The Gardener of Grace
I have mentioned before the difficulty I have writing about loved ones that are no longer with us in the physical form, but rather reside in our hearts and minds. They still come and visit every time I exclaim about Sam Harry (one of dad's many sayings) or when introducing my daughters to orange soda floats. Those are the obvious times that their spirit is with us. We know why we do those things. We are consciously choosing to honor the impact they had - and still have - on our lives. What is not as obvious, but still apparent, are the ways their thoughts, feelings and even idiosyncrasies sustain a firm stance in what we believe and feel and even how we interact with others as well as how we approach both favorable and unfavorable situations.
My dad was my hero. Plain and simple. Even ten years after his death I often find myself wondering what he would say or how would he react to certain things. He set a bar for me, a standard, in which I continue to strive for whether it is as a server of Christ, a husband, father or neighbor.
If I only had my father I would have still been blessed. But there was another teacher in the house. My mom taught me many life lessons as well. Particularly the consequences of poor choices and the benefits of good ones and just as importantly, how to recognize the value of your heart and how to use it. I received a college-level education of life while growing up. To prove even more how blessed I am, they weren't my only professors.
Janice was born in 1928 - a year after her husband, Ralph, of sixty-three years and a year before the beginning of the Great Depression. Raised on the Brackbill family farm in Salisbury Township, being one of fourteen children, she grew and aged into the woman I called Grandma.
Our experiences mold us into what we are. Having lived on the farm through the second World War and becoming a serving steward in the church and raising four children - among many other adventures - shaped her into the woman of strength and grace that was a very important to me growing up as my own mold was being carved and cut.
But as a child, sitting in her kitchen trying to be patient while she tried to cut my bangs straight, I didn't see her as someone that had lassoed triumphs and wrangled defeat. I didn't see her becoming the amazing woman she was. I saw her as the amazing woman she was. Through child eyes I saw her as someone that was always around. Someone that would always be around. She served as a teacher, role model as well as a source of joy and compassion for me. As an adult, I have become more and more fascinated about how events, occurrences and interactions shape us. Especially my grandmother's. I wonder how did being a child with so many siblings, living on a farm - during World War II - assemble themselves into the fabric of her heart and mind so that she did what she did with the rest of her life? I wonder, what was her first act of graciousness? And was it then and there that something within ignited a desire to be an ambassador of grace.
Grandma wore every earthly shade of grace. She didn't wear it as an accessory - something chosen only if it coordinated well with her ensemble. She wore as if it were her duty. But, it wasn't a job for her. While being enveloped in her commitment to family, I observed that it seemed second-nature - much like the way she made quilt or prepared delicious meals. She wore all of those colors and hues because she was a benefactor of grace - while to the one that was her spouse and those that called her sister, mother, cousin, grandmother and friend, were the beneficiaries.
To put it in more endearing terms, we were her garden. From the awakening of spring when the sprouting of soon-to-be colors of heaven bloomed to summer closing, Grandma would work in her garden. Surrounded by stalks of corn rising above her head and strawberries by her feet, she gave a gentle, graceful touch to everything around her.
When it came to caring for family, her other garden, it wasn't seasonal. It wasn't part-time. It was a passion bordered by boundless energy and joy. I don't know the ripple-effect of all the events of her life, but her family was blanketed by the effect of one crucial and self-surrendering choice. Somewhere in her timeline of events she accepted Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior. Ever since then - through her marriage and raising her children to holding grand and great-grandchildren and singing hymns at church - she danced effortlessly with Jesus. Everywhere she went and every way she moved - whether stooping in her garden or caressing the marrow of life - she wore the colors of grace while dancing with the Lord.
Perhaps that is why she didn't ever do the one thing that I admire the most about her. She never complained and she never asked or needed recognition. She served out of the graciousness of her heart. A heart that's nearly impossible to emulate.
The fact the she had an end-of-life is still a tough reality to swallow. I just always thought she'd be there. I like to think I have a good imagination, but to imagine life without Grandma was something I just couldn't picture. She was too strong, too healthy not to live forever. But in March of 2011 she began having headaches that wouldn't go away. She was diagnosed with a brain tumor. In May of that year, she became the second family member I had lost to that disease. She was now with her dance partner soaring above her garden below.
A couple of days before she died I was talking with my grandpa on the phone. Sophie was in her highchair and I was feeding her while getting an update on Grandma. It wasn't good. He was crying - something I had never seen him do before - which made me choke up and I could barely say goodbye. When I hung up, I turned to my wife and said, "I have to go see her." Something told me if I didn't I wouldn't see her again. The next morning, Sunday, I drove by myself to Lancaster. I met my brother at a nearby store parking lot and we drove into Lancaster General together.
There my grandpa sat in a wheelchair, not allowed to be too close to her. Grandma was awake and could talk and have a conversation. My cousin Gayle was there too. She and I spent a lot of time playing together at Grandma and Grandpa's house and had been camping down in the meadow many times. She and I fed her lunch. She put food in her mouth while I pulled the oxygen mask away from her face so she could take a bite. It was during that conversation I made a confession. Something I've been keeping a secret for a very long time.
1980s. We - my older brother along with our first-cousins - were on another camping trip down in the meadow. At some point during the day I had wondered up to the barn - just up the grassy lane adjacent to the farmhouse. Spot, a white pony with brown spots, was in his stall and I did what any boy at the age would do. I pet him. Harmless, right? Later that day, Grandma and Grandpa took us on an outing, perhaps to get ice cream or something, and when we returned, Grandma noticed that the dish cloths that she had hung out to dry were chewed. Complete mystery, right? Well, sort of. Spot had gotten out so it was assumed that he was the culprit. But how did Spot get out was the real question. I guess a boy at that age gets a little curious. And I guess those latches on the stall doors actually have a purpose. Sorry about your dish-cloths, Grandma.
Well, the burden was finally lifted. I believe she laughed a little at that story before telling me she didn't remember it. I'll take that as a sign of being forgiven.
After saying goodbye and telling her that I loved her, I walked out of her room. She died the next day.
Our gardener of grace went home.
Gathered in the basement of Leacock Presbyterian in Paradise, Pennsylvania, many family members shared memories of Grandma after the service in the sanctuary. I shared one that always makes me smile...
Grandpa was driving like he always did on our day-trips. Grandma was strapped in on the passenger side. I was sitting in the back complaining about being thirsty. Rather than stop and get a drink out of the trunk or get a nice cold cola from a convenient store, Grandma had a "better" solution. She said, "Just swallow."
Of course! Why didn't I think of that?
Just thinking about that tonight I realized there's a life lesson of grace in that so-called solution. When faced with a dilemma, perhaps the solution isn't a grand one or one that you must take a detour from in order to solve. Perhaps the solution - such as swallowing - is simply a natural instinct. And perhaps that natural instinct is in all of us just like it was with Grandma. Perhaps the solution is grace.
To my gardener of grace...I love you and miss you.
Here are some pictures of Grandma. I hope to add more soon.
This may have been Grandma holding Madison for the first time. We're in family room of our old house on Shady Hill.
Easter 2011. Our last one with Grandma. Here she sits with part of her garden - her great-grandchildren.
Easter 2011. Grandma with Baby Sophie.