[Scanned from The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead's Sunday paper, 12-27-09]
Today, I sang with a group of musicians at the funeral services of a man I came to know best through my friend Laura. Though Boyd Christenson has been a household name in Fargo for years due to his memorable career in television and radio broadcasting, I didn’t know "that Boyd," having grown up outside the area. I first met Boyd around 1996 at the library in Moorhead, where I’d gone one afternoon to look for some children’s books for my young son. Boyd came up to us and started talking to my child and me as if we were the last two people on earth. Several years later, I was privileged to get to know him again as Laura’s father, especially in the months just before her death when he lovingly helped usher his oldest child into the next world. What heartache for a parent, and yet I watched him and Laura’s mother, Marlene, do this with such grace that I couldn’t help, as a parent myself, to be profoundly moved by what I witnessed.
In the last six years, Boyd suffered, and his family with him as they endured the effects of his Alzheimer’s disease; an affliction that seems especially insidious when it ravishes the mind of one with such a sharp intellect, when it targets one with an eternal yearning to make connections and love completely.
On Sunday, I was thinking about Boyd and his family while our new priest gave a homily about family based on the readings from Luke 2:39-52. These particular passages recount how Jesus, at age 12, disappeared for a few days in Jerusalem, where his family had gone to take part in the Feast of the Passover. After a three-day search, they finally found him in the temple courts among the teachers, listening and asking questions. When Mary questioned Jesus over why he had disobeyed, expressing her and Joseph’s anxious feelings over having lost him, Jesus answered, “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” They were perplexed by his response. They didn’t understand.
Father D. talked to us about Jesus’ having grasped that he belonged to two families: his earthly family with Mary and Joseph, and his spiritual family with God and all the saints. Our earthly families can offer some of the most precious blessings we’ll experience on earth, he said, but our most important family is not the one we have here but that which awaits us on the other side of the veil.
Perplexing, is it not? But no more difficult to grasp than what Mary and Joseph grappled to understand when Jesus said to them, “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”
It’s as if Boyd has been saying this same thing these last couple years. “Don’t you know I have to be in my Father’s house?” And over the last week as I’ve watched Boyd’s family respond to his impending death, I’ve come to better understand more deeply the purpose of our earthly families and how we’re meant to live out our lives with our loved ones. We are in these earthly circles primarily to learn to love, imperfectly so, I might add, so that we might do so more perfectly in the life and family that is to follow.
But never was the concept of the earthly/spiritual family so poignant to me as when I received an update email message from Boyd’s daughter Mona just hours before his death on Tuesday. She’s graciously agreed to allow me to share an excerpt of that message describing how the family spent its last hours with Boyd – husband, father, grandfather:
My father was relatively stable yesterday morning and we were longing for more privacy, space, and the comfort of familiar surroundings, so we made the decision to bring him home to die, an action for which we will all be eternally grateful. He’s in a hospital bed in front of the fireplace in the spacious, bright family room. We have formed a cocoon around him, snuggling with him in the bed, sleeping on and off on nearby chairs and sofas, candles burning, wine flowing, his favorite jazz tunes adding to a soundscape of rich conversation and storytelling, anguished weeping, and joyful laughter. Dear friends are coming by with substantial offerings of food, holiday treats, strength, and warm embraces. With the help of a few simple medications and other comfort measures to ease pain, agitation, and difficulty breathing, he is incredibly calm and peaceful. After what we thought was his last breath early this morning, I observed, "We all know that the love awaiting him on the other side is beyond our wildest imaginings, but what’s going on in this room has got to make it awfully hard for him to leave." However, it is highly likely that on this, the shortest day of the year, he will make what has to be the very short journey into the arms of his daughter Laura and others who are preparing a place for him.
I have no doubt that you all are ardently holding us in your thoughts and prayers, and we are feeling completely sustained and inspired by the strength of your spiritual support. I am most grateful for the texts, emails, and phone calls that have seemed to come at the most opportune moments. And allow me to make one very sincere declaration: It is not a horrible, grim state of affairs that my father is dying the week of Christmas. Quite the opposite, in fact. Never has the Light and Love of the Incarnation been more real and palpable than at this very moment. The gift of the Christ Child this year will be the relief of my father’s suffering and the intense love that is permeating every aspect of this sacred experience. We feel so blessed, so fortunate. We rejoice!
What a beautiful account, a hopeful message of love, even in the midst of suffering and sadness! It is so very obvious to me, through Mona’s eloquent words, that the spirit really does live on. This truth also became apparent at the burial today when the coffin refused to go down easily. After too many moments of awkward quiet, Mona broke the silence, declaring that her father had inspired the last laugh as usual. Yes indeed, Boyd, you are still with us!
But the spirit lives on only insofar as it fulfills its purpose to help us move onward, to lure us toward that shining place that we all will experience someday if we aspire toward the light. The more fervently we move toward it in this life, the more naturally we’ll be drawn toward it when our own time on this earth comes to a halt.
As Boyd’s children and grandchildren have noted, his eroded memory has been fully restored now. He’s more able than ever to do the most important work of a father — to guide his family to heaven.
Those of us who remain are here for a reason. We haven’t learned the lessons we are meant to learn, have not yet done the work we’ve been called here to do. There’s still time. Boyd has reminded me that living to the fullest while we can is the only way to go, and seeing God in everyone we meet, especially the most vulnerable and weak among us, is not an impossible endeavor. What a beautiful reminder as 2009 comes to a close. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and fulfill our purpose!
What are the lessons you’ve learned from those dear ones who have passed on in 2009?