'TWAS A GRACIOUS OFFER we extended to the family-as so many grandparents do. We thought about it carefully, then waited for an appropriate gathering of the whole gang and announced: "We are getting old and will soon leave our home of many years. We want each of you grandchildren to choose some things to remind you of life with us."

They stared at us for a moment, pondering this strange invitation. We could see them thinking through the meaning of what they had just heard. But, after questions, hugs, consoling grins and sighs-they took us at our word. 

Finally, the respectful question came back to us: "What should we pick?" So, the walk began-all around our old house. What fun for my wife and me! I am known as "PopPop," the patriarch over this gang of grandchildren. And soon PopPop was happily explaining the connections and personal history that oozes from every picture, pot, post and table-the collage of memories that drapes our home.

As the tales flowed, their pencils moved, making lists that included antique pictures where no one smiles back, a page from a 1611 Bible, Civil War bullet castings, pie-top and drop-leaf tables, rope beds-and even modern art. Clearly, they were excited by all of these offerings. We assured them that no request was out of bounds.

That is when a 9-year-old boy surprised us. He said: "I want PopPop's ashes. That's my first choice. That way, I can always have him close and talk with him."

Nervous chuckles erupted from the others-uncertain what to say-and then gentle teasing and flat-out joking about how and where my ashes should, one day, be stored.

Soon, I could see that 9-year-old boy needed a hug to reassure him that his sincere question wasn't being dismissed. I whispered in his ear: "I like your choice."

I heard his question as he meant it: I don't want to be without him; he doesn't want to be without me. As in families around the world, we had cared for each other, laughed with each other, shared stories, comforted each other when sick. We had giggled, danced, read, laughed, played, wrestled, snuggled, talked about God and girls. He knows my love. I know his love.

And so this request: "I want PopPop's ashes."

And in that request was the truth so unvarnished and hard-edged: I shall leave him before he leaves me. It is in the nature of families. It is in the nature of relationships when the circle of friends realizes that one-perhaps even the leader of the whole big gang-is destined to leave first.

Just a 9-year-old boy, but the question was crystal clear.

Across the generations, his deep was calling to my deep.

This story is also published as the first of weekly Lenten Meditations at http://www.readthespirit.com/explore/2013/2/11/join-in-an-intimate-lenten-journey-that-leads-us-home.html.