Independence Day

photo via Bob AyersOur church’s patriarch and oldest member, Mr. Elton Earp, is celebrating Independence Day in heaven. He died after 10:00 a.m. this morning after battling prostate cancer for two years. He has finished the fight, he has completed the race.

He was 94 years young. He proudly served his country as a Marine in the Japanese theater of war in WWII.  As he said, “God was with me. I never got hurt, never got close to getting hurt. I came back from the war with only a fungus under my toenail, thanks be to God.” How fitting is it that this solider went home to be with Jesus on July 4th?

Elton lived in Durham his entire life. He married but was never blessed with children of his own. He watched his first wife Stella, his teenage sweetheart, die of complications from a stroke. Soon after Stella’s stroke, Elton’s father came down with an illness, and Elton brought him into his home where he also died under his care. He married again many years later while in his 70’s, and cared for his second wife Ida who died from cancer. From personal experience, Elton was well-acquainted with illness and death.

Elton has extended family who live outside of Durham. But his local family, the one he depended on to get him places and care for him in his final days when he lost his sight due to macular degeneration and encountered other health issues, was his church family, the folks of Ridgecrest Baptist Church.

Not that they want credit for what they’ve done, but Donnie and Rose Ann Palmer could tell you about plenty of sleepless nights and fetching and going for Elton, because if not anything else, Elton was meticulous about life. Items in the house and storage shed that he designated for people, His affairs that were to be concluded a certain way, the item-by-item details of his funeral service—all of this was handled on his terms.

Donnie and Rose Ann’s son Jason, who is now serving in Slovakia as a Southern Baptist missionary, became extremely close to Elton in his young adult years and “adopted” Elton as his grandfather. When Jason and his wife Charity packed up to go overseas for a three-year stint with no possibility of return, Elton knew this meant he would never see Jason again, at least on this side of glory. It was a heart-wrenching goodbye for everyone.

Donnie and Rose Ann stepped in as guardians and caregivers for Elton during his last months and have allowed him the grace to die, with dignity, just as he wished, within the walls of his own home.

Several of us gathered at Elton’s home last evening, knowing his time was near. He’d not eaten or drunk anything in several days and was lying mostly unresponsive in the hospital bed in his bedroom.  Yet he was keenly aware of everything being said and done around him. We had enough parts amongst us to harmonize and Al led us in a verse of “In the Garden,” knowing the comfort old hymns and gospel songs had brought him. After we sang, we noticed tiny tears that gathered in his eyes and we gently wiped them away.

I got the chance to tell him I’d been re-listening to his tapes he recorded about his childhood and old Durham, the way he remembered it. Fascinating stuff!  His last tape was recorded a year ago, on July 4, 2011. I told him his stories made me laugh and cry and that I was so glad I had these memories of his to listen to whenever I wanted.

All of us around the bed cried some more. We each told him we loved him. It took gargantuan effort, but Elton stirred a bit. He pulled his hand from underneath the sheet and moved his lips silently in response. We watched him silently try to form the words, “I love you, too.”

A dear saint of God. Who loved the Lord and His church. Who served faithfully wherever he was asked. He’s home at last! We can rejoice with him, that he’s beholding his Savior’s face, he’s hugging sweet Stella’s neck, he’s greeting all those people he’s known through the years and they’re all welcoming him to heaven.

Welcome home, Elton. We’ll see you, when we see you. . . .

Lookin’ up,





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