Papa meeting Luke at Christmas: From left, Annie (my wife), Luke (our adopted son), Papa, and Craig (our oldest).
I was working in my office yesterday, Spotify randomizing music in the background while I tried to come up with ways to do things that I am not very good at (or at least that I tire of quickly) like marketing our study program. I have often found when not making much headway that I have two options. One, find something else to do. Two, give in to the endless well of exhaustion that seems to be my lot in life at the moment.
Since sleeping at work is frowned upon, I have found it better to let my mind wander and focusing on the music is an easy enough way to do that.
This is how I suddenly found myself paying inordinate attention to the words of one of the songs playing on my computer, 1953by the National Parks. It is a sentimental song, one of those small ballads unfolding the details of a successful romantic relationship in its twilight.
Surprisingly enough, I suddenly found myself moved to tears. At a glance, the song should not have done that. I am more sentimental now than I used to be, but not usually to the point of crying if a song I have not heard comes on. The song itself was cute and clever enough, but not awe-inspiring. As to the content, there is nothing particularly relevant to me about the year 1953. My paternal grandmother was 13. As far as Alzheimer’s is concerned, at this point I have not had a lot of personal exposure to it (I am knocking on all the wood right now).
But I was nevertheless moved. As I pondered why, a connection eventually came to mind. My in-laws were born in 1953, and that coincidence, tied to a tribute video my brother-in-law recently made for his and my wife’s deceased grandfather is probably what did it.
I will take this point to focus a little attention on my brother-in-law, Drew, who is a cinematographer trying to make it in Hollywood. He is good, though you probably would not know his name unless you watch the credits on commercials. He dreams of doing feature films and even working on his own projects in collaboration with his wife, who would direct.
But you could probably randomly throw a stone in Hollywood and bounce it off ten people with comparable aspirations and talents.
Drew has been successful inasmuch as he has had a number of solid projects and earns a respectable living. He does good work and knows his craft well. I would certainly hire him if I had the means and desire to make a movie.
But that big break always seems to be just around the corner.
When Drew and Annie’s paternal grandfather passed away half a decade ago, Drew had had time and designed a video for the family as a memorial.
Recently, their maternal grandfather passed away, and some in the family wondered if Drew would do a video for him as well.
The situation at the time of passing for both grandfathers was different; Drew had been able to get more footage of “Grandpa Joe.” He lamented not having quite what he wanted in putting together a project for “Papa.” But that did not stop him. Watching the video unfold, painting a picture of the life of Ray Evans, I saw why Drew gets paid to do this sort of thing.
He had made up for the lack of footage by cobbling together period media and interspersing it with interviews with his grandfather and grandmother. It was very touching, and while my family are certainly not film critics, it passed what might be the greatest scrutiny a piece of art can pass, my kids watched the whole 40-minute running time. My 5-year-old only ran off to pretend to shoot bad guys with guns a couple times, generally in connection with the video’s own content about World War 2 or the like.
Having married into the family, I did not have the same relationship with Papa that my wife and her brother did, but I had heard stories. Papa was a larger-than-life kind of guy, with always a quick quip and ready smile. I was Handy Andy to him, and my wife was Annie Bananie. When my youngest, adopted from China, had his first visit to the US, after coming through customs in San Francisco, Papa had no reservations, immediately loving him and welcoming him to the family (pictured at the top of this post).
Drew’s video filled in the stories, giving substance to hearsay; Papa’s time in an orphanage as a kid, not because he was an orphan but because his mother did not have the means to take care of him; his lightning tour of both theaters of World War 2 at its close (“Wherever I went, I ended the war.”) Drew’s loving tribute made those stories real and served either as a reminder of that reality to those who had known him well or enhanced depth of understanding for those like my children and me who did not have the privilege.
1953’s dulcet tones ringing through the tinny speakers on my laptop were clearly a similar sort of tribute from a different sort of artist, someone like my brother-in-law, trying to make it in their own chosen craft. Where Drew designs with film and footage, their picture was done with chords and poetry, but both sought to memorialize those they had known and loved, those who are now or soon to be no longer with us.
The song playing, Drew’s video fresh on my mind, a sort of catharsis came over me and suddenly I was remembering my own grandparents. A flood of sensation filled my mind; how they always welcomed people into their home – it was anyone’s guess who might join us for Christmas dinner; summers spent traipsing around whatever house they lived in at that point; streams in Northern Louisiana; the rocket slide across the street in Knoxville, IA; swimming in Lake of the Ozarks; bicycling by Ohio cornfields.
