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The Great Reunion Beyond

This article first appeared in the February 5, 2001 issue of Christianity Today and is reprinted with permission of the author.

He just wasn’t hungry. It was a magnificent triumph that night when I got him to eat some sautéed chicken and pasta along with his usual bowl of fruit cocktail, but that was a charade for my sake. The meals my aunt Kathy brought down every night were left untouched in the fridge. His previous diet of canned chop suey and ice cream bars was beginning to look healthy to us; after all, some calories are better than none at all. But he didn’t want to live anymore, which was why he didn’t want to eat anymore, either. The facts added up, but that doesn’t mean they made sense to me.

I’m still too young, I still have too many dreams and delusions, to be ready to die. I tell myself I’m not afraid of death because I trust the promise of the resurrection, but that is a pious lie. Death is the great terrifying beyond, and God (seriously considered) is pretty terrifying too, especially when I realize that death will someday remove the curtain of matter and sin and creation groaning in labor pains that buffer me from his countenance.

Meanwhile, as I live, death is nothing but the heartless divider, separating me from my departed loved ones. So I call it the enemy, the instigator of chaos, the void and abyss and predator and devourer and jaws of hell and eternal pit of nothingness without a single spark of redeeming value — death, the senseless plague.

But my grandpa was ready to die, and for sensible reasons. He was nearly 80 years old. He had lost his wife to malpractice three and a half years before, and his heart had never healed from the break. His health fled after my grandma, leaving arthritis and depression behind, which in turn dragged off my grandpa’s vocation as preacher of the Word and administrator of the sacraments.

Funny thing about my grandpa: He retired because he lost one of his legs to circulatory problems, but for the next 15 years he kept up interim preaching anyway, sometimes spending two years with a congregation. The loss of his leg meant nothing, but the loss of my grandma meant everything; it put him out of the pulpit for good. With no wife left to love and no words left to preach, Grandpa did not see the purpose of remaining alone on this earth. Death was no longer the enemy but the gateway to the beloved.

As death crept closer, it was starting to make some sense to me too. I was insulted by it. Death shouldn’t make any sense, I thought, ever. Any talk of good and timely death smacked of euthanasia logic, and I hadn’t yet learned to distinguish the two. But life, in an apparent act of conspiracy, was pointing us toward death, almost cheerfully.

Dangerous Questions

I spent the last year visiting my grandpa every couple of months, every time seeing how much worse he was, not eating, not dressing, his cheeks sinking into his face, his hair standing on end so he looked a little like Einstein.

Yet in the middle of all of this, unprecedented things were happening. Ever since I’d declared my theology major in college, Grandpa had not failed to alert me at least once per visit to his reservations about “gals” in the ministry. But sometime in that last year, I guess, he’d forgotten that I’m a “gal” and decided the time would be better spent discussing the meaning of the preaching vocation.

His spontaneous sermons were more like Psalms than Leviticus and never neglected, in his grand old Lutheran way, to put Christ and the Cross squarely in the center. And when these recitations were followed by my reservations about me in the ministry, Grandpa, an ex-Jonah himself, took me with him back to the U.S. Navy of World War II, to his early adulthood formed in battle far from the family, to the death of a dear friend, to the witness of a Catholic chaplain — all of which provoked him into seminary to reclaim his sorely tested faith.

He got rotten grades the first year, treating the academic requirements as incidental to his spiritual purpose, and left that summer with no intention of returning. But we all know how that story ends: God always wins. I learned that, after Koine Greek, Grandpa took up Slovak, not Hebrew, knowing already then that he was called to serve the Slovak- American community that had raised him.

His devotion stretched all the way to the homeland; the last decade of his life was spent translating theological works into Slovak for the believers in the old country, deprived of the freedom of faith that their immigrant brothers and sisters had gained.

Is it dangerous to ask if I would have heard any of this if Grandma were still alive and he were not so lonely without her? Is it presumptuous to wonder if his own knowledge of impending death pushed him to tell me all these things? Dare I look into my own heart and ask if I would have visited so much had I not known that our time together was limited? Maybe even asking exposes a skewed perspective. The fact is that I had these things, these times, and these conversations, and in retrospect they make an awful lot of sense.

I felt a weird possessiveness about my grandpa’s death because I was the first one to know it was coming. We all knew, vaguely and unhappily, but I really knew. I drove up to visit him in the hospital (a therapeutic rehabilitation, we were told by the staff, nothing serious) right before taking off for the summer. Nobody visited Grandpa for a while because the hospital was so far away. So nobody else had seen him or warned me of what was coming.

Embraced By Yellowed Arms

I walked into the room, looked around for him, didn’t even recognize him at first, emaciated and bruised and unkempt as he was. And when I finally recognized him, I knew. This man is going to die, my brain screamed, and I didn’t know what to do with that. I tried to sit and chat with him, but the nausea was rising and I was starting to faint. I ran from the room on the pretext of needing a drink of water, hurled myself into the chapel, and sobbed as hard as I could for five minutes. Then I picked myself back up again, wiped my nose, and came back to tell Grandpa that I had a cold and that’s why my eyes were all red. He accepted it.

