Sunday, November 11, 2007


About a half hour ago, I was on listening to J. S. Bach's cantata BMV 156, Ich Steh mit Einem Fuss im Grabe ("I stand with one foot in the grave"). At the same time, I was trying to get a fountain pen to write, and amid the whorls and loops, just for fun, I was doodling the names of my maternal grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather.

Then the phone rang. It was my mother. She said, "I have something I have to tell you," and I immediately knew it wouldn't be good.

"I'm flying up to Boston tomorrow."

"It's Uncle Elliot*, isn't it?"


Uncle Elliot, my mother's younger brother. The only son of my late grandfather whose name I'd just been idly scribbling. Uncle Elliot, who last year was diagnosed with lung cancer, and who refused surgery or other treatment because he felt fine at the time and didn't want to compromise his quality of life, not even for five or six more years on this earth. My mother is flying up to Boston tomorrow, because my aunt called to tell her that he is literally standing-- or lying-- with one foot in the grave.

"He's going downhill fast. I'll be there till Saturday, and help Natalie* with whatever she needs."

And so it looks as if I will never see my Uncle Elliot alive again. I may well not see him again at all.

For he and my aunt Natalie, his third wife, are in retirement extremely private people, even towards family. My mother told me that Natalie hasn't informed even Uncle Elliot's children from his first and second marriages. It clearly was a relief to my mom that she at least had let her, Elliot's only sister, know. I told my mother that if the funeral plans Elliot and Natalie had made included family, to let me know and I'd make arrangements and come.

But the way things are, I expect no such call.

I saw my uncle and aunt last about eleven years ago, and it did not go well. Uncle Elliot was amiable enough, but Aunt Natalie made it clear that my being there was trouble and interference and a disruption in general. I'd always thought there'd be plenty of time for us to get past that and try again.

But time went by, and duty and pleasure and busyness got in the way, and after all, would it actually go better another time around? So I did nothing positive about it.

You'd think I'd be sitting here now in great sadness and grief, both because my only maternal uncle is dying and because I hadn't managed to see him since Thanksgiving of 1996. The irony is, I'm not. And I can't.

I can't, because even if I had made overtures towards my aunt, it wouldn't have made any difference. Even if I'd gone to Massachusetts and attempted another visit, it wouldn't have drawn us any closer. Because that's the way my family works. We don't feud, we aren't enemies, we do keep in touch from time to time-- we just aren't close.

No, the grief and sadness that lies in wait for me runs deeper and began farther back, before I was born, when currents were set in motion that I can't fathom or explain even now. The grief and sadness are there because I can only imagine the family spirit and togetherness that others seem to enjoy. Their vibrant affection is like a foreign country to me. Most of the time, I let the happy inhabitants of that land enjoy their patrimony, and I do well enough in mine.

But at times like this, I begin to wonder why that heartfelt closeness has been infrequent at best with my kith and kin. At times like this, I wonder if somehow I've been robbed of something it would have been very good to have, something that ought to have been mine.

But robbed by whom?

By the human beings-- including myself-- that conceived and aggravated this state of affairs? Yes, of course.

But above it all, hasn't God in His permissive providence allowed it to be so? Shall I, a guilty sinner, rail at God? Shall I not rather accept my own fault in not at least trying to make things better, and be faithful and still? And know that somehow, God can and has and will take the wrongness of it and make it right?

Even if I can't do anything directly for my Uncle Elliot at his home near Boston, under hospice care, dying?

But one thing I can do: I can pray, by God's sovereign providence, that by whatever means he would reach out for the Lord and Savior he hasn't had time for all his life, and enter the next life in salvation and peace.

That would be a sublime-- and divine-- irony. Soli Deo gloria.

Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe,
Machs mit mir, Gott, nach deiner Güt,
Bald fällt der kranke Leib hinein,
Hilf mir in meinen Leiden,
Komm, lieber Gott, wenn dirs gefällt,
Was ich dich bitt, versag mir nicht.

Ich habe schon mein Haus bestellt,
Wenn sich mein Seel soll scheiden,
So nimm sie, Herr, in deine Händ.
Nur lass mein Ende selig sein!
Ist alles gut, wenn gut das End.

1 comment:

Sandy said...

I am so sorry. I have a brother that won't speak to anyone but his wife. Such a loss for not only my sister and I, but also for his children and grandchildren.