I remembered hearing Grandma complain about elder’s meetings at whichever church Grandpa served as pastor at the time; I remembered Grandpa’s face enhaloed by light as he pulled me from the water after my baptism. There was watching westerns with Grandpa, a glass of water balanced on his belly; and Ninja Turtles painstakingly knit onto sweatshirts by Grandma (I tried to love those shirts, Grandma, really, but some things are really hard for a ten year old). There was awkward teenage me tearing the wrapping off a big block of cheese received from them as a Christmas present (“It’s good for growing boys”).
Grandpa always had a proverbial correction ready, mostly telling me to be quiet (Children are to be seen and not heard; Better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt). I can still feel Grandma’s hands on mine as she taught me how to stir the gravy to go with our biscuits for breakfast.
Most clearly though, I remember the love, maybe best symbolized by a near-nightly ritual. After Grandpa was situated in his chair in front of the TV, he would almost always, with a smile across his face, call out to Grandma, “Woman, get me some ice cream.” She would invariably reply, sometimes from the chair across the room, sometimes from the kitchen, the same twinkle in her voice, “God gave you legs, get it yourself.” And every night he would rouse himself like it was some incredible task, go find Grandma to give her a big hug, and get his ice cream.
In fact, their love was such that when they died, their car sliding off the road in a heavy Iowa snowstorm, they were holding each other’s hands tightly across the center console, passing into the next life together.
I miss them.
Likewise, whenever I start to remember my grandparents, I cannot help but think of my mother who passed away due to ALS a year and a half later. I will not write about her here. I do not have the space. Someday she may get a book that will but scratch the surface. It is enough to say here that she taught me how to learn.
I miss her.
Listening to that song play, the tears running freely, I missed them all.
To encounter death in those we love is to encounter our own limitations. We are finite creatures, but so are cats and dogs and birds and bees and everything else. Even angels are limited. But unlike most of those other creatures, we are only aware of our limitations because we were stamped with infinity on creation.
At death we see the limits of time, but we also, ironically enough, come face to face with the limits of our minds. Humans are limited in just about every way, including what our brains can process. I could point to a number of such limitations, but I will focus on one, we can only really know so many people, a couple hundred at best. Some have called this the monkeysphere.
You need evidence? Who sat next to you in 2nd period geometry, no not on your right, on your left? Wasn’t there a good friend in first grade that you even shared chips with at lunch, they gave you a knock-off lego set for your birthday, what was the name… What about your fourth grade art teacher, the one you who taught you how to draw Mickey with a bunch of faintly drawn circles and an eraser.
Our lives are populated by a series of shadowy faces that probably even meant quite a bit to us ten, twenty, or thirty years ago, but fell out of our memories almost as quickly as we grew out of sync with them. We could call this tragic, or we could call it God’s way of defragmenting our hard drive.
But that process is generally gradual, with a pick-up-the-pieces option worked in. I can call the guys I went on that roadtrip with in college, John and Ben and what’s-his-name.
The closer a person is, too, the more of an impact they have had in our lives, the closer to our soul he or she is. Some memories fade a little but do not erase.
At death, though, we are robbed of someone suddenly. This is true no matter how long one has had to prepare. When someone dies, we must come to terms with the fact that they are gone, hence the missing and longing.
Even then, over time that sense of missing diminishes. Life goes on. The hole they left in our psyche gapes less with each passing day, rousing at those times when “they should have been there,” Christmases, Graduations, and the like. While the centrality of some roles in our lives, Mom or Dad, Son or Best Friend, means that they never quite wholly disappear, we do move beyond them, such that thought of them generally only comes up with random scents in a mall, words in a story, videos by a brother-in-law, or songs on Spotify.
Our brains do not have the capacity to hold an active known person slot open in our minds indefinitely for someone who will not refill it in this life, no matter what they meant to us. New people need room in our limited minds too. Grandparents must make way for Grandchildren.
We could look at this darkly, focusing on the fact that while forgetting may not be why this happens, it is more or less the result. Maybe not personally but collectively. In other words, all most of us have in this world is 5 or maybe 6 generations of relevance not because our descendants do not care about us, but rather because they are not able to.
