"I hate Christmas", my eight year old niece sighed aloud as we scrunched down together on grandmaís vinyl couch lying shoulder to shoulder playing video games on our iPads. Since we donít visit our nieces as often as we should I greatly treasured this bonding time we had together and also welcomed any peculiar discussions that might come my way. What are uncles for, right?
Taking my eyes off the computer screen for a moment I gazed curiously in her direction and asked what she had meant. "Because everybody's always dying on Christmas", she replied matter-of-factly. What I love most about children is that unlike adults they are never afraid to speak what's on their heart. It was Christmas Eve and grandma's passing just a few days earlier still wore heavily on this precious little oneís mind. Grief sharing can be good medicine and while this appeared to have been my nieceís way of coping with the loss of her best friend, I was certain she was also trying to make sense somehow of what Christmas will now be like without her.
The Great Equalizer
No matter who we are whenever death presents itself we suddenly come face to face with our own mortality. Death is the great equalizer and for some any thoughts about dying and the afterlife can have a tendency to make them feel a bit uncomfortable. In our humanness we will either shy away from the subject completely or simply ignore it altogether. It's also one of those paradoxes where on the one hand it really isn't anything new; like tax season each year Ė itís inevitable! On the other hand no one knows when their hour will come and so the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes writes this: ď...like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon themĒ (Eccl. 9:12 ESV).
What I experienced this past week as we mourned the loss of my beloved mother-in law really tested my faith; in particular my belief in all that Iíd learned thus far from the Bible regarding every personís destiny. For instance, why are there so many differing opinions about where we go when we die? Do we all get a free pass into heaven? Chrisí passing also showed me that whether natural or tragic, there can be some good that comes about after a loved oneís death. It also reminded me that death has the potential for opening up doors to spiritual discussions with family members and the importance for Christians to be ready ďin season and out of seasonĒ (2 Tim 4:2). While death may never take a holiday we must remember that it does not have the final word over our lives. With it also being such a sensitive subject we must keep mindful that we donít have the right to judge anyoneís eternal destination. Only God has exclusive rights to that!
Busted Hearts, Chicken Parm, and Deviled Eggs
On the evening of December 20th while my wife and I were tucked away in our warm little beds for the night, nestled within the quiet suburbs of South Western Pennsylvania we were awakened by what was to be the first of many phone calls from my sister-in law (Jeannie) and brother-in law (Jay Jay) in New York. Tina's mother had not been feeling well over the past week and what would have normally been a routine shopping excursion at the mall that Friday evening turned into a harrowing trip to the hospital. Mom was having a heart attack! Calls from Jeannie came pouring in as she and her boyfriend Tony trailed behind the speeding ambulance that was escorting her to the medical facility. With what seemed like every hour Jay Jay and Jeannie alternated between one another in providing us with updates on momís condition throughout the night. Then as mom went into surgery late that evening the phone calls stopped.
Tina and I understood that this could be the end and so we prayed that the Lord's will be done. Not because we didn't want to see mom again let alone for her to be healed, but because she had spent the past twenty years in anguish over the loss of her husband Jay while suffering through one debilitating health issue after another. We arose early the next morning to a phone call from Jeannie with the news that mom had finally passed. With heavy hearts Tina and I packed our bags for what was to be our longest trip back to New York. For nearly seven hours doctors labored intently at trying to save mom's heart but all efforts proved to be in vain. You see momís heart had been partially clogged and the blood which tried to find its way back out into the body had eventually made its own exit. Mom literally died of a busted heart! No doubt as a result of the heavy burden she carried in seeking justice for her husbandís murder all these years, but also for the hundreds of incoming wounded souls she tended to through the Parents of Murdered Victims (POMV) support group which she also happen to be chapter president of as well.
In the days leading up to the viewing our lives were a dizzying array of funeral arrangements, food, family, bouts of crying, phone calls, airline flights, and more crying. Christmas came upon us quickly and words of despair regarding the holiday season being "forever ruined" or "never being the same again" hung heavily in the air like Aunt Aprilís chicken parm and deviled eggs lying in my gut. But as in all things I was hopeful that this too would pass.
Coming To Our Senses
At the funeral home while making arrangements for mom's viewing and cremation, Tony and I had an interesting discussion about coming back to the faith and why it was so difficult for him to do so. Death has a way of opening up doors to spiritual discussions like this. So after a while I asked Tony to identify the one thing that was preventing him right now from making his way back. Without hesitation he asserted that it was his "belief". I appreciated his honesty and we soon found ourselves knee deep in a discussion about the story of the prodigal son. How we got there is still uncertain but I can only surmise that in the Holy Spiritís great wisdom He knew that we can all relate to the recklessness of our youth. In many ways we are similar to the prodigal in that we are either: too proud, too afraid, too comfortable, having way too much fun, or any number of other excuses which prevent us from coming back to the Father. The truth is we can come to God at any time, and just like the dad in this story our Heavenly Father will run, not walk to receive us! But allow me to interject a word of caution here: we mustn't wait for the dust (that is our bodies) to return to the ground from whence it came in order for us to come back to the truth which weíve known since our youth. By then it will already be too late! Much like the young man in this parable, we must also "come to our senses" (Lk 15:17).
Steady My Knees O Lord!
After our discussion my sister-in law Jeannie asked if I could lead us in prayer and say a few words before a small gathering of our immediate family on the last night of mom's viewing. I gladly accepted and as quickly as Friday evening came so did our plans change. What began as speaking before a small comfortable group of close family suddenly turned into a standing room only event filled with extended family and friends! As my eyes panned over the large sea of people that flooded the tiny funeral home my nerves were beginning to get the better of me. I quickly took notice of every clearly marked exit sign in the building and potential flower arrangement which would provide the best cover and concealment should I have needed it. But I quickly regrouped and refocused, remembering why I was there and who we came to remember. Therefore failure was certainly not an option!
In the eulogy I gave that night in honor of Chris' life I wanted to strongly emphasize Godís sovereign hand upon our lives because regardless of who we are and what we do our Creator has each of us in His mighty grip. I also wanted to acknowledge Chrisí compassion while serving the "nation" of hurting survivors within the Long Island chapter of the Parents of Murdered Victims (POMV) organization and the many lives she had touched along the way. She was a remarkable woman, one who will be sorely missed.
A Few Last Words
I cut my speech shorter than I had originally intended and so I began to ad lib a few last words before closing out in prayer. In my closing improvisation I asked my wife, her sister, and their brother to set aside their differences and honor the lives of their father and mother. I also encouraged the extended family and friends in attendance to live each day as if it were their last because although mom's medical issues were no mystery, Chris' death came upon us rather unexpectedly. Somehow we can deceive ourselves into thinking we always have more time with our loved ones.
Regardless, knowing mom had died from a busted heart was a reminder that if we are not cautious then the cares of this world could really wear us down if we let them, especially when we try and shoulder the burdens all on our own. Jesus said, "Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28). Even though the task at hand may be too difficult for us to withstand or the death of a loved one more than we can bear, when we reach for the hand of the Prince of Peace we can be sure to find refreshment and strength for our weary souls.
Christmas may never be the same after this and neither will any other holiday for that matter, but my wish for this coming new year remains, and that is through mom's death may God bring our family even closer together.