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Funerals, Family and Faith

Dear LifeSharers,                                                                                                                            July 2011

            It’s been almost two weeks since Claire and I have been back in Nebraska after just a week in Colorado for my mom’s funeral and a few days of reorientation with family and friends. Life will be a lot different for us than it has been for the last several years of my Mom's illness but we believe the Lord is now showing us just how that extra time on our agenda should be filled in.  I want to share a few of those things with you in this LifeSharer letter but I’ll start with a general review of what’s been happening.

            At 7 o’clock on Monday evening, June 13, my Mom, Ionia Hartford, passed into the presence of her Savior, Jesus Christ.  Her death came after many years of battling weakness and ill health including dementia, heart and liver ailments, diabetes, recurrent edema, recurrent infections and injuries from falls.  Her last 38 days were spent in Immanuel Hospital.  Claire and I had spent most of our time there during those weeks and we were with her when she died.

            We scheduled the funeral for the following Friday out in Golden, Colorado where my father’s body is buried. We really had to hustle in order to get everything done in time including several things we had to finish for Vital Signs and then here at the house. But among the more pleasant tasks were delivering thank-yous to the staff at Life Care Center where Mom had lived so joyfully the last two years. There were some sweet embraces of goodbye even though we reminded them we will still be seeing them often. We also left them a large card we had made showing photos of Mom throughout her life. And, as usual, we dropped off some of Claire's chocolate chip cookies! We then took plates of cookies, a few more photo cards of Mom and two $100 pizza “credit cards” to the nurses who work the ICU and cardio floors of Immanuel Hospital.  Thanking people is so important and those doctors, nurses and other staff members truly deserved it.

            So we didn’t arrive in Denver until late Thursday night but we were up early Friday morning to enjoy the sunrise on the Front Range of the Rockies.  Claire and I headed out to Golden to sign some papers at the cemetery, check things out at Foothills Chapel, and buy a floral display and two dozen roses.

            The funeral service began at 2.  It was a nice gathering: Mom’s five kids and their families, a niece and her husband from Kansas City, some of Mom’s friends from the old neighborhood, some of Ric’s friends, some of our friends who live in Colorado, and Claire’s sister who lives there too.  My funeral sermon was brief, involving a description of Mom’s life and interests as well as relevant Scriptures dealing with resurrection, heaven and the gospel.  We then drove a couple of miles to the town cemetery in Golden.  The graveside service involved a Scripture reading, a prayer and testimonies from several family members and friends, each of whom then placed one of the roses on the casket.  It was a tender and very moving time – as was the fellowship at Ric and Ellen’s after the funeral.

            On Saturday morning, Claire and I headed to Golden to check on the grave, to get a few more groceries and to serve as the scouts to find a good picnic spot near Idaho Springs.  Other members of the family took off to visit Red Rocks.  We found a superb picnic spot (one where Claire and I have had lunch before) about 12 miles south of Idaho Springs, just a few miles on the highway leading up to Mt. Evans.  What a splendid afternoon we had.  A cold mountain stream.  High pine trees and aspens.  Sunshine keeping it warm enough to be comfortable.  Mountain jays cawing and flying around.           A great picnic menu.  And a whole lot of memories shared of Mom and Dad.  Saturday night was great too, the highlight of which was the discovery of a little diary that contained Mom’s description of her courtship with Dad.  It was absolutely amazing and none of us had ever known it existed!  One of our Christmas projects will be to produce a transcript of that diary for all family members.
            Sunday morning saw some family members having to leave for Florida and Kansas while others stuck around for a nostalgia tour of our high school, the swim club, our old neighborhood and more.  We had a very nice time all day and then enjoyed dinner together at a 50’s style diner that night. On Monday morning, Claire and I arranged the headstone etching, the placement of a permanent vase and so on.  We then had one final meal together with family at a kosher deli and said our goodbyes.  Claire and I then turned our sporty red, rented Chevy towards the mountains, eventually crossing Loveland Pass during a sleety snowfall and landing in Frisco.  It was only that night that we really felt the effects of what had been a very emotional, very hectic week and, after I recovered from a really severe nosebleed, we slept hard until the next morning.

            We were breathing that rarified mountain air very early on Tuesday morning and by 7 o’clock we were on the road again.  What spectacular views!  If I live forever (which, by the way, I will!) I’ll never get over the splendor of the Rocky Mountains!  We looked around Frisco a bit and then headed further west to Vail.  We got off the highway and enjoyed bagels and tea at an out of the way town called Minturn and eventually got on 131 and headed north towards Steamboat Springs. It was a gorgeous day, just perfect for driving in the mountains which has always been a fun and therapeutic activity for me.  We drove around Steamboat for quite awhile, had a cup of coffee and then headed back over Rabbit Ears Pass towards Winter Park.  We had a romantic (but chilly) picnic there and then crossed the Divide again at Berthoud Pass, dropping in for a soda in Idaho Springs.  By the time we found a motel back in Denver, it was pretty late in the evening.

            Wednesday was a neat day of visiting. We started out with lunch at Vince Canino's fabulous restaurant Piccolo's.  Vince is Claire's sister Peg's husband and a nicer guy and better restaurateur you'll never find.  We had lunch there with our forever friends, Jim and Jeanne Lawson, and then headed into Wheat Ridge to visit Jeanne's mother who lives in a very nice assisted living facility there.  We've known Mrs. Nemec for 40 years and it was great to see her again.  Next it was up to Lafayette to visit Dave Hall in an assisted living home. He is another fellow I've known for over 40 years.  In fact, I met Dave the first day I was in Omaha.  It was late spring 1970 and I had hitchhiked into town from Denver, knew nary a soul in the town, and had absolutely no prospects.  But I got involved in a conversation with Dave on a sidewalk next to Farnam Street and we've been friends ever since.

