Though There Are No Grapes

In late April two years ago, I changed the tires on my van, installing the summer tires once again – not such a memorable event and one that I had done also exactly six months earlier. On October 31, 2015, my wife and I had just put on the winter tires and, in all aspects, it was a typical fall day. The two of us were at home with our younger son, getting our property ready for winter. She had gone inside to check on a few things, and I had just started to change the tires on the pickup, when the phone rang with a call that would change our lives.

His life was over, and there was no more to tell.

The evening before our older son, Johannes, had stopped by for supper and to do some laundry, even though a few weeks earlier he had just purchased his own house a couple of miles away. He was single and had always lived with us, in typical Hispanic fashion. He liked his mom’s cooking, had taken over most of our basement and was comfortable living with us. He finally figured it was time for him to have his own place – he was 26 already – but he still preferred to be at our house, stopping by for lunch, coming over after work and just spending time with us. That Friday evening began as did most of our evenings, sitting around the kitchen table after supper, talking and rehashing the day’s events. I recall that we were discussing the family cruise that we had planned for Christmas, finalizing some details. Around 7:30 he decided it was time for him to head to his place, so he left.

Although he had planned on working on some cabinets at our place on Saturday, we knew better than to call him on a Saturday morning. Saturdays were his day to sleep in, relax and take things easy after a week of working hard in construction. Therefore, my wife and I thought nothing of not having heard from him on Saturday. By midafternoon we asked our youngest son if he knew if his brother was up and about already. He sent a text but got no response.

It was around 3:30 when the phone rang, and my wife answered. The call was from our niece, Mariana. She had lived with us for years, was best friends with Johannes, and had moved in with him when he had purchased his house. As soon as my wife answered I could tell something was amiss. My wife was asking questions; our niece was frantic. She had gone to the garage and there was Johannes, in his car, nonresponsive and not moving. She and her boyfriend had called the ambulance. Fearing the worst but not wanting to believe the possibility, my wife and I yelled to our younger son, who was studying to be a nurse, to go to his brother’s house also. We grabbed the car keys and headed out, driving as fast as we dared. Our son somehow managed to arrive at his brother’s place first, but it was too late. There were police officers and paramedics at the house when we arrived. I went and started asking questions, and our neighbor, a state trooper, told me the news: our son was dead, from apparent carbon monoxide poisoning.

At that point, time seemed to stand still. I asked the police if they were sure, if there was any hope, and the response was negative. I managed to tell my wife, and we went inside the house, where Mariana and her boyfriend were, with our younger son. Someone had phoned our other niece, Conchita, who came over with her husband. We all were trying to come to grips with this sudden and abrupt change to the reality of our calm and peaceful lives: Our oldest son, brother, cousin, was dead. I phoned one of my brothers in Canada so that he could inform the family there. One of our nieces phoned her mom in Honduras to inform my wife’s family. I phoned our pastor so that he could come over and be with us, and the waiting began. No one wanted to answer any of the phones because the reality was too harsh to bear.

Because our son had been found in the car and the paramedics had determined he had been dead for quite some time already, the situation was treated like a crime scene, and we all had to wait until it was processed. Time slowly ticked away: 5 o’clock, 6 o’clock, 7 o’clock. Many questions, few answers. The coroner came. The police needed to interview each one of us separately. In between, we were all in the living room, wanting to talk about Johannes and his life, sharing stories and memories, praying and trying not to ask why. Because it was Oct. 31, Halloween, the occasional trick-or-treater, oblivious of the police vehicles, would come to the door and I had to ask them to leave.

NOW A “BODY”

Finally, around 8 p.m., the funeral home was given permission to remove the body. Our son was now a “body,” needing to be removed. Once they were gone, we could leave also, heading back to our house, which suddenly seemed so very empty. Someone was missing. And then, in a cruel twist of events, we realized that we needed to change the time and set our clocks one hour back – this long night suddenly was going to have one hour added to it.

Our pastor stayed until very late, keeping us company and trying to comfort us: My wife and me, our son (no longer the “younger” son), our niece and her boyfriend and our other niece and her husband and their 4-year-old son. Our pastor had informed our church already, cancelling plans for a bilingual service on that Sunday with a neighboring church and letting people know what had happened. We finally decided to try to sleep, knowing that it would be close to impossible.

When dawn finally broke the following day, Sunday, we were all still trying to grapple with this new reality. Johannes was no longer with us. We decided to stay at home that day, no one wanting to face the challenge of talking to others. We read the Bible, talked, prayed and found strength in each other. We discussed going to our church, Amistad Cristiana, that afternoon to attend the afternoon service but decided it would be too much. By then, the news had spread. We were later told that the service that day was standing room only, with many acquaintances of Johannes coming to the service – even those who were not regular churchgoers.

On that Sunday we soon started to see God’s hand in this process in many different and subtle ways. We wrote a short history of Johannes for the pastor to share at church. People started to bring food. Others started to take care of little details that needed to be done. We started to plan the memorial service. Family members began to inform us of travel plans: About 20 members of my family from Canada would be coming. The few family members from my wife’s side who lived in the United States also informed us they would be coming, and those in Honduras starting to plan a memorial service at our former church there. We began to talk of celebrating Johannes’ life.

