Sunday, March 30, 2008

When the Music Fades...Ten Years Later

Last week I was talking to my good buddy, Nino. He said he had thought of me several times in recent days, so I asked him why. He said he had recently cleaned out his office and in doing so had found some communion thoughts I had prepared several years ago. The interesting thing is that the story I referred to in those thoughts happened ten years ago. In fact, I think that the days he came across that writing was exactly ten years after the fact. Coincidence? I don't know. You be the judge. But at least I feel compelled to honor this bittersweet anniversary by presenting these thoughts here. So please indulge me by reading the following. (Communion is optional.)

When the Music Fades

From her perspective, I suppose I was sitting at about 10 o’clock…watching. To this day, I don’t know how long I held that post. I remember the view fairly well, though. I was next to her on my knees watching a spot on her neck where I could see her pulse. Occasionally my head was bowed. Once in a while I looked around the room at the crowd of faces blurred by tears. I remember looking over at my dad, with his balding gray head bowed in constant prayer as he relived a scene from long ago. A few times my gaze would flash to her look of panic as she struggled for breath, sometimes heaving her body forward. But mostly, I was fixated on that spot waiting for the next beat to come.

Only a few days earlier I had spoken to Chris, my brother-in-law, and gotten a truer picture of how things were.

“She looks really bad, Val. I know you just saw her, but she has really declined over the last few days.”

My sister never really let on about how badly the cancer was progressing. When Michal Kate was ten days old we had borrowed a big motor home from a friend and driven to Missouri to see Vicki. She came to the family farm outside Buffalo, Missouri with her kids. She was thin, but doing fairly well. I remember the laughs we shared as two year-old Connor asked to see my Grandma Edie’s breasts and how he reacted with horror placing his hands over his backside when someone asked to see his “bottom teeth.” It was the final countdown of the smiles.

We had returned to Abilene from that trip feeling pretty good about how Vicki was doing. But in that phone conversation with Chris, an urgency had been planted within me that I could not shake. We decided to go back to Missouri for another visit. We arrived on a Saturday almost exactly 10 years ago. In spite of what I had learned from Chris, I was shocked when I saw her. While she had long had the slender physique of a runner, she was now so thin she resembled a skeleton lightly draped with gray fabric. She was in her home and Hospice caregivers had her on a respirator. Still, there was a light in her eyes that could only come from a devoted aunt. We have a picture of that moment with Vicki holding Michal Kate in her lap and gazing at her with wonder. (Chris called that picture “Hello and Goodbye.) Vicki kissed her repeatedly and even wept a little.

“Every day from now on,” she said, looking over at me, “the first ten kisses you give your kids will be from me.” In saying that, she began a tradition in our family wherein I try to kiss our kids 21 times a day. The logic there is that if she gets 10 I have to get at least 11 or she wins.

During that Saturday, we were host to a steady stream of well-wishers. As night fell, however, it became clear that things were getting worse. My brother Vance and I put in a call to our dad telling him he should come to St. Louis. We also called our brother, Vearl.

Wearing her blue pajamas with clouds on them and sitting in her blue leather chair in the reading nook of the master bedroom, Vicki struggled through the night as we prayed over her. As the day dawned we felt the time was getting close. I tried to call Dad again. Colleen, my step-mom answered because at the time my dad was driving over 100 miles per hour but they were still about 30 miles out. It was a 13 hour trip from Abilene after all. I heard dad pull up and saw him run to Vicki’s side. Though I will ever be the strong-willed child who at times butts heads with my dad, my heart was broken for him that day as I watched him face the situation. Here was a man who had lost a wife to this same disease at almost the same age as my sister and who was now losing this daughter in the same way.

So again, here I was kneeling next to her watching the uneven pulse flickering in the spot on her neck. I looked around at this little band of soldiers in prayer. Some were valiantly trying to hold off the hosts of Heaven, desperately wanting some miracle by which Vicki would hold on- engaged in a struggle between the body yearning for healing and the soul wanting the same; a shared struggle with very different outcomes. I, on the other hand, felt more like a different kind of soldier- one in an honor guard dispatched to play a role in some important ceremony or to welcome some visiting dignitary because as I came to understand, there was One in our midst and we were on holy ground.

Spontaneous prayer and praise were breaking out around that room that Sunday morning, occasionally interspersed with wailing. Chris sang to his bride broken tones of some of her favorites- “Great is Thy Faithfulness” or “I Praise You, Lord.” Her three children came in and sat in her lap to be with her and to help escort her spirit to its destiny. At some point, one of our number appeared with a tray of communion he had confiscated from some unsuspecting church in the area. As we communed one last time in her company, she again heaved herself forward into Chris’ arms in a last-ditch attempt for breath and comfort. As I watched this scene wherein he held her and stroked her and sang and cried and prayed and spoke to her, I prayed to God to let her rest.

She was just so tired.

A family friend and physician was standing behind me and must have been watching the same spot on which I had been fixated for what seemed like days. Because just as I watched it beat for the last time, he approached Vicki and checked her with his stethoscope. The breathless silence broke.

“She’s gone, Chris.”

That holy moment was pivotal in so many ways in my walk. I learned so much from my sister in the way she lived and in the way she died. She was a fun-loving follower of Christ who thumbed her nose at convention and chose instead to serve people in Jesus’ name. Mere days before she died she was interpreting for the deaf at her church with humor and smiles even though she was encumbered with a wheel chair and oxygen tank. And in the months and years when she fought the cancer that robbed her of her health but never her spirit, Vicki was a pillar of strength and faith teaching so many by her example. I was one such student. And as such, I ponder…

What might have been the scene when another confused and desperate group was trying to either hold at bay or host a band of angels. As they communed one last time, did they understand the impact of that meal? Did they worship in their final moments together? Did they watch with bated breath as the course of history was altered by the death of someone about whom they cared deeply? Did they understand how they themselves had been impacted? Was their faith simultaneously shaken and formed, tested and strengthened, taken and given? Was God too busy to hear those calling out to Him?

In both cases, the Lord was there.

And what happened in one case created the sustenance to get through the other.

In both, Satan lost.

While I do not pretend that the scene of which I was a part had any significant impact on history, it was that experience that gave me more perspective on the one that took place a couple thousand years ago. It gave me a close-to-home object lesson of the victory we have over the sting of death. It gave me a more first-hand impression of how when we come together for this meal-
We pray
We praise
We lament
We share struggles
We love each other
We invite the peace of Christ into the lives of all present.


Where we at times lunge desperately into the Everlasting Arms desperate to cling to the Breath of Heaven.

As we come to the table to which we are invited by our Savior, guided by the Spirit and welcomed by God Himself, we find there One big enough to overcome this world while at the same time intimate enough to care about our corner of it. And as He whispers peace to us, we are reminded that even- or perhaps especially- when times seem especially dark, we are not alone. God has not abandoned us. Rather, once again we celebrate that He is calling us to Him. And come to Him we will as He sings over us:

How I love you. Child, I love you. How…I…Love…You…

Thursday, March 27, 2008

What Would Jesus Drive?

Remember all the fuss a few years ago when some environmetalist group asked that question we have surely all wondered: "What would Jesus drive?" Well, from here it looks like it could be a Subaru. While I am not all that surprised by the fact that it's a station wagon, the automotive equivalent to a donkey, I am a little intrigued by the surfboard on top. Then again, the wind and the waves shall obey His will...