This weekend I drove my parents to New Brunswick, Canada, where my mom was born and raised. The trip was planned, and made, to visit with my Aunt Janette who is currently sick with cancer, in the hospital. We arrived in Woodstock late Friday afternoon and visited with family throughout the evening and even into the wee hours of the morning. Another aunt of mine, a second double cousin, and I stayed at one of my mother’s double cousin’s house. My parents stayed with another of her double cousins. If you are not familiar with the term ‘double cousin’, it goes something like this. A long time ago three brothers married three sisters … the definition: A set of brother and sister married a set of brother and sister, so their children will be double cousins (meaning they’ll be cousins with the same people on both their mother and father’s sides). Not only that, two of the families actually lived on the same farm for a while, but that’s a story for another time.
Friday evening we had a very nice dinner at one double cousin’s house before gathering at another double cousin’s home. The gathering was tremendous. I sat on a couch between my dad and one of my mom’s brothers. This uncle now resides in western Canada. The room was full and family spilled into the next room. My mom was there with all four of her sisters. Two of her four living brothers were there. Also, all five sisters, my mom’s double cousins, were there. So, in this gathering were my parents, two uncles, five aunts, and five second cousins (all sisters, one with her husband), and me. I was the only one present who was not of that generation.
I sat on the couch and listened to stories. I talked with family. I laughed, a lot. I bowed my head when we prayed for my aunt, sick in the hospital, and unable to be physically with us. I sang the words of the hymns I knew as we all sang together. I closed my eyes and listened to the hymns I didn’t know, and I, a son, a nephew, a second cousin, wondered if I belonged. I silently chastised myself for not knowing more words. In my mind I drifted back to the old wooden stairs at the homestead where, as a boy, I would creep as low as I dared in order to see the yellowish light of the late evening glow, and hear the loving laughter and chatter emanating from the old kitchen where these same people would gather in my youth. I felt better about belonging but stayed in my place as these were, and are, my elders, my models of life from my growing years. These are the people who I have referred to previously, as the greatest people I’ve ever known. So, I sat, and I soaked it all in, trying to make it last while brushing away the question of how many more times a gathering like this would happen again. Short of having my wife and kids with me, I thought, there’s no place I’d rather be.
I know that were I to ask the members of the group, from the generation before me, if they realized how special these times are, they’d down play the whole thing, less the ticking of life on earth’s clock, as no more special than the countless gatherings over the years. To me, at times far too engaged in the speed of life today, this moment, and moments like these are the times of my life. The gathering, the fellowship, the worship, and the unequivocal love and admiration of one another, are rarer by the day, and grotesquely missing from all corners of our society. Among the invisible, oft unnoticed benefits of moments like these, are the feelings of love, peace, good will, and lifelong camaraderie felt when it’s all done.
After a brief but much welcomed sleep, I had a wonderful breakfast with my aunt and two of my second cousins. We chatted for a while before my aunt and I left to get my mom and head to the hospital. Upon arrival at the hospital, I was happy to see my Aunt Janette, and the family members that had already gathered in her room. Regardless of sickness, it was great to see her, as it always is. Surprised, I was not. In her shoes I cannot walk. Signals her body sends within her I cannot feel. In her mind I cannot soothe. Apparent in her is a spirit that is smiling, happy, beautiful, and free; despite the pain and stress her eyes hide well. Pray I, we, do, often and more. Many of us stayed for two hours or more and visited as a family, together. We talked with Aunt Janette, we talked amongst ourselves, and we talked around the room. We sat in a room that transformed from, a cold, bland, generic, sterile place into the warmest, most colorful, unique, lively room on the hall simply by injecting the love and spirit of the folks gathered there. We left my aunt and uncle for the afternoon, with the promise of our return later that evening.
As we left the hospital my mom went with one of her sisters to visit another sister in town. This left me some time to myself, so I left and went for a ride on my own. I found the Red Sox game on the radio so I listened. I went to Tim Horton’s for a coffee and used a Wi-Fi spot to check on Ryan’s baseball games online. I drove for a while, not having a destination in mind. Before long I found a dirt road leading down to a gated, single lane wooden bridge spanning the Little Presque Isle stream. It was hidden and quiet. I heard only the rush of water ‘neath the bridge and the sounds of birds in the woods surrounding me. I sat quietly, and this piece I started to write. Finally, with tears in my eyes and my heart locked in prayer, I leapt the guard rail and descended to the water’s edge. I listened to the sound of the water rushing past me and I enjoyed the scene. Soon I was walking the frozen bank, following animal tracks across patches of snow and ice. The smell of fir trees made me stop for a while to take in that unmistakable scent. I determined from the signs all around me that quite recently there had been moose, deer, coyote, and after a discussion (later on) with my uncle, a lynx in that area. Wishing I had another day or two to just explore the woods and all the beauty of life there, I knew I had to leave this little oasis.
I had to get back, and for dinner I was on time. Mom, Dad, and I enjoyed a nice dinner with Mom’s double cousin. Then it was back to the hospital to visit Aunt Janette. She looked great, and, minus the room and surroundings, our visit could have been in any living room familiar to us in the area. We laughed and told stories. And we did what this amazing group of people always does, we lifted each other up. Not physically, well, maybe just a little bit. Emotionally, spiritually, and morally, we lifted each other up. If you’re not familiar with the term, definition, or cognitive relevance to these last couple of sentences, research it. When you have gathered what you have determined to be a sufficient amount of information then you should spend a weekend with this family like I have. This family, we are individually capable and strong, yet remarkably human. Together, we are a force, and in Christ, all things are possible.
Following our tearful goodbyes, we went to another of my aunt’s house for a quick visit. On the way, our conversation was steeped in reality, yet still an encouragement. We know what humans can know about matters of health and life here on earth. We trust in God’s plan for all of this because it is perfect whether we understand it or not. The tone of this story tugs at the human element in all of us. In this family we ask God for help and where we are gathered, there He also is. We left for our homes away from home during our visit to NB.
My last night in New Brunswick, at least for now, and I sat up in a bed tucked into the corner of an upstairs hall at my second cousins house. To me, it wasn’t too big of a stretch to be reminded of the big, hall bed that several of us kids slept together in when visiting the old homestead as kids. And there, with heavy eyelids I typed on my iPad past midnight in the Atlantic Time zone. Just a minute or so from sleep, but I wanted to share what was on my mind and in my heart. It was so good to be there, a part of this family, and the visiting we do. It’s far better to know that we are together as one, believers in Christ, and each a little better for having the family we have. Off to sleep I went, happy to be there, and pleased by the choice of making this trip and jumping in with the generation before me.
Sunday morning brought another wonderful breakfast with my second cousin and aunt. We chatted, enjoying the time spent together as well as the nourishment of a home cooked breakfast. My aunt had to get going fairly early in order to catch a ferry back to White Head Island, NB which required a couple of hours of driving just to get there. I got ready and left the house so I could pick up my parents and my second cousin to go to church. We arrived at the church and sat down together. The church began to fill, mostly with my relatives, as so many of them go to church there. My uncle came in and sat by himself as my Aunt Janette remained in her hospital bed just up the road. I went over and sat with him, hopefully providing some form of comfort for him while seeking comfort myself. Side by side, we sang, we prayed, we listened, and we enjoyed the sermon delivered from the pulpit. There was family all around me in that church, in that service. I took time to notice it, and to let the warmth of God’s love in God’s house, among my family, to just wash over me. My mind did wander some, not in defiance, but in a prayerful, submissive, reverent, state, and I allowed it to do so. See, I didn’t want to miss the joy that a divine message carries in it. I didn’t want to forget to look at the “Peterson” headstones arranged on the plot behind the church, and I could see them from my seat. I didn’t want to hold back the tears that came easily to me while challenging my inner self, the places that only God and I know with the message delivered through song and sermon. I only fought lightly to hold in the sobs that pulled at me as the pastor’s prayer suddenly turned head-on, toward the health and status of my aunt in the hospital. My head was bowed, there between one of my aunts and my uncle. I sat there, just my mother’s son, simply a nephew to those on either side of me, and I thought about each of them, with my eyes still closed. On my left, sat my aunt, who four-and-a-half years ago lost her husband rather suddenly, and I thought of him, who lived in the role of care taker of his siblings. I thought about my aunt sitting there, remembering the life time of love she’s shown me and my family. I thought also of the sincerely, loving words that are often found in conversations where her name is found. To my right, my uncle, the man who battles with the reality of the situation he finds his sick wife in. He’s also the brother to the late, unofficially titled, care taker of his siblings, who has already entered heaven, and I am certain, awaits us all, with the wisdom noticeable in his eyes, and a smile just waiting to be seen, especially when any of us really needed one. In the middle, I sat, a grown man, head still bowed, eyes still closed, tears falling in my lap, these thoughts racing through me, and somehow wanting this moment not to end; pain or no pain, tears or no tears, with God over my shoulder, with family all around me, all in prayer, it was still a good place to be.
Pray pastor, please continue to pray, so I don’t have to raise my head or open my eyes. I wish not to wipe my eyes, nor do I care to address the shortness of breath accompanied with the quiet sobs rippling through me. For all the pain and suffering that surrounds me, I am okay here, safely seeking refuge in this old, friendly church. If this moment could just last forever, maybe I could return to my youth, playing out on the farm on a warm summer day. I could again, smell the sweet air that was found out there. Inside my grandmother would be rolling out the materials to create those most wonderful home-made donuts, with our visit in mind. Down the old dirt road, my uncles would once again come. They were larger than life to me, so strong, so smart, so unafraid, and such Godly men who were an example to us all, maybe even more than they knew. My aunts would gather and nourishment was prepared in every shape and form. Hymns being sung could be heard waltzing through the air. Grampy would have kick started my day with the sweet aroma of bacon cooked on a wood stove, and probably shared a couple of tricks to resourceful farm living if I had been paying enough attention to him going about his day. Time would be moving just slowly enough to make sure that I would not lose these memories, nor would I forget the lessons learned among the greatest people I have ever known. Pray longer pastor, for here it’s safe and nothing hurts. Here there is love, all around me, and from above. In this row I sit with the nearest and the dearest from now and from times before me too. On all sides there is hope, there is admiration, and there is selflessness. I am praying with you pastor. Can we just pray a little more? I need prayer, we all do, and I sit here, head bowed, eyes closed, in reverence I pray too. Amen.
In the world outside this small place, so much is wrong and so many are lost, so many hurt when they don’t have to, but maybe were never shown the way. Logic is defied everywhere I look and balance is gone. Hurt is real, and pain apparent without having to ask. If only they could all know the presence and feeling I welcomed in that row, sitting there among the mortal in respectful communication with the Immortal. So it was, as I headed out in the rain, for a final visit to the hospital before departing for home.
Dad, mom, and I went up to the second floor to see Aunt Janette one more time. We walked in and saw her, my uncle, and another second cousin who went downstairs to tend to his wife who was also in the hospital awaiting tests to define the pain she’s feeling. Our visit was short as it relates to measured time but something tells me that visit may never really end. We spoke. We visited. I noticed the beauty in that still young face, and I wanted to leave, I wanted all of us to leave together, and get out of that place. Instead, around the bed we gathered, and dad prayed. We all prayed in our own silent way while dad spoke the words. Dad held her hand, and long after the prayer ended, the hands still held, each of them seemingly taking turns in the holding. It was clear to me, probably to us all, that we didn’t want this visit together to end. Those fingers touched and held on in hopes that the moments not end for any of us. We gave our careful hugs and said our good-byes with the promise of continued prayer for one another. We walked out of the room, somehow changed I think. I looked only for a second at my mother’s face and saw the tears before I announced that I would go ahead and pull the car around for them. I hustled through the quiet halls of that hospital to help them, but more so to help myself. I don’t like to see my mother cry, but I left her in dad’s capable arms. We went back to mom’s second cousin’s home to grab their things before hitting the road for home. As we pulled away from there, the next stop being the border crossing back to the United States, well, after a stop for Tim Horton’s coffee, I thought again about the generation I was traveling with, had been visiting, and staying with. I was the driver, so that my parents could visit with family, particularly Aunt Janette, all of whom represent the same generation. I drove, hoping that those who we visited with didn’t mind that I jumped generations and joined them. Secretly, I smiled, because whether they liked it or not, it’s always been my pleasure.