“A MAGICAL BOOK”

Late that Sunday afternoon, as we all gathered together for supper, we knew that our customary after-supper-time of Bible reading (my task) and praying (my wife’s role) would be difficult. I decided to read the last portion of Revelation 22, trying to read it through the tears that kept coming. Others in the family began to well up in tears also. Before I finished, everyone was crying. And then, our niece’s 4-year-old son, Rodolfito, proudly exclaimed, “That book is a magical book because it makes everyone cry. But I didn’t cry.” We all erupted into laughter, fulfilling the words of Psalm 30:11 ever so quickly.

As plans began to come together for the memorial service on Wednesday, my wife and I made a digital slide show of the many facets of Johannes’ life. Choosing pictures was difficult, but two themes quickly surfaced: church and family. When we had finally placed the last picture in its place, tears came once again – we had finished telling the story of our son’s life, his life was over, and there was no more to tell. But yet again, the Lord’s hand was there. We originally had thought that we would have the memorial service in our own small church, with seating for 200. However, others tried to dissuade us from the idea, trying to convince us that there would be too many people. But, we asked, how could such an unassuming young man have touched the lives of so many people? He had lived a quiet life, his preferred friends were his brother and their cousins (who were like sisters to them), he helped out at church but was not involved in the community, and the only sport he played was soccer. My wife and I decided to follow the advice of others and we requested permission from Amistad Cristiana’s mother church, Covenant CRC, with available seating for more than 400, to have the service there.

As Wednesday drew closer, we again could see the Lord’s hand. Family members and church members were at the house, providing company and food. People talked about Johannes and shared memories. People kept reminding us that many people were praying for us. Students at the college where I teach arranged for a prayer service on Monday. Colleagues took care of my classes. People made sure to inform everyone possible about what had happened.

CITIZEN OF HEAVEN

The pastor, church members, my wife and I planned the memorial service. As a church, we didn’t have experience with funeral services, because this would be the first funeral in Amistad’s 20 year history. My wife requested that no one dress in black, because she wanted it to be a celebration; she and our nieces decided to dress in white. We wanted the service to reflect Johannes’ life and God’s central role. We chose his favorite hymns and praise songs, some in Spanish, some in English. Several of my students offered to help interpret the service. My sister-in-law, Elizabeth, an ordained CRC pastor, would give the message, based on Habakkuk 3:17-18 – “Though there are no grapes” – a text that has been key in our lives during times of abrupt change and loss. Our pastor would direct the service. Our former pastor, who had come from Miami, Florida, for the service, would speak a few words. Others were asked to speak also.

Before the service, my wife and I gathered with all of our family members and with our pastor in one of the church’s classrooms. We prayed, then walked upstairs, a solemn procession going to bid adieu to Johannes. The church was entirely full, with more than 400 people coming to show support and celebrate Johannes’ life. There were current and former colleagues from his work in the construction business, team members from soccer, high school and grade school friends and companions, friends of the family, colleagues from my and my wife’s work, community members, acquaintances and our entire church.

The service was a beautiful blend of worship, in Spanish and in English, thanking the Lord for what he had done in and through Johannes’ life. Perhaps it was his boss, Dave, who summed it up the best: “We all miss him. The smile, the grin, and then an attitude that was only about service. Some people ask how, and we ask why. You understood the why. He always got it. It was not about him, it was always about others. Johannes’ work here was finished. He accomplished what God needed him to, and did it in 26 short years.” Although Johannes had been a citizen of three countries – Canada, Honduras and then the United States – his true citizenship was in heaven (Phil. 3:20).

ABLE TO USE ALL THINGS

It’s been a long two years since then. However, each time the Lord has given us the needed strength to carry on and to overcome the inevitable challenges of trying to return to lives that were no longer normal. Someone was missing. I can still vividly recall the e-mail that I sent to the dean and a colleague at the college the night of his death, when I wrote, “We miss him.” We still do.

Difficult moments can arise at the most unexpected times, such as the first day of the semester, when I normally introduce myself to new classes. This time I needed to say that I have one son, rather than two. Or when my wife and I were cleaning the yard the next spring and we found bottle caps of his favorite drink. Yet the Lord has provided many people who have been there to help us along the way, sending us notes and cards, giving us several memorial trees for around the house, or washing windows and coming over for a visit. The company where Johannes worked helped us finish installing the metal roofing on the barn, a project that we had started in October and which Johannes had directed.

Recently, I’ve noticed that my wife’s beautiful smile and laughter is slowly starting to return. As she is quick to testify, it is only because of her steadfast faith in the Lord that she has been able to make it through this ordeal without becoming bitter.

The Lord is also able to use all things to further his kingdom. Several people who were not churchgoers but who had come to the memorial service realized that something was missing in their lives, and have since then accepted Christ and are now part of our church. Johannes’ death also was a wake-up call for many of the young people at church, and a group of eight young adults made profession of faith on Easter Sunday.

We have shed many tears, but each time the Lord has been there to sustain us, allowing us to be comforted with the certain knowledge that one day we will be reunited again and that when the roll is called up yonder, we’ll be there, together as a family. That deep and abiding hope, which only Christians can truly share, has been a blessing. And, although at first it was difficult, we can now join with Paul in saying the words of I Corinthians 15:55, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” It still hurts; he is no longer here to brighten our lives, but we continue to take comfort in the knowledge and hope of our certain resurrection, knowing that in the future, the Lord himself will wipe away all of our tears.

Piet Koene teaches Spanish at Northwestern College, Orange City, Iowa.