Don’t believe me? Try this thought experiment. Take out a piece of paper and scribble down a brief family tree with yourself at the center. How deep can you draw those roots? Most of us could only list down 2 generations before us and if we are old enough two after.
Now if all I want is names on the tree, some people might push those roots to 3 or 4 levels, but if I were to ask for a unique characteristic of each person, how many of us could honestly say we know one? These guys are only removed from us by half a century or so. What did they love? What did they hate? Don’t guess or fill in the blanks. What motivated, excited, or frightened them? If we cannot honestly answer questions like that, did we really know them?
Far be it from a source of despair, however, in this limitation we see one of God’s greatest provisions for us. This world is not our end, and while it is not meant to be necessarily harmful for us, neither is it meant for our pleasure. When Jesus says he came to give us abundant life, he said nothing about this life being one of happiness. Rather he said it would be trouble.
One of the ways our limited time and memory serves us is to create both a hard and soft limit to any troubles we might experience. In itself, that is sufficient reason to be grateful, especially in light of how challenging for us God’s work of sanctification can often seem to be.
Further, as we have already mentioned, the limits on our cranial hardware helps us better distribute genuine love to newcomers in our lives.
But all of this subtly points to perhaps the most inspiring aspect of God’s design, it gives us the ability to begin to grasp infinite love.
God is a being of infinite love. I have spent the last page and a half or so talking about our limitations. How could anything as limited as we are begin to understand what it means to be infinite? More likely a slug could learn to tap dance.
It might help to try and understand a little the idea of infinite as it relates to love. A few years back, there was a popular book that came out called The Shack. They even made a movie off it. While there are a number of questionable theological points, a line the author had God utter several times is spot on. God repeatedly says, “I am especially fond of …” whichever person had come up in conversation at that moment.
And the point is solid. God’s love is infinite, personal, and augmented by his omniscience, intimate. There is not a single person who lives, has lived, or will live who can ever fall outside of that love, no matter what they do or have done. Hitler, Stalin, that guy who shot up whatever was most recently shot up in America, the guy who cut you off in traffic yesterday. Infinite means no boundaries.
Could any of us really say we love someone like Hitler? We can’t even “love one another.” How do we begin to grasp a love with no limits?
One way might be to obscure our vision a little, shift it from all of humanity to the 150 or so we can know. God gave us a limit so that we can love those around us, no matter what they do then put us in the middle of a system where we would be wired to know certain people. We call this magical system family. Even Hitler had a mother.
Sure, many families are not good places, but we do not judge a system by its outliers. As broken and dysfunctional as a family may become, this social edifice was designed by God specifically as the place where people, with all our myriad shortcomings, could come to understand what love really is. The genius is that it tends to do just that, often in spite of the rottenness of its members in pretty much every respect.
Death and the memorials around it are a clear enough place to see two major facets of this love. Because family tends to be core among those who occupy known person slots in our minds, when someone dies a central component of our being is left with a hole torn wide open. When we come together with others who in a large part or small have the same hole, we begin to heal this by remembering.
And one of the most beautiful ways this happens is in a tribute, when someone who knew them expresses their love in the craft that they have honed. Because of the limits of our minds and the vicissitudes of fame and fortune, the overwhelming majority of people with talent will remain hidden. For every Shakespeare or Michelangelo that the world comes to know, there are thousands or even millions whose talent is known, at best, only by those in their immediate circle, and when that circle is in mourning, these untold makers step forward to showcase gifts the world would salivate over if it only knew.
Not every hidden talent is a budding paragon. I am example enough of that. Whether I intended it or not, this post has become in part a tribute to my grandparents. In all likelihood maybe a few dozen people will read it. Yet to those of my family who knew them and read this, it will mean something.
Likewise, my brother-in-law, Drew, though talented, may never have the opportunity to share the true breadth of his talents with the world, but his homage to one he loved will be received by his family with the accolade it deserves, the accolade he deserves.
And as we receive the praise of those who love us with a love that faintly approaches the infinite love of the Father, we can almost hear the Father shouting out his own, “Well done.” He is our true cheerleader, advocate, and fanboy, and scrupulously saves every cut and draft, every script and post that has the least bit of merit. Long after we are nothing more than statistics on old census forms, not only will He remember us. He will still promote us with especial fondness to anyone who will listen.