We talked about his medications, tubes, and nurses; the Yankees; the cousins; my curriculum at school; plans for the summer; the finer points of Slovak grammar. After an hour he was tired and I couldn’t contain my grief much longer, so I left with the promise to return the next day on my way back to school. That night the conversation at Mark and Kathy’s was about nothing but Grandpa and how bad it really was. My alarms got the ball rolling to bring him home, to die in peace among his family.

The next day stank of the end. In two weeks I was going across the ocean to Slovakia (to his people, I realized, and therefore to my people too) and not returning for three months. The inexorable process of death was going to take place before my return in September. I put on my brave face. We talked for an hour and then I tried to go quietly and cheerfully. But it didn’t work. As the words “Can we have a prayer together?” slipped out of my mouth, so did the entire contents of my tear sacs.

I had never asked that question before. Our family does table prayers and bedtime prayers, but just-because prayers don’t happen — and so my asking gave me away, even to myself. The remarkable thing was that Grandpa didn’t question the tears. He knew as well as I did why I was crying. It’s just that he wasn’t frightened by it. He was ready for what I wasn’t, and so he had to give the comfort to me.

He opened his arms — his yellowed and bruised, loose and atrophied, tired and dying arms — opened them wide to me. I threw myself down onto his chest, wondering if I might accidentally crack one of his brittle ribs, and he wrapped those dying arms around me. I gripped them. There was something miraculous about them. They were so unlovable, objectively speaking, so ugly and powerless. They looked like death. They pointed to death. They even called out for death. But to me, they were the embodiment of love, love right in the middle of death. I wanted to touch and hold them, to examine their discolored spots, to keep them near because they were telling me that death can’t annihilate our love.

His yellow hands stroked my hair, and I started to pray, not very well, not very eloquently, not very coherently. He prayed too, calmly, quietly, humorously even. He said, “Let Sarah be a good conservative theologian for her church,” because to my grandpa, “conservative” is the logical equivalent of “confessional and orthodox.” I had to giggle through my tears.

But then, a confession and an admission. He prayed, “Lord, I didn’t know what to think of this business of letting women be ordained pastors. But I see that you have called my granddaughter into it, so I think it must be a good thing after all.” And there it was, at the very end: The man who had baptized me was now blessing me to carry on his work in the world. It made sense; death was making sense. We said “I love you” about five times, and I left, never expecting to see him again.

In a way I wanted to leave it at that, the perfect goodbye, the two precious hours snatched away before death snatched them all, to have it end there. That would have made sense to me. But the sense had to encompass a lot more than me — there was that big sprawling family of mine that had to be made sense of too.

Everything happened pretty fast. By the weekend there was a northward migration of Hinlickys to the Catskills, trekking our way from various points on the eastern seaboard up to the hospital to join together, to take communion in his room together, all of us brought together. Not pretending that death wasn’t coming, not denying all sense to the reality of things ending, but finally figuring out how to make it right, how to have a good death.

If any man deserved a good death, it was my grandpa, and if any family needed a good death, it was ours. Our tears were purified from the anger and resentment of my grandma’s death; they were turned into praise for a life well-lived and love freely given.

There was a wrinkle in my calm, sensible acceptance of my grandpa’s death. I had thought about putting off my trip so I could go to the funeral, but finally there was no way of knowing how long I would wait for death. So I went. My grandpa left this earth just as my plane was leaving the North American continent: two hours too late. It was bitter for me. I’d missed my grandma’s funeral too, and this felt like a double affront. Everyone else was there to sing him on to glory. I had to put a clamp on my grief and keep it turned off, to the point that it was almost impossible to turn it back on again later.

And yet there’s sense in that too. My absence required an explanation to the gathered mourners, and at the wake my dad gave it — and not just an explanation, but a story, the story of my grandpa’s blessing on my ministry at the end. If I had been there, the story wouldn’t have been told, but the story being told changed minds and moved hearts. Grandpa was still preaching to us from beyond the grave.

And then there was this mysterious fact that I was in Slovakia. It was my grandpa’s land, his language, his love, his people served in the American diaspora, his interest that got us back there at all. We each went our way, me to Slovakia and him to heaven, carrying on the love of our family and faith into another generation. The work I was planning to do took on extra meaning, uplifting those people and honoring Grandpa’s memory. The timing of it made sense. It all made sense.

This is the sense in God’s plan that I still resist because it hurts. There is no resurrection without death, real death. Death, where is thy sting? I see you as the enemy, and you are an enemy because you separate us. But your divisions have been twisted and turned against your will to usher us into the new life and new creation. Death reunited my grandpa to my grandma, and someday all of us to them. Ultimately that is the only thing in this life that really makes sense to me.

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