            The next visit was a couple of miles away in Louisville where Claire's brother Dan lives with his wife T.C. and their three great kids, Maria, Annie and David.  Also living there is T.C.'s father, Russ.  We talked deep into the night and I especially enjoyed talking with Russ about his history, GK Chesterton, and new technology.  

            On Thursday, things finally seemed to catch up with us and though we desperately wanted to relax and enjoy more vacation time, our thoughts were clearly being drawn back towards home.  I had taken two weeks off from preaching; we had cancelled the rest of June's "When Swing Was King" presentations; the Vital Signs Board had already conducted the quarterly meeting -- but still we were feeling the need to get back.  Part of this was grief over Mom's passing and part of it was the natural let down after the intensity of the funeral activities and days spent with family.  However, a rather sad part of it is that Claire and I have just forgotten how to have vacations.  Kind of a bummer, huh?

            Before we left, however, there was one more family we wanted to visit.  But Craig Young wasn't going to be back in town until Friday morning.  So we decided to stick around and have breakfast with Craig, Cindy and their three youngest kids, Mercy, Elizabeth and Duncan up in Loveland.  So Claire and I spent Thursday in another nostalgia tour, this one concentrating on family homes that we lived in before moving to Lakewood, the service station I worked at on Evans, etc.  We also fit in a lunch at a delightful dive at 15th & Curtis in downtown Denver which has been there since 1927. It’s called Sam’s #3 and we award it at least 4 stars. We then drove up to Loveland for our last evening in Colorado. We found a quiet motel and asked for a westward view on the highest floor.  We spent the last hours of day looking out at the beautiful view, drinking tea and talking about our Moms, our families and everything that had happened the previous week.  It was really sweet. 

           The next morning we had a delightful breakfast over at the Young's house. It turned out that Craig and Duncan had a flight canceled and they didn't get into town until afternoon.  But Mercy had prepared a bacon quiche, spinach quiche and blueberry muffins for us and we spent a swell couple of hours in conversation with Cindy and the girls. We took off around noon. 

           It was on the way home that we had a discussion that seemed to open up the next ministry chapters for us for the key topic of conversation was how those hours that we had been expending in my Mom’s care these last several years should be spent now. Some of the agenda was already clear to us:  1) Vital Signs Blog has been doing a good job informing, stimulating and equipping Christian activists and so we decided that should definitely continue.  2) “When Swing Was King” has become wildly popular and not only is a terrific ministry in itself but it has opened many doors of friendship to residents and staff members. We’re getting close to a saturation point with the number of these presentations we can handle, but that will stay a priority.  3) Our new campaign against Planned Parenthood is becoming more clearly defined. It includes a weekly presence at the Northwest Planned Parenthood abortion mill, developing further our internet audio/visual projects for use on the internet and continued involvement with the new Nebraskans Against Planned Parenthood such as my present service as a co-administrator of NAPP’s Facebook page.   4) We also know the value of longstanding services like our letter-writing nights, our book discussions, the Vital Signs web page, my writing and our Russian-language website.  And so those will remain in place too.

            But the fact is that we have been able, by God’s gracious strength and provision (provision which involves your general and loyal support), to fulfill these things at a pretty high level of efficiency despite the hours invested in caring for Mom.  So the central question for us was, “Lord, what do we do with the time that was formerly expended for Mom?” We think there’s two parts to His answer.  First of all is that the freed hours from Mom’s care mean that I’m available to travel abroad again.  So, look out Burkina Faso, Belarus, Poland, Great Britain and who knows where! 

            And we believe God gave us the second part of the answer by having us reflect on the previous Wednesday.  Was it mere coincidence that our visiting happened to include three seniors?  These particular people all have family who are heavily involved in their lives.  Nevertheless, they were thrilled to have us visit and we were able to minister to one another in wonderful ways – just as we have done with the residents of Mom’s nursing home.  And just as we have done with those that we meet through “When Swing Was King.”  So why not go ahead and move further into this arena of ministry; that is, extend our personal visitation to those who continually face the tedium and loneliness of a nursing home or shut-in lifestyle?  It was an answer that made immediate sense to us.  We do, after all, enjoy it.  We have plenty of experience.  There is a huge need.  And finally, to be quite frank, we’re pretty good at it!  So, that’s exactly what we plan on doing – filling the absence of hours spent with my Mom with hours spent with other Moms…and Dads…and Grandmas…and Grandpas.

            So the new agenda for Vital Signs Ministries turns out to be an awful lot of the previous agenda including a return to the more direct investment in international missions which (before I needed to stick around for my Mom) had taken me to Poland (2x), Russia, India, Nigeria, England (4x), Germany, Switzerland, Canada, Burkina Faso (2x) and Belarus (10x).  But there are some new features: the Russian-language website, “When Swing Was King,” creating special internet educational projects and now, an increase in personal visits to area seniors.  We hope you approve of this agenda and we hope you continue to uphold us in prayer, in encouragement and in financial support. Please know that we are forever grateful for those of you in our LifeSharer team that do any combination of these important blessings.  Thank you so much.