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It was Saturday, March 9, right around noon when I received a text message from my husband with two beautiful photographs of trees, and the note, “Hi from Kenya! Enjoy the day!” And, I replied, “Looks beautiful. We are just driving to Grand Ledge.”
With my dad at the wheel, and my mom up front, I felt a bit like a kid again, squished between my own two kids in the back seat. We were, indeed, headed to Grand Ledge, a halfway point between my brother’s family and mine. His birthday and mine were coming up and we like to meet up for celebratory Italian food and birthday cake, and even more so, because our kids love to be together.
JP, my husband, did not get to attend this year as his work/travel adventures pulled him away to visit an Ethiopian seminary and then meet and greet the Pokot and Maasai peoples of Kenya. We missed JP, but we also ate a lovely late lunch and shared birthday hugs all around before making the drive back home and tucking in for daylight savings time to beat us to the punch the next morning.
I received another message from JP in the early hours of morning, though I didn’t hear it arrive. I glanced at my cell phone when I woke up and saw an abbreviated notification from JP’s message, something about how he had been on that flight pattern, but was safe and fine. “Yes, I know,” I thought, “I saw those beautiful trees.” And then I woke my children, rushed them into church clothes, fed them breakfast, walked the dog, and did all the things to get us to church a fine five minutes before church began. Whew.
As I sat down, our associate pastor mentioned this latest message from JP, and I nodded in agreement that he had messaged me and that I was relieved he had made it to Kenya. After all, Ethiopia had poor internet connection and I was tired of not being able to talk to him. Kenya was expected to offer us better, more frequent communication. After that, the senior pastor also approached and asked about the message. Apparently, JP had sent a few people the same message at 5am. Huh. Then church started.
We have leaned gratefully on our church’s faithful prayer support, compassion, and genuine interest in us as a family and as missionaries for years now. Before JP left on this trip, as always, he was prayed for, and we as a family were prayed for knowing that half a world would separate us for two weeks.
As the service began this Sunday, Pastor Dan offered a wonderful word of encouragement to the congregation for its faithfulness in prayer, including the prayers we prayed together last week and throughout the week for JP and his safety. He told the congregation that JP was safe, and though he had flown the exact flight pattern the day before, he was not among the people who had died in the airplane that had crashed after taking off from Ethiopia, headed to Kenya.
It was all true, I realized as the congregation gasped. And that familiar thing happened in me, a yawning-wide realization and sudden relief that JP’s life had been spared. I had not yet caught on enough that morning to realize the horror that my life could have become. JP could have been dead, but he was alive.
My husband’s life plays these tricks on my mind somewhat too often. It might be when he’s out of the country and I have not heard from him in days or a week, but even more often it has been a Sunday morning or a Wednesday night and he’s in a car, in a snowstorm, and there’s so much ice, and I haven’t heard word of his whereabouts or his good health within my heart’s expected time frame.
I jolt myself out of these horrors more than I’d like to admit and much too often to think of “missionary” as a safe profession. The difference is that I usually do this on my own time and talk myself down by mentioning irrationality, the un-health of worry, the drama of fear.
After the service that Sunday our church hosted a Pancake Breakfast to celebrate the first Sunday in Lent, and at the same time we were packing care packages for college students, and my son Reuben was lost.
Even though it is church, and if any place could be called my son’s stompin’ grounds, it is church, there is something tied to the fact that I rarely know where my husband is that makes me want to know where my son is. Plus, I wanted him to eat pancakes. He likes pancakes, and that was his lunch.
I began to roam the church; the various stairwells and classrooms, the nursery and stage areas, the balcony and the coatracks, and so on. I’m sure he was always going just as I was coming.
Not only could I not find my son that morning, but my search was thwarted over and over again as I was stopped by the many friends and congregants who wanted to talk with me about JP, who had almost died. I noticed that a few text messages had also chimed in on the same subject. What to do? What to do in the company of these beloved people who felt so afraid, and so relieved, and wanted to gasp over it with me? Nothing but hug them, really, and be glad with them that once again, in such a good, generous way God had protected my husband.
But Reuben was still lost. And, I had known that JP was ok. I had seen the beautiful trees. I didn’t want to enter into that delusional place with people where my greatest and sadly, regular, fears were nearly true. JP was nearly dead, but he is alive.
I eventually found Reuben and held his hand tight in mine all the way up to the pancakes themselves. I wrote a card for our college-age babysitter and slipped it into a box. I felt like a shell, still fielding the gasps and hugging the comforters. My husband was not dead, but alive.
On the Friday before that Sunday, I had to go back for a second mammogram and a breast ultrasound. They said little over the phone except that they had seen something in the first mammogram that needed more scrutiny. They gave me the “diagnostic” codes to check on pricing with my insurance company.
That day, the medical building was very quite. No music played, and not even the big, foreign machines gave off a little hum. I had three exams in the space of an hour that Friday, and in between each I would sit very still in the quite room with a worn copy of Cooking Light magazine that advertised, “The Farewell Edition.” Once, far down the hall I heard a women sneezing, violently and repeatedly for several minutes. Somehow, it did not help.
While I waited for the doctor to analyze the third and last test, the ultrasound, the stillness of the room made my sludgy brain think only one thought, that before I died I must ask my husband to marry someone again, someone who would love my children tenderly. And it wasn’t but a moment later that the tech returned to the room and told me that “Everything checked out good.” How does ones get up from that room, a room where I very seriously pondered my own death, and go? Tenderly, I suppose. I went to the locker room and put my shirt back on, and then I went to pick up my children from school. I was not dead, but alive.
And then Monday morning came, and when we drove past the school yard, there were no children on the playground. The morning playground generally teems with running, bouncing life. Instead, this morning there were flashing lights on a police car in front of the school. The playground aid waved me down as my car crept along the strangely desolate curb. She could sense my confusion, my hesitancy. “It’s ok, we’re not on lockdown anymore. They must have caught whoever was causing a problem nearby.” She said that with a reassuring smile. “Hi, Reuben,” she said, looking in the window of the van.
If there is anything more likely to stuff your heart in your throat than the words, “Lock down at school,” I don’t know what it is. But the playground aid had a walkie talkie and said everything was fine. She had smiled at me. With a kiss, I let my children leave the car and walk to the playground like it was every other morning. The police lights had been turned off by the time I drove out of the parking lot. My children were not dead, but alive.
Death came awfully close a few too many times in a few short days; much closer than I want to be realistic about, engage with, or have unexpectedly pop out from around the corner. Even for a mild worrier like me who regularly says goodbye to her traveling husband, death is just not on my mind that often. Along with the vast majority of people, I live like I’m alive. Death is somewhere else and for someone else to deal with, at least until it shows up three times in a row.
It all comes back to my mind now as I think of Jesus, who yesterday in our church calendar experienced death on the cross, and now today we sit with his death. What does that yawning chasm of death look like and feel like? Do we hold it, or does it hold us? What thoughts jump to mind? What feelings seize our hearts or lodge in our throats?
Death makes us feel and think things that we would not normally feel or think. What shocking truth does Jesus’ death mean to you or me? Today we know about death, but tomorrow life. In just a moment, won’t we know like we know that Jesus is not dead, but alive? What does it do to our hearts to know that the one we thought was dead, is actually alive?