Posts Tagged ‘death’

Dad 2011Treasures come in many forms, sometimes quite unexpected. But an old pack of cigarettes?

My father died a couple of months ago, and so I am spending time at his house sorting papers and cleaning out cupboards and drawers, in preparation for an estate sale. The process brings back many memories, as I unearth old photo albums, wall hangings I remember from childhood, and other memorabilia. It can be a bittersweet time.

Yesterday was another day of interesting finds as I began going through his desk. An envelope containing half a dozen two dollar bills. Hmm. Wonder what those are worth today? A drawer full of those address labels that charities send out, hoping you will donate. If Dad had lived another hundred years, he couldn’t have used all of the labels he had there.Galatians 5:1

Then I pulled out something different. An old pack of cigarettes that looked like someone had started to open it and then stopped. Odd. My dad used to smoke. He had tried many times to quit, but never quite succeeded. Until my mother died of lung cancer. Actually it was the kind of cancer usually caused by asbestos exposure, rather than cigarettes, but there was some speculation that secondhand smoke could have played a part. I never saw my father with a cigarette after that.

Now here was this old, yellowed pack of cigarettes. But there was something different about this package. Securely taped to both sides of the pack were Bible verses. On one side: “Galatians 5:7: For freedom did Christ set us free: stand fast therefore, and be not entangled again in a yoke of bondage.” And on the other side: “John 8:32: And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

John 8:32This must have been the last pack of cigarettes my dad ever purchased. I could imagine him picking it up when he felt the urge to smoke, reading the verses, and then placing it back in the desk, gaining strength to resist one more time. How telling of my dad’s character that when he became determined to quit, he turned not to hypnosis or a patch, but to God. And he found what he needed to win the battle.

Treasures come in many forms, but I never expected to find one in an old pack of cigarettes.

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The earthquake hit first, swaying buildings, cracking roads, shaking towns hundreds of miles away. Then the tsunami. I watched the television in horror as it happened—water rolling into Sendai, over fields and buildings, roaring on and on across the flat landscape like it would never stop. It smashed homes, carried cars and ships as if they were made of balsa wood. I saw cars on the highway trying to escape, knowing some of them would not make it. I imagined what it would be like to see that wall of water bearing down and realize there was no escape.

 I have watched other disasters—although never in real time—and have ached for the suffering people. However, this time the pain went deeper. I have a son in Japan. And, while I have never visited other countries touched by disaster, such as Chile or Indonesia, last May I traveled to Japan for the first time. Those images are still bright in my mind. We didn’t journey north, so I haven’t seen Sendai or other now-broken towns of the northeast. But I have seen rice field stretching across the countryside. I have smelled the last of the cherry blossoms and learned to enjoy miso soup. I have experienced the rush of Tokyo train stations and the quiet hospitality of small towns. Japan has become real to me, and so I grieve the more deeply.

 My son is fine; the earthquake shook his little town—and kept shaking it off and on throughout the day and night—but left it much the same as before. Yet my thoughts and prayers still turn toward Japan. Perhaps I should ache this way whenever people anywhere are hit by disaster. We are all brothers and sisters, after all. And yet I don’t think I could handle that kind of pain, for tragedy happens on a daily basis somewhere in the world. We all need a little numbness to get through the day, to be able to find joy even amidst sadness. I am glad for a hope that helps me see beyond the pain, to see the beauty of a sunset even when I am hurting. So I pray for the people of Japan comfort and strength and a touch of beauty to light their way.

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Pushing my cart through the grocery store, I approached the rack of greeting cards. First came the largest section: birthday. Apparently people send lots of birthday cards. Next came baby, followed by wedding. (Perhaps a comment on our current culture?) This was logically followed by anniversary, then thank you, perhaps to be used by those receiving wedding and anniversary gifts. Toward the end came get well, and last, sympathy—for the families of those who did not get well. Our whole life span was summarized by the labels on the greeting card rack.

Sadly, I came to choose from the last category. The older brother of a childhood friend had died. His life had held, as most of ours do, both moments of loss and discouragement and moments of triumph and joy. The ending, however, came closer to the tragic than the triumphant. The family had shared few details, but I knew that they had tried to help, with little success. A combination of events and decisions had contributed to the shortening of a life that might have ended differently.

Life brings unexpected changes to us all. We cannot control most of the accidents or diseases that hit us. We cannot change such things as job layoffs, growing old, or the engine that goes out in our car. What we can control is the decisions we make, and one of the most important decisions is how we choose to react to the struggles that life brings. We can choose to withdraw, to hide our sorrows behind alcohol or drugs, or to strike out in anger. Or we can choose to reach out to others and to reach up to God.

Viktor Frankl, a psychotherapist and survivor of Nazi concentration camps, wrote, “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” (from Man’s Search for Meaning)

Our life on earth will end, but the choices we make can determine whether that ending will be tragic or triumphant.

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