NOTE: This is a story I wrote at Paul's Pancake Parlor in Missoula, Montana, on Easter Sunday in 2019, when Andy's father was still living, but had recently had life-saving brain surgery.
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Paul’s Pancake Parlor, table for one, is not my idea of a fabulous Easter dinner, but Easter is different this year. Brain surgery tends to change everything.
The Easters of my childhood started early in the morning with cheap chocolate bunnies, gluey jellybeans, and bland hard-boiled eggs with bits of brightly colored shell still clinging to them stubbornly like crunchy confetti. After our traditional holiday breakfast of champions, we donned crisp new clothes and tried to remain upright and stoic as Mom forced our hair into place and secured it with plastic barrettes and Final Net hairspray.
Because I grew up in the Midwest where the seasonal dress code was apparently carved into stone tablets, we also buckled on the obligatory new white shoes, then lined up on the front step for an awkward family photo before loading into the car and heading to church. There we quietly commiserated with the other overly dressed kids with stiff white shoes, all of us struggling to remain church-like while the predawn sugar rush still coursed through our veins.
When my own kids were young, I wanted Easter morning to be different. My husband and I couldn’t entirely drop the candy and bunnies thing (grown-ups also like candy), but we did move the egg hunt and baskets to Saturday. We set aside Sunday for celebrating the Resurrection. Over time, we established an Easter morning tradition, one which lasted for many years: I would awaken the kids early and, bleary-eyed, we threw on sweats and tennis shoes and stumbled outside into the chill to go for a run.
I am not a runner, friends, but we were celebrating the Resurrection, and upon reading the Biblical accounts of the story in Matthew 28, Luke 24, and John 20, we noticed quite a bit of running happened early that Sunday morning. Fortunately, I only had to keep up with small children at first, and they patiently slowed their pace for me as they grew. Our run was not a graceful event, but it was worth it, nonetheless.
As we jogged, we slipped back in time to first century Jerusalem and assumed roles of Jesus’ early followers. We pretended to be on our way to the tomb where he had been laid, breathlessly conferring about how they had crucified Jesus and he was dead and what would we do now? When we arrived at our destination--the park or the river, depending on where we were living--we would continue acting out the scene, as described in the Gospels:
"Wait! The stone has been moved!"
"Where is he?"
"His body was here, but now it’s gone!"
"But the Romans posted guards! How could anyone get past them?"
“Now what are we gonna do?”
"He said he would rise again! Do you think it really happened?"
"Whoa! Who’s the glