I awoke Sunday morning, April 24th, to the sound of thunder and rain, something that had not been heard in Norman since January. Indeed, we had had no precipitation of any consequence since a snowstorm in February, only a few fitful sprinkles and a couple passing showers that barely wet the ground. But this! This was a real deluge! For practically the entire day, several thunderstorms with torrential downpours trained over the town, dumping over 2 inches of sorely needed rain (I had never seen the grass and trees look so anemic in the Spring since I moved down here in 2002, and the sense of patient anticipation on their part was almost palpable). When the rain finally came, I could practically feel the stressed and dormant vegetation rejoicing in the life-giving deluge, and I felt like laughing and singing. I drove to church with a huge smile on my face. The confluence of the promise of new and awakening life that came with the rain, and the connection to the significance of Easter was not lost on me.
About halfway through the service, I received the news: my paternal grandmother, Jytte Dawson, had passed away, aged 70 years. She was survived by her husband of 53 years, Thomas; her sister Irene Gillespie; her son Daniel Thomas Dawson (my father), her daughter Jayne “Tuffy” Meyer, and two grandsons: myself, and my brother Grant. Even though I knew it was coming, the news still struck me like the lightning in the thunderstorm outside. My father choked up as he told me that she had passed away with the rising of the sun. Again, the significance of this was not lost on me. Even as her old life ebbed away, the sun rose with the promise of a new day, and in my belief, a new life to come at the end of days, when all is finally made new — of which the life of the land awakened by the rain drumming outside, as beautiful and glorious as it was, is a mere shadow. For several moments, I stood and watched the rain pour down outside, listening to the sound of thunder, a similar cacaphony of emotions warring inside me: grief, anger, joy, hope.
She hailed from Denmark, a fact which I always found enormously cool growing up. My brother and I affectionately called her “farmor” after the Danish word for “father’s mother”. My parent’s relationship with her wasn’t always the best, for various reasons which I won’t get into, but suffice it to say that in the last decade or so of her life, both parties made great strides to patch up the hurts. Watching this happen has implanted me with an unflagging optimism for the power of love and forgiveness, which I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
For at least a year, she had been dealing with the horrible mental decline that is dementia. I won’t get into the details, but it was a very trying time for all of us, most especially my grandfather, who patiently stood by her side during all her episodes of delusional anger and paranoia wrought by her condition. My grandfather is one who took the “in sickness and in health” part of his marriage vows completely to heart, for which I deeply respect and look up to him for. Partly due to his example, I am emboldened to show the very same level of devotion in my own marriage, no matter what the cost or what trials may come. So, I guess that this post is partly a tribute to him as well.
A couple weeks ago, after a routine checkup on her knee, the doctors discovered something else was very wrong. It turned out she had late stage cancer, which had spread from her lungs throughout her body, and had completely ravaged her liver. There was no possibility of treatment. My wife and I rushed out to visit her on Tuesday. The cancer was so fast acting that by the time we arrived, she was so far gone she barely recognized me. But before we left, I gave her a kiss and a hug. I’ll never forget her kissing me back, and saying my name: “Danny”, which was all the energy and mental coherence she could muster. It was enough. I loved her, and I knew that she loved me, and knew it at that moment.
I finally went back inside the church sanctuary. The pastor finished up his sermon, and we ended with a song that lanced me to my soul like few songs have. I felt the Holy Spirit upon me like few other times in my life, speaking through the song and comforting me, and I’m not afraid to share it. Some folks may scoff, or claim that I was emotionally vulnerable due to the news I had just heard. Nevertheless, I had just encountered three events, juxtaposed with the Easter holiday, that each hammered home a different aspect of this day’s significance that had never before come together so powerfully for me in my 18 years of following Christ: the harsh reality of death, the hope of new and eternal life, and the empowering of the Spirit to begin to act out that new life, here and now on this planet. Not just in some future state; we can only hope for that now, since we do not yet have it, to paraphrase the apostle Paul. But I can choose right now, at this moment, to live out heaven on Earth in my relationships, my career, and my personal life. It’s not as if I didn’t know or believe these things before: I did! But never have they so powerfully come together in one moment in time, in a manner that I simply cannot deny, but only bow my head in reverence. This is the stuff of the ineffable and transcendent, and I came away from it changed. Time will tell if I can remain faithful to it. For those who are inclined to, pray that I do so!
I do not claim to completely understand why my grandmother had to suffer the way she did, or why a good and loving God would allow her to do so. I have become increasingly convinced that such a matter is so weighty as to resist any attempt at explaining it (or rebutting it) in mere words, which theologians and skeptics alike have debated and wrestled with for so many centuries. I do not mean to imply that such discussion cannot be fruitful, but my Christian faith, however, tells me that God provided a very different and surprising answer: not one of mere words or formulas, but his very essence! That is the significance of Easter to me, at least in this context. God himself suffered and died, and in so doing, identified forever and inextricably with his finite and mortal creation, and in that lies the essence of goodness and love that we are seeking. That is something that my mind and heart can both rest in, and is ultimately (to me at least) more satisfying than any theological argument.
On Easter, he rose again from the grave, leading the way for us. Even now I believe that my grandmother awaits that day when the dead will hear the sound of his voice, and awaken from the grave to a life beyond imagining. I want to be there to greet her.
Thank you, Farmor, for your love and devotion to my brother and I, your loving grandchildren. I will never forget you, nor what God has taught me through both your life and death.
Below is a video of the song (by Matt Maher) we sang at the end of Easter service. My prayer is that it will edify you as it did me: