When I was a young woman my uncle died suddenly. He and my aunt were all set to move across the country. The U-Haul trailer was packed and they were making the final arrangements to drive away. He went out to check on the trailer hitch or the tire pressure or something entirely ordinary and never came back. My aunt went to see what was taking him so long and found him on the ground, dead. He had suffered a massive heart attack.
I wasn't close to my uncle. I didn't see him often as a child, and when I did, he was quiet and mysterious to me, not overly interested in the antics of children. I never thought of him as stern and disapproving, mind you, just not interested in us kids. His voice, when heard, emerged in a slow southern drawl. We lived in Michigan. He smoked a pipe. No one in our family smoked except him, my Uncle Vance. Even writing Uncle Vance feels forced and awkward to me. I doubt I ever called him that. I can't remember ever addressing him by any name, actually. I thought of him only as Vance, my strange, quiet uncle who spends portions of every family gathering out on the porch smoking his pipe.
I liked the smell of his pipe smoke, but I didn't admit it. We weren't supposed to approve of smoking.
I wondered if he knew my name.
When Vance died, I honestly didn't feel any great loss for myself. It was shocking to my parents and I felt terrible for his wife, my Aunt Mary Jane, for whom I had always felt some fondness. She must have loved him, after all, to have been married to him for so very many years. I was a newly married woman myself, so my heart went out to her, but there was no personal grief. I honestly had no idea if his own children were close to him or not.
Vance's death has stayed with me, though. All these years later, probably going on twenty now, I am haunted by it. When my own husband is working late out in the shop I think of Aunt Mary Jane walking out to the U-Haul with not a care in the world other than to get on the road and instead finding her husband's body. I wonder, as the hour grows later, will tonight be the night that I walk out to the shop and find him in a pile of sawdust, dead?
I suppose that sounds terribly morbid, but it could happen.
A few years later, terrorists hijacked passenger jets and flew them into the Twin Towers in Lower Manhattan. In horror and stunned disbelief, I watched the second tower collapse on live television while my toddler clambered around my legs, oblivious, and my preschooler stood quietly by, staring at the screen and asking what was happening. I didn't even know what to tell him.
Since that terrible morning in 2001, the morning that changed the world in many ways, the morning that my husband called me from work and said, "You'd better turn on the TV," I have been haunted by checking the news. I open up the online news service and wait the split second for the page to load. I wonder if my heart is actually beating faster, like it seems, as I wait to scan the first few headlines for the next tragedy. American political rivalry, another bombing in the Middle East, a movie star arrested for drunk driving; I breathe easier. Nothing there shakes my world--even if, perhaps, it should.
But the next time I look at the news, I repeat the same scene. Today could be the day that things fall apart. It could happen.
Even opening Facebook can be startling. Two years ago, it was a quick check of Facebook on the way out the door to church that told me that my dear friend's house had burned to the ground, her family escaping only with their pajamas and their lives only hours before.
My cell phone, with its cheery and cute ringtone, has rung just prior to the words, "Your dad has had a heart attack," "The test results came back and it's cancer," "My husband has left me for another woman," "There's been an accident," "She's gone," "Your mom may be having a heart attack."
Like Pavlov's dog at the sound of the bell, my heart now skips a beat nearly every time the phone rings. Could this be the call that changes everything?
When I was a kid, nothing frightened me, not really. I jumped out of trees and rode my bike no-handed and faced down pitchers' fast balls. I picked up snakes and swam in the rip tide and crossed raging streams. Other people got hurt. Not me. I was invincible, then. I don't feel so invincible anymore.
Now don't get me wrong; I really don't live in fear all the time. But the older I get, the more the reality sinks in: It could happen. Sure, those things only happen to other people, but we are someone else's 'other people.'
It is a discipline, choosing to not live in fear. It requires prayer. It requires trust. Sometimes it requires more than I am willing to give and I fall into a pattern of worrying. Some people just live there, worrying. I choose not to. God will provide what I need, even if it is my turn to face terrible personal tragedy.
Paul, a first century C.E. Christian, wrote in his second letter to the church at Corinth, "...we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ."
That is what we must do.
That is what I must do.