“How precious are Your thoughts, O God. How vast is the sum of them. If I were to number them, they would outnumber the grains of sand. When I awake, I am still with You” (Psalm 139).
May 3rd, 5:00 a.m., found me in a taxi (thanks, Mark and Karissa) bound for the Vienna airport. Given that I’d only booked the ticket at 5:00 p.m. the day before, four or so hours of sleep was pretty good. I hadn’t planned to be going home to Knoxville mid-semester, mid-week. But, no one plans the day of his Home-Going, either.
Backing up, Sunday evening I’d made my usual call home, managing only a short conversation with Mom and Hannah between Dad’s needs in the midst of a particularly rough day. I was content to postpone a proper conversation for the next day or so, sensing they weren’t really free to talk and also feeling the encroachment of a new work week about to begin and the need for a good night’s sleep. I certainly didn’t – and neither did they – guess the significance of the following few hours; I went to bed, oblivious to unfolding events six time-zones away.
Around 2:00 a.m., the last vibration of a missed call woke me. It didn’t take much creativity to see who’d called and know something was up. I listened to Hannah’s message and called right back, relieved they’d figured out the international calling code for Austria and found my cell phone number, but pulse-quickening with the hint of what was up on the home front. …Mom and Hannah were on the way to the hospital, following an ambulance. Dad’s rough night, morning, and afternoon had grown critical by evening.
What to do? Pray, yes, and then sleep. What more can one do from nearly 5000 miles away?
When the phone rang again at 4:30 a.m., I wouldn’t have had to answer it in order to know why Mom was calling. Dad had passed away either en route to the hospital or upon arrival. Mom and Hannah were back home, a doctor friend had come by and insisted they have a cup of something hot to drink, and both were going to attempt to get some sleep.
Sleep on my end seemed pointless. I perused airline websites for schedules and fares and, while waiting an hour on hold with Delta, got ready for work. The day was strange. I taught the three lessons I was directly responsible for, delegated work to willing colleagues for the following two weeks, met with my pastor and his wife, returned a library book that was due, booked tickets to fly home, made and received an array of phone calls, looked at stunning photos from my roommate’s weekend away in Slovenia, and welcomed four friends who dropped by to be of whatever help they could.
Note: I don’t intend to give, and I don’t suppose my readers want, a full report of the following two weeks. It would be impossible, even if anyone wanted it – any sort reflection would find that events raced ahead (albeit, without chaos) while emotions lagged (lag) behind, with no prediction possible of when fact and feeling will reunite. So be it.
Until you experience it, you don’t know just how much there is to do after someone dies. A myriad phone calls are demanded, and funeral and burial arrangements take time, even if a burial plot has already been acquired and even if a friend has already crafted a beautiful chestnut oak casket that was ready for when it would be needed…. Thankfully, we had two weeks to plan it all. And, at least we were all free to drop pretty much all our normal day-to-day tasks, freed up even more by the meals provided by friends and neighbors.
(The verse on the casket is what Dad told Mom his favorite verse was: “I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” — Psalm 27:13.)
The first weekend I was back, Hannah’s fiancé Peter and his dad and sisters came for a visit. This had been long-planned as a chance for the future in-laws to meet each other, and everyone felt that the plan should proceed. We had a very good time getting acquainted, which included taking a hike in the Smokies (and observing both wildflowers and snow) and visiting the farmer’s market and the UT Trial Gardens.
Knoxville’s “International Biscuit Festival” was one reason the Westons came down — not so much for biscuits, but because Hannah had an art show opening. Every piece had to be somehow biscuit-related, which meant everything from advertising, to self-portraiture, to allusions to Knoxville history, to Antarctic exploration, to word play and quoting poetry.For a gift for Mom for Mother’s Day, I managed to get a small garden planted – beans, corns, yellow summer squash, zucchini, and tomatoes – all somehow without her catching wind of what I was up to in the back yard.
After the Westons left on Sunday, we had several days to gather the many remaining details together for family coming from out-of-town for a memorial service the following weekend. Hannah and I spent a lot of time sorting through family photos (with plenty of comic relief along the way), and with Mom we planned a memorial service…date and venue, pastor to officiate, friends to share memories, special music, reception afterwards (actually, we didn’t plan that – it was completely taken care of by friends of Mom’s at church), housing to arrange for out-of-town guests (graciously provided by friends and friends-of-friends), etc. Mom continued to spend uncountable minutes on the phone. Hannah put together a large collection of photos we’d chosen, and I practiced prelude music. One strange task was to decide together on materials for a lining for the casket. Hannah was the seamstress, determined to craft something beautiful to match the finely crafted casket, even if the three of us were the only ones really to see the finished work.
Family and Services
Between times, we had a few visits with friends and family locally – whether folks simply dropping by or something planned. Each a welcome gift.
By the following weekend, relatives from Mom’s side of the family were all arrived. Really a remarkable number came –from Missouri, Iowa, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Arizona. Holder relatives drove in from Nashville and Virginia. Peter came a second weekend in a row from Pennsylvania. (Alethea, sorry we didn’t get a photo with you before you headed home!)
Sunday we had a hymn sing at home in lieu of going to church elsewhere. Actually, the afternoon memorial service was like a really good church service, complete with music (hymns for prelude music, congregational hymns, “The Trumpet Shall Sound” from the Messiah, and Michael Card’s “Emmanuel”), Scripture (a reading from I Corinthians 15, for one), a wonderful homily from Dad’s good friend and fishing buddy Peter Stone (Scripture and stories woven together to honor Dad and exalt the Savior), and memorable stories (some endearing, some funny – some revealing sides of Dad I didn’t really know, or things I’d overlooked in the tyranny of the present or forgotten due to his decline these past years) from a variety of friends and family. The chapel at Cedar Springs was totally full, and there were lots and lots of people to try to visit with afterwards. Later in the evening, all the relatives in town came to the house for more time together.
Mondays’ burial service was much simpler and smaller. Because Dad was in the Navy for a few years, he chose to be buried at the Veterans Cemetery, a tract of land looking over the Holston River east of town. It seemed rather foreign to me, but the service included a 21-gun salute and the playing of taps (quite impressive). The best part of the service was singing “Be Thou My Vision” – the acoustics were excellent, and people sang parts. The pastor’s words were perfectly suited, I thought…excerpts from Psalm 90, John 17, Romans 15.
In the late afternoon, the relatives still in town (just 10 of us by then) gathered at the house – first there were some rounds of croquet (a Holder – and especially Ron Holder – favorite), and then an unhurried dinner and conversation and stories.
Monday before the burial and again on Tuesday there were lots of goodbyes to say, as family headed back home around the country. I changed my return ticket from Tuesday to Wednesday, in order to have one evening yet with Mom and Hannah. Now I’ve been back in Vienna two and a half weeks, but any report on that will have to wait.
So, that’s all for now.
p.s. Any personal comments please send to my email address rather than posting them as comments here. Thanks.