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.

Father's Day 1972 Revisited, Part 17: Grandma Randall Crosses Over

Even health food nuts die, eventually. It seemed grandma Randall's time had come. My dad used to drive out to visit and check on her on her little 5-acre place in Romoland, an undeveloped rural area not far from Hemet. There she lived alone, grew all her own food, and played her favorite hymns a little Hammond organ. On one of those visits, dad noticed she was quite jaundiced. He took her to see a doctor who promptly admitted her to the Circle City hospital in Corona for tests. Nothing was found in the first set of tests, so more were scheduled. I should mention that our dad was the administrator of this small private hospital and so grandma got the best of care. Further tests were inconclusive and could not pinpoint a source of her problem. Meanwhile, grandma was going downhill, getting weaker by the day and losing weight rapidly. X-rays were taken to check for anything which may not have been detected by the other tests. Everything looked OK. Nonetheless, grandma condition kept worsening. Finally, for lack of anything to do, it was decided to do exploratory surgery to see if the doctors could find any explanation for her rapidly failing health. Finding nothing they sewed her up and sent her back to her room.

The doctor attending her said our grandma didn't have any disease, cancer had been ruled out, no infection could be found--in fact no medical cause for her worsening condition was apparent. The nurses monitored her vital signs and kept her comfortable. Another week passed by and her condition continued to deteriorate. The day came when the doctor suggested to my dad that the family be called in because, "Your mother's time has come. She is eighty-six and her organs are simply shutting down. Your mother is dying of old age, nothing else. The family should see her this evening--I don't think she'll make it through the night." I went to the hospital accompanied by my girlfriend and soon-to-be fiance', Cher, to say goodbye to my grandma. This was all new to me. I knew next to nothing about dying people or what to do around a dying person. I met the family in the hospital cafeteria where they had gathered. My dad filled us in on what the doctors had said about her condition. There was nothing to be done. She was comfortable, not in pain, but failing fast. It was after nine o'clock. We each ate our chosen comfort food from the cafeteria vending machine and chased it with coffee which was overly strong, being left on the hot plate much too long.

We held our little family meeting there at a round table in the nearly empty cafeteria. It was a small hospital, after visiting hours, and there were only a few others in the cafeteria, mostly hospital staff. As my toddler cousin entertained herself pouring piles of sugar on the tabletop, we each took turns acknowledging the inevitable along with our sadness and agreeing that grandma had had a long and full life. It was decided we would take turns privately saying our goodbyes to grandma in person, one at a time. My turn came and I walked tentatively down the dimly lit hallway, not knowing quite what to expect. What I found was a woman who looked much too small and already dead. Her face looked only vaguely familiar, for her teeth were not in. But more than that, her face looked starkly skeletal, her cheeks and eye sockets sunken to an extreme degree. There were the obligatory tubes and wires and things still dripping and monitoring while doing their own death watch. Besides the occasional soft beep of of her heart monitor, the only other sounds were the rattles and gasps which came at unnervingly long and infrequent intervals. The time between them was so long I would get myself poised to spring out of the institutional bedside chair and go call into the hallway for the nurse. Just when I was about to do this, her chest would heave and noisily draw in another gurgling gulp of air. This happened several times in the few minutes I spent with her and it set my nerves on edge. I didn't say anything to my grandma's form and didn't even know what I could or should or wanted to say. I just kind of did my duty--a nightmarish duty it seemed--by spending those minutes in her room. I felt at a loss for what to even to think about during those minutes. I felt out of place, embarrassed at my own awkwardness. To myself I seemed like an intruder, even as her grandson. I escaped back to the cafeteria in the briefest time decency would allow in order to show I had done a proper farewell and had not just stuck my head in the door of her room. I felt a little guilty for not knowing how to say goodbye to a dying loved one. They hadn't taught us that in vacation Bible school. It being late, and all of us having taken our turns, we hugged one another and each headed home. Someone from the hospital would call in the morning with the news.

Father's Day 1972 Revisited, Part 16: Wrinkled Faces and Grandma Randall's Green Drink

Matilda Randall, my grandma, was a Baptist Mother Teresa. At least she shared a good many character traits with the little Albanian saint. She also had Mother Teresa's deeply wrinkled and leathery brown face. From both faces, with their shining deep-set dark eyes--radiated a deep goodness--a grace--a love which was both kind and gentle, but which was certainly not soft and marsh-mellowy. In contrast, this gracious loving radiance was solid, rock-like, even severe, if that term can be connected with the concept of love. This was a love that one sensed came from beyond the individual and her personal particular emotions. Instead, it emanated from, and was entwined with, her life's mission. Both these women of God were indeed on a mission: Saint Teresa to bring God's loving embrace those dying alone in the world's gutters, and Saint Matilda to bring that same embracing love to the little sphere of her family's world.

That's why Grandma Randall started Riverside Christian Day School in her own home for her first grandson and a few neighbor kids. She went on to Shepherd that school as it--and her grandson, Tony--grew. That is why she saw to it that us kids were enrolled in Vacation Bible School each summer. That is why she tried to get us to eat the good, wholesome, organic food which she grew in her very own garden where she spent a good deal of her time.

The food she fixed for us was one aspect of grandma's love we least appreciated at the time. We considered grandma a health-food nut. We loved Swanson's frozen dinners and Tater-Tots. We really did not care for chard or kale or wheat germ or millet. Topping our list of least appreciated health food was her infamous Green Drink. Grandma Randall's Green Drink was her own concoction of every healthy item known to humankind blended up all together in a big Hamilton Beech blender and served--not chilled with ice, no: cold drinks were not good for you--but at room temperature with a little green foam still bubbling on top of your glass. We hated that stuff. When we complained about the taste, she acted amazed: "Don't say that; why, it has chlorophyll--very good for your liver-- and wheat germ; which has lots of vitamins and fiber; and millet, and celery and..." she would go on to list a half-dozen of the who-knows-how-many ingredients, all found in her Green Drink--as if this somehow answered our complaint. In her fixation with health food grandma Randall was way ahead of her time!

Grandma Randall played a significant and unusual two-part role in my conversion. Part one was that she prayed for me, the black sheep of the family. Not so unusual, that. I suppose all grandmothers pray for their grandchildren--at least I know all Baptist grandmothers do. Come to think of it, praying grannies may be God's most effective below-the-radar force in his dogged and unrelenting campaign to draw a lost world back Home. The other part Grandma Randall played in my conversion was truly an unusual one. She died. Sort of...