The Great Equalizer
No matter who we are whenever death presents itself we suddenly come face to face with our own mortality. Death is the great equalizer and for some any thoughts about dying and the afterlife can have a tendency to make them feel a bit uncomfortable. In our humanness we will either shy away from the subject completely or simply ignore it altogether. It's also one of those paradoxes where on the one hand it really isn't anything new; like tax season each year – it’s inevitable! On the other hand no one knows when their hour will come and so the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes writes this: “...like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them” (Eccl. 9:12 ESV).
What I experienced this past week as we mourned the loss of my beloved mother-in law really tested my faith; in particular my belief in all that I’d learned thus far from the Bible regarding every person’s destiny. For instance, why are there so many differing opinions about where we go when we die? Do we all get a free pass into heaven? Chris’ passing also showed me that whether natural or tragic, there can be some good that comes about after a loved one’s death. It also reminded me that death has the potential for opening up doors to spiritual discussions with family members and the importance for Christians to be ready “in season and out of season” (2 Tim 4:2). While death may never take a holiday we must remember that it does not have the final word over our lives. With it also being such a sensitive subject we must keep mindful that we don’t have the right to judge anyone’s eternal destination. Only God has exclusive rights to that!
Busted Hearts, Chicken Parm, and Deviled Eggs
On the evening of December 20th while my wife and I were tucked away in our warm little beds for the night, nestled within the quiet suburbs of South Western Pennsylvania we were awakened by what was to be the first of many phone calls from my sister-in law (Jeannie) and brother-in law (Jay Jay) in New York. Tina's mother had not been feeling well over the past week and what would have normally been a routine shopping excursion at the mall that Friday evening turned into a harrowing trip to the hospital. Mom was having a heart attack! Calls from Jeannie came pouring in as she and her boyfriend Tony trailed behind the speeding ambulance that was escorting her to the medical facility. With what seemed like every hour Jay Jay and Jeannie alternated between one another in providing us with updates on mom’s condition throughout the night. Then as mom went into surgery late that evening the phone calls stopped.
Tina and I understood that this could be the end and so we prayed that the Lord's will be done. Not because we didn't want to see mom again let alone for her to be healed, but because she had spent the past twenty years in anguish over the loss of her husband Jay while suffering through one debilitating health issue after another. We arose early the next morning to a phone call from Jeannie with the news that mom had finally passed. With heavy hearts Tina and I packed our bags for what was to be our longest trip back to New York. For nearly seven hours doctors labored intently at trying to save mom's heart but all efforts proved to be in vain. You see mom’s heart had been partially clogged and the blood which tried to find its way back out into the body had eventually made its own exit. Mom literally died of a busted heart! No doubt as a result of the heavy burden she carried in seeking justice for her husband’s murder all these years, but also for the hundreds of incoming wounded souls she tended to through the Parents of Murdered Victims (POMV) support group which she also happen to be chapter president of as well.
In the days leading up to the viewing our lives were a dizzying array of funeral arrangements, food, family, bouts of crying, phone calls, airline flights, and more crying. Christmas came upon us quickly and words of despair regarding the holiday season being "forever ruined" or "never being the same again" hung heavily in the air like Aunt April’s chicken parm and deviled eggs lying in my gut. But as in all things I was hopeful that this too would pass.
Coming To Our Senses
At the funeral home while making arrangements for mom's viewing and cremation, Tony and I had an interesting discussion about coming back to the faith and why it was so difficult for him to do so. Death has a way of opening up doors to spiritual discussions like this. So after a while I asked Tony to identify the one thing that was preventing him right now from making his way back. Without hesitation he asserted that it was his "belief". I appreciated his honesty and we soon found ourselves knee deep in a discussion about the story of the prodigal son. How we got there is still uncertain but I can only surmise that in the Holy Spirit’s great wisdom He knew that we can all relate to the recklessness of our youth. In many ways we are similar to the prodigal in that we are either: too proud, too afraid, too comfortable, having way too much fun, or any number of other excuses which prevent us from coming back to the Father. The truth is we can come to God at any time, and just like the dad in this story our Heavenly Father will run, not walk to receive us! But allow me to interject a word of caution here: we mustn't wait for the dust (that is our bodies) to return to the ground from whence it came in order for us to come back to the truth which we’ve known since our youth. By then it will already be too late! Much like the young man in this parable, we must also "come to our senses" (Lk 15:17).
Steady My Knees O Lord!
After our discussion my sister-in law Jeannie asked if I could lead us in prayer and say a few words before a small gathering of our immediate family on the last night of mom's viewing. I gladly accepted and as quickly as Friday evening came so did our plans change. What began as speaking before a small comfortable group of close family suddenly turned into a standing room only event filled with extended family and friends! As my eyes panned over the large sea of people that flooded the tiny funeral home my nerves were beginning to get the better of me. I quickly took notice of every clearly marked exit sign in the building and potential flower arrangement which would provide the best cover and concealment should I have needed it. But I quickly regrouped and refocused, remembering why I was there and who we came to remember. Therefore failure was certainly not an option!
In the eulogy I gave that night in honor of Chris' life I wanted to strongly emphasize God’s sovereign hand upon our lives because regardless of who we are and what we do our Creator has each of us in His mighty grip. I also wanted to acknowledge Chris’ compassion while serving the "nation" of hurting survivors within the Parents of Murdered Victims (POMV) organization Long Island chapter and the many lives she had touched along the way. She was a remarkable woman who will be sorely missed. Here is an excerpt from the eulogy that I spoke on December 27th.
