I’ve written a lot lately about my grandfather, Pop Harold, and how his time on earth is nearing its end. It’s a stressful time for my family because of the uncertainty: of what’s going on, of when it will end, of how we’ll respond to the next thing. We are all collectively holding our breath, and we’re at the point of either passing out or gasping for fresh air.
But it’s not just my family going through this. Right now there are at least 16 families at my church who are in the same situation, holding their breath over an older family member waiting to die. You can see it in their faces that they are exhausted; their eyes sag from lack of sleep and register no spark or life when you ask for an update. They are planes, endlessly circling in a terrible holding pattern that cannot be broken by their own effort, only by the whims of nature. They speak a shared language comprised not of words but of sighs and shoulder slumps and brief flashes of grief trying to break into being.
So this life, this shared sorrow mixed with a spiteful hope, has been on my mind a lot lately, not just for the sheer volume of it but for it’s most despicable and obvious feature: we all want things to be different. Despite our helpful demeanor, we all want this time in our lives to go away.
We just have a hard time deciding how we want it to exit.
I came across something in my reading today that I wanted to share. It comes from a monk known as Brother Lawrence (c. 1614 – Feb. 12, 1691), a French Christian renowned for his practice of the spiritual discipline of simplicity. The story is shared that Brother Lawrence’s conversion came while he contemplated a tree in winter. Here’s a summation of the story, from the Wikipedia entry on Lawrence:
During the winter, Herman looked at a barren tree, stripped of leaves and fruit, and realized it awaited the sure hope of a springtime revival and summer abundance. Gazing at the tree, Herman grasped deeply the extravagance of God’s grace and the unfailing sovereignty of divine providence. Like the tree, he felt seemingly dead, but held hope that God had life waiting for him, and the turn of seasons would bring fullness. At that moment, he said, that leafless tree “first flashed in upon my soul the fact of God,” and a love for God that never ceased.
I spent a lot of time today considering his metaphor: we are all like trees in winter before God. Barren, lifeless, and without anything to offer, we exist only to be unconditionally loved by One greater than us. We enter the world as a sapling and leave as (hopefully) an aged oak. But the beginning and the end are the same – us, naked, with nothing to claim for ourselves, dependent upon the grace and providence of God.
My grandfather and many of his generation are now trees in the depths of winter, and we, the children and grandchildren who have grown accustomed to refuge and sustenance beneath their branches, find ourselves lost. We see the barrenness and struggle for life and we feel a resentment for what we’ve lost. And when our loved ones, as my grandfather frequently does, ask us why God has left them to dwindle and die a piece at a time, we cannot think of an answer.
I know I couldn’t. Until today.
My grandfather is still here so that the people whom he has loved so long and so well can return that love to him. The outpouring of thoughts and prayers are a gift back to him, one that he may not fully appreciate (being so near home as he is) but we family members will always remember. As I told him, only family cries at the funeral of a bad man. When a good man dies, we all feel the loss.
I have Bradford pear trees in my yard that I hate with a passion when they are at their strongest. During that spring season, when they bud and blossom and stink up the neighborhood and foul my sinuses, I secretly imagine going Updyke on them. I even despise them in the summer, when the sudden Georgia thunderstorms can crack them like a toothpick. By the time fall rolls around, I curse their endless number of leaves.
It is only in the winter, in the cold, dreary winter, that I ever look at those trees with any kind of affection. They stand stark against the foreboding winter sky and offer a promise of something to come. They are hallmarks for a future of warmth and color and something better. In winter, the trees that I hate the other nine months out of the year become my beacon.
I’ve never hated my grandfather, but I have taken him for granted. That’s why, now that he is in the winter of his life, with his branches bare and his trunk looking wan, I find myself thinking of him so often. Not merely because I stand to lose him, but because he has become my beacon. He points me to a future of warmth and color and something better. Something that will restore us all to our intended selves.
Right now, he’s hanging in, standing starkly against the foreboding sky. Right now, we have our chance to love him unconditionally, profusely, profoundly – and to make sure he knows that more than our family will cry when he passes.
Winter is here, but spring is coming.