have a way with words that I envy, a way of describing the dark reality of the human condition with beautiful hope. It’s a miracle of God that a boy with a grandfather who died of a drug addiction would grow up to have a platform to greatly warn (maybe even save) others of its devastating results. I’m thinking those prayers he prayed were answered.

  4. Vickie Bannister Says:

    Well written amid a tear in my eye.

  5. This touches home. I can relate to this in so many ways in my family.

  6. Mary Kannarney Says:

    My daddy was a handsome well like man from an affluent family in a small town. He was voted Class Clown of his high school class mates. With a wonderful sense of humor, he was the friend you loved to spend with.

    My mother said the man she married was a victim of the war. He left one man and came back withdrawn carrying the weight of many demons from the Pacific.

    When I was born during hard times. Our family left the small town and moved to the big city of Greenville so that we could blend in undetected and flee from the gossiping rumors. We were told not to get too close to anyone because they might find out of our ugly secret.

    We never know what causes someone to chose substance abuse. My advice is don’t try to cover it up and seek help. Take a good look at your situation and the effect you have on you family.

  7. Sylvia Bryson Says:

    Greenville, South Carolina and wherever your writings and broadcasts go are blessed. You are a unique, honorable and talented man who reaches our hearts and touches our souls. Thank you, Michael

  8. Michael, you are an amazing man! You’re a great newscaster, and I had no idea you’re a writer. Good job!!!

  9. Joan Bentley Says:

    Well said, Michael.

  10. Libby Medlin Says:

    The story of your Granddaddy is sad and the story of your Dad was much more sad. You are writing stories that should be required reading in rehab. Thank you for the stories of your life that you share with us. You have a gift for the written word. Thank you.

  11. tom gentry Says:

    The only two people that really knew the horror of his death was himself and the Almighty Savior Himself

  12. Sheryl Cason Says:

    Thank you. We lost our son Daniel 10 months ago. The pain and anguish is still fresh. I cry every day for my son. He left behind a beautiful wife and three young girls. He fought hard for himself and his family but could not beat this demon.

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