"Good evening. I want to thank everyone for coming out tonight to
pay their respects to Christine Baumgardt whom I will often refer to as
mom, granny, or Chris.
I remember when Tina and I first started dating her mom really wanted to meet
me, to sort of check out what kind of boy her daughter was dating. Which by the
way every parent who has teenage children ought to take their cue from mom's
example in that we should make every effort to check out the person whom our son
or daughter is dating. Anyway, right before mom and I met I remember my future
wife prepping me ahead of time by giving me some pointers on how to deal with
her "jokey nature". As a last resort Tina told me that she looked a lot like
Lucille Ball and that I should reserve that little bit of ammo for when I really
The time came for us to meet and sure enough mom did
resemble a young Lucille Ball and I could only imagine her husband Jay
resembling Desi Arnaz, but with tattoos! After a few jokes and laughs Chris said
goodbye and climbed back into her car. But before she left mom yelled to me
through the open window of her vehicle and said, 'Hey Dennis!'
'Yeah?' I replied coolly as I turned towards her.
'You're ok', she confidently responded.
As if giving me her seal of approval for dating her daughter mom lovingly
confirmed this through her tone. I knew then as I know now that like a mama bear
to her cubs Chris truly loved her children. I also thought to myself ‘Yes! The
Lucy joke worked! I'm in!’ And for the past 25 years I've been asking myself
‘now how do I get out of this’?
Over the years I got to know mom pretty well, but it wasn't until her death that I realized
I didn't have a clue about the struggles she had gone through after the loss of her husband Jay.
In her bedroom there was a book of poems; most of which she had written herself
while a few were from unknown authors. I immediately picked it up and began
reading it. In this book I caught a glimpse of the daily anguish she wrestled
with over the years. Like the Psalmist David who penned most of the writings in
the Book of Psalms, Chris' heart poured out onto every page with similar gut
wrenching questions like 'Why Lord?' and 'How long must I wait?' With every turn
of the page I could feel her pain and soon afterwards I understood why she loved
and cared for the people she served through POMV. In the Beatitudes of the Book
of Matthew, Jesus said 'Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted' (Mt 5:4).
In God's great grace and wisdom He had created people for such an organization
where those who lost loved ones due to murder could go and be comforted with the
same comfort that those who have walked in their shoes before them had received.
You see God never wastes a hurt.
In the tail end of the Book of Genesis there is the story of Joseph.
Joseph was the youngest of 12 children born to Jacob and was his father's favorite.
Joseph's brothers were very jealous of Him and after revealing his dream to them his
brothers plotted to kill him. Instead they ended up selling him to an Egyptian slave trader
and concocted a story to their father that his beloved Joseph had been killed by a wild beast.
Years flew by and God prospered Joseph in his new surroundings. He eventually
became second in command to Pharaoh and attained one of the highest positions of
power in all the land. After being given insight by God to interpret Pharaoh's
dream of a severe famine coming their way Joseph sprang into action and was
entrusted to prepare the nation for that fateful day. Once the day of famine had
arrived his brothers came from their homeland to seek food. After a short time
Joseph eventually revealed himself to his brothers and brought his whole family
to live in Egypt with him. His brothers later threw themselves at Joseph's feet
and begged for his forgiveness for selling him into bondage. But I will never
forget Joseph's powerful response that followed which reminded me of God's
sovereign hand upon Chris and those within POMV. Joseph said, 'You intended to
harm me, but God intended it for good...the saving of many lives' (Gen 50:20).
You see although we may never understand what God might be doing in our lives
and at the moment it may seem like complete chaos, we must trust that ‘in all things God
works for the good of those who love Him and have been called according to His purpose’ (Rom 8:28).
Though the enemy of our soul may steal a loved one from us with the intent to destroy us
in the process, our God is able to use our circumstances for His goodness if we are willing to see.
Midway through Mom's book of poems my heart sank as I read the words
'I have lost all faith in the Lord'. The loss of Her husband Jay and the constant
barrage of incoming wounded souls that flooded her group became too much
for her weary heart to bear I am sure, and I can't even begin to imagine what
I would do or how I would feel if I had lost my beloved spouse."
A Few Last Words
With that final sentence I cut my speech short because after about 10 minutes of talking I tend to babble incessantly. So I began to ad lib a few last words before closing out in prayer. In my closing improvisation I asked that my wife, her sister Jeannie, and their brother Jay Jay would please set aside their differences and honor the lives of their father and mother. I also encouraged the extended family and friends in attendance to live each day as if it were their last because although mom's medical issues were no mystery, Chris' death came upon us rather unexpectedly. Somehow we can deceive ourselves into thinking we always have more time with our loved ones. Regardless, knowing mom died from a busted heart was a reminder that if we are not cautious then the cares of this world can really wear us down if we let them, especially when we try and shoulder the burdens all on our own. Jesus said, "Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest" (Mt 11:28). Even though the task at hand may be too difficult for us to withstand or the death of a loved one more stressful than we can bear, when we reach for the hand of the Prince of Peace we can be sure to find refreshment and strength for our weary souls.
Christmas may never be the same after this and neither will any other holiday season for that matter, but my wish for this coming new year remains, and that is through mom's death may God use this to bring our family even closer together.
Run to Win,