Jennifer, Nelson, and I recently took a road trip to visit friends and family in Texas. One of our stops along the way was our former home of Austin. Our main purpose in stopping briefly on our way to the Hill Country was to visit a retired pastor (ministers do not really retire) and his wife.
We met John and Theresa through the church we attended while I was in seminary. They are truly two of the most welcoming people I have ever met. No one in need of a greeting ever escaped John’s eye and he had a way of making you feel liked you belonged and mattered. Theresa might be the greatest hugger of all-time. She hugs with the love of Christ and you feel it every time.
Within the last year I learned that John was diagnosed with cancer. I followed his progress through Facebook. It seemed like treatments were going well and they were hopeful. Last February while I was in Austin for a lecture series, I spotted John and Theresa in the chapel amongst the crowd. They greeted me as warmly as usual but their faces revealed to me that all was not well. They had just learned that John’s treatments were ineffective. There was nothing else that could be done.
The three of us embraced and we shared a brief prayer.
Several months later as we made our way from Houston to Austin, Nelson sleeping soundly in the back, I asked Jennifer to call ahead to let them know what time we would arrive. Neither Theresa nor John answered, but it was their daughter, Rachel. Jennifer listened quietly and then responded, “I am pretty sure Paul is going to want to come anyway.”
John had taken a turn for the worse that morning, Sunday morning. He had been non-responsive all day and it would not be long. Jennifer and I wondered if it might be better to not intrude on the family. But as we drove I began to sense that God had a purpose for us being there.
A support system of close friends and family were chatting in soft tones as we entered. Their daughter, Rachel, greeted me with an anxious hug. “I am glad you are here and I know mom will be.” She led me to their bedroom.
Theresa lay next to her husband whose breathing was greatly labored. Theresa’s face was raw from emotion and fear was in her eyes. She looked weak. She called me to her bedside and we hugged. I was welcomed. She wept.
“Paul,” she said, “Please talk with him. They told me he can still hear.” I went to his bedside and I told him that I made it and that Jennifer and Nelson were here as well. No response. Theresa then said, “Please pray with us.”
She placed her hand on his and I placed my hand on theirs. I prayed for a peaceful and painless passing through the waters. As I said amen, Rachel led Jennifer with Nelson into the room. Theresa’s face lit up and she got up and greeted Jennifer, although her eyes feasted on Nelson. “Ooooh my. He’s darling! I want to hold him. Let’s go in the other room so I can sit down.”
She sat down on the sofa and Jennifer placed Nelson into her hands. The color seemed to return to her face and she had joy in her eyes. She bounced him on her knee and talked with him. He made his little coos and giggles and smiles.
After around twenty minutes, Rachel went in to check on her father. She reappeared in a moment and cried, “It’s happened! He’s gone!” Her legs begin to give way. She sat down. Theresa quickly, but carefully, handed Nelson to me and rushed to their bedroom. But he was gone.
She had been so diligent to be there with him while he passed, but she had not. In a moment he had slipped away.
Her support system of family and friends sprang into action. They all knew their roles. My role was done. We were just passing through.
We are all just passing through, but the stops we make along the way matter.
(The names of the members of this dear family have been changed)