Thursday, June 18, 2009

Father's Day 1972 Revisited, Part 18: Only Half Way Across the River

It was the the fall of 1971 and the family had just come from the hospital where we'd said our last goodbyes to grandma Randall. I was still an atheist/agnostic materialist with a cynical view of all religious claims and a particular hostility toward Christianity. However there was one new complication in my personal world: I was dating--and deeply in love with--a young Christian woman--one of the "Jesus People," an emerging subgroup within the evolving cultural landscape of the late sixties. Her freshly minted faith and my agnosticism made for interesting, and occasionally tense, conversations. We were about to have one of those now. After my hospital visit at my dying grandmother's bedside, she had said to me, "I'm praying for your grandmother, and so are some others at my sister's church--we put her on the prayer list." That was something I was not in the mood to hear and which flew in the face of my coldly rational outlook on things. I got angry with her and spit out suddenly, caustically, "What is it with you Christians? Didn't you hear what the doctor said? The woman is dying. She'd old, her time is up, and she's dying--d-y-i-n-g. Your silly prayers aren't going to do her one damn bit of good. You and your Christian friends can pray all you want; biological reality says that old woman will be dead by this time tomorrow. Damn it, there's nothing to do. Get over it! Face reality--stop pretending your prayers can change the hard facts of this uncaring material world. Damn, just don't give me any more of that crap about God and prayers and all that spiritual mumbo-jumbo! Let's just drop the subject!"

I think I even surprised myself at the emotion behind the words I'd thrown at her. She hadn't done anything to deserve my Mr. Rational mini tirade. As I recall, she didn't argue back, but had simply said, "Well, we'll pray anyway." and left it at that.

The call from the hospital the next day was that our grandma had somehow made it through the night and so had survived for one more day. Her condition however remained unchanged. The following day my dad gave us the news that grandma was somewhat improved. Perhaps this would be one of those long drawn-out deaths that only came after a weeks-long or, God forbid, months-long series of family-fatiguing ups and downs. The day after showed surprisingly good improvement and, to everyone's amazement, grandma was alert and talking. The following day saw grandma walking the halls and telling the nurses about Jesus. The doctors had no explanation. They were as dumbfounded as was the family.

Now the family trooped back to the hospital, this time to visit the same woman we all thought we'd be burying about now. As we had done before, we each took turns sitting by her bedside. When my turn came and I entered her room, I could hardly believe the change in her appearance. Was this really the same old woman who, just four days ago, was at death's doorstep? It didn't seem possible. Yet there she sat, smiling, and her eyes now full of light and life. She seemed anxious to talk to me. "It was all so beautiful," she said with an air of wonderment, as if still seeing something fresh in her mind's eye. "What was beautiful gramma?" I asked. "The rainbow, and the river and, well, just everything--it was all so full of light and the colors--my!--the colors were so vivid. I've never seen anything like it! There were so many more colors than I even knew. The beauty of it all just took my breath away," she said with her eyes closed as if remembering and relishing it afresh in detail. Then her voice took on a different, almost matter-of-fact, down-to-earth seriousness as she reached out, took hold of my hand and said, "He told me I could not stay--that it was not my time--that I wasn't finished yet and would have to go back." "Who told you, gramma?" I asked. "Why Jesus did," she replied and continued, "I wanted to stay with him more than I could say, and I somehow knew he knew it, but he kept saying to me, 'no, you must return, just for a little while' and I didn't want to, but knew I had to because it was not my time yet." She went on, "We were right in the middle of the river. I could see the other side and the hills and beautiful sky and oh, all the colors, but he just turned me around, very gently, and I knew I had to go back to my side of the river. That's the last thing I remember until, until I woke up here--was it yesterday?" "I don't know gramma, maybe, I said. "I just know you were really sick and we didn't think you would make it." I was dazed by what I was hearing from her. I didn't believe it was real in any sense of the word--just something that happens sometimes when people are very sick and on medication and things--but I could not deny the tone of absolute certainty in her voice as she was telling me about what she'd seen. It was clear to me that she had been genuinely deeply moved by the whole experience--or hallucination, or whatever it was.

I had no idea what to make of it all. My girlfriend could have really needled me now about my earlier scoffing at her prayers, but I don't recall her doing so. She probably just said something like, "Praise God--he is so good!" when I told her the news. I wasn't about to admit to anything supernatural having been at play in my grandma's recovery or any prayers having anything to do with it. Yet somewhere inside of me the perfect steel architecture of my starkly rational understanding of the universe creaked and shifted. One key rivet had popped and now the whole taut and steely structure was not quite as snug and inflexible as it had once been. Grandma may have beaten the Grim Reaper, but the Hound of Heaven was still at my heels.

Grandma Randall went on to live a full twelve years more, from 1971 to 1983. During those years she travelled twice to Alaska, bought a house in Chino Hills; did lots more gardening; painted pictures; blended more Green Drinks and taught Sunday school and crafts. As she had done in her previous eighty-six years, grandma always received, with humble gratitude, all the "gracious plenty" God had to give her. She lived a full and blessed ninty-eight years.

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