A few months ago, during the pandemic lockdown, a friend suggested we each do some writing based on the prompt “Unexpected.” My mind was immediately flooded with all sorts of thoughts, some of which I scribbled in my journal.

Then my father died. He had not been in good health and was increasingly frail, but his death had not seemed imminent until a few days prior, despite the fact that he was nearly 96. Both of these pieces were written before my father’s death, but having experienced yet again that even the expected can hit one hard emotionally, I didn’t get around to typing them up until now. I may yet have more to add on this topic as I continue to process his death, my life, and a world in which hard things, both expected and unexpected, will continue to occur.

Unexpected (April 22, 2020)

“Come Thou Long-expected Jesus”—One of my favorite Christmas hymns, comes to mind every time I think of the word “unexpected.” Since I was a teenager I’ve loved this hymn that speaks of how Christ the Messiah was expected, predicted, prophesied for generations, centuries actually—more than 18 centuries. Expected for so long that he became unexpected, so that even those who knew the prophecies best and were, in theory, waiting eagerly for his coming were not actually expecting his arrival.

How about me? I know he will come again; that coming was also prophesied by multiple prophets, and Jesus said many times that he will come again. But will I be ready, watching for him, expectant? Or will his coming be unexpected, because time goes by and the ordinary continues, as it always does?

Or does it? These days of Covid-19 are far from ordinary. Nothing like this has happened in my lifetime, and our society, along with many societies around the world, is reeling. This level of disruption to our daily life and economy is truly unexpected. Because the unexpected has occurred, the possibility of serious illness and death at a relatively young age for some in our circles of friends and family can no longer be considered unexpected.

Interesting that the unexpected of one sort has made what was unexpected in another realm now likely rather than unexpected. The unexpected makes the unexpected expected. Am I ready? Am I expectant?

More thoughts on “Unexpected” (May 7, 2020)

It seems to me there are two categories of “unexpected.” There is that which is unexpected because one never thought it would happen and most likely never gave it any thought. This Covid-19 pandemic is such—who would ever have thought that our economy would come to a screeching halt, and not just ours, but most economies around the world? Who would have ever thought we’d be under stay-at-home orders for many weeks? This is unprecedented in our country, at least in my lifetime. I suppose there are countless scenarios that fall into this category, but it doesn’t seem reasonable to expend much mental energy on such possibilities, as they are truly unlikely by virtue of being so extreme.

So how can one prepare? I think in the same way one prepares for the other category of “unexpected,”  those events that are inevitable but happen earlier than expected. This second category would include what is often termed the “unexpected death” of someone. Actually, dying is one of the most certain events I or anyone will ever face—every one of us will die someday. So by “unexpected” we mean that death came at a time we didn’t see it coming. A heart attack, stroke, accident, violent attack—these are some causes of unexpected deaths,, even though some of these causes are not so uncommon.

So how can I avoid the shock of the inevitable catching me unawares, thus seeming unexpected? I think Moses, millennia ago, had part of the answer:

Teach us to realize the brevity of life,
so that we may grow in wisdom. (Psalm 90:12)

If I truly grasp the brevity of my life (or as another translation puts it, if I “number my days”), I will always live with an awareness of possible death and a readiness to face it. If viewed with wisdom, that readiness to face and accept my death, whenever it may come, includes a recognition that God holds all of this life and this world, past, present, and future in his good, powerful, and loving hands. That confidence should enable me to trust him with both the inevitable and the truly unexpected, because I know I am safely held in his hands, and nothing is unexpected for him.

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning.. Lamentations 3:22-23

Brokenness and Beauty; Grief and Hope

Papa and I had a wonderful lunch together in 2017 at The Modern restaurant at the Museum of Modern Art– a fabulous day!

This has been a deeply sad week for me. My father died last Monday, Memorial Day, which seems fitting for a veteran. We had some very good times, and I am overflowing with wonderful memories, both from my childhood and from more recent years. Sadly, though, we also had times throughout my life when there was tension between us. The last two years were not good for us, though thankfully in his final weeks I felt that we had some renewed connection. It still does not seem possible that he is no longer here; I was so hoping for more time to reconnect, to hear his stories, to show him my sketchbooks, to sit with him watching the birds and chipmunks he so enjoyed.

I was thinking during the weeks of my father’s recent decline about how all people are both broken and beautiful; broken by others or by their own choices, beautiful because all people are created in the image of God and bear something of that image, no matter how broken they may be. That was very true of my father; he had significant brokenness that, along with my own brokenness, strained our relationship, but he was also an extraordinary person with many talents, who was people-oriented and generous. I am thankful for many of the interests and abilities that I carry on from my father and, going forward, I hope to pursue them in his honor and to God’s glory.

Here is what I wrote to be shared at his funeral:

I’ve often been told I look like my father. I don’t know if I do or not, but I know I am like him in many ways, and Papa is a big part of who I am. I owe much of my love of nature and appreciation for and beauty to Papa. I still picture walking with him in Butler Sanctuary, admiring a long black snake draped across the rocks on Blacksnake Hill; finding morels on a steep, rocky slope; picking bayberries to make bayberry candles. One day when he and I walked in our own woods, an enticing scent suddenly caught my attention, and I turned to see oyster mushrooms climbing a dead tree. FIVE POUNDS of oyster mushrooms, as Papa often told me with delight and obvious pride in me for finding them. I think of that day with Papa every time I see oyster mushrooms.

I remember the day not so many years ago when Papa took me to an exhibit of Van Gogh drawings and paintings. We went through the entire exhibit together, quietly discussing many of the pieces, then decided to go through separately to each study our favorites. I focused on a number of drawings and a few paintings; Papa just sat in front of his favorite, a large, colorful painting, silently observing it, deeply appreciating the opportunity to simply enjoy it. I so admire his ability to sit quietly, whether observing a painting; watching a hummingbird hovering in front of him; or taming the chipmunks that gamboled by his feet, on his hands, even in his shirt pockets.

Papa, like most of us, was a complex person with a blend of strengths and weaknesses and, sadly, he and I had a frequently strained relationship. He didn’t always show an overabundance of sensitivity to others’ emotions, but one occasion will always stay with me. I’d heard at the bus stop that a black and white cat had been hit by a car a ways up Chestnut Ridge Road. As soon as I got home I told Papa, and he immediately drove me up there. I had been wondering if it was our semi-feral Bilateral Symmetry, but when we drove past on the other side of the road, I stiffened as I saw a long-haired cat lying beside the road—Dis? Papa turned the car around and stopped by the cat. It was indeed my beloved Dis. We drove home, me in tears with Dis on my lap, then Papa dug a grave in a beautiful spot in the woods by the rhododendron-covered pathway. Papa took Dis’s body, laid her gently in the grave, covered her with dirt. He spoke with me some about death; I don’t remember specifics, but I have always remembered with gratitude what he said right afterwards—that he had buried Dis facing east with her head uphill.

Papa, I trust that on the last day you will rise up, facing east and rejoicing to see Christ come to take us home. I love you always and will be looking for you then.

Papa watching the birds and chipmunks- something I loved doing with him
Papa singing “Amazing Grace” with my mother and siblings two days before his death (I was “there” via Zoom)
The last card I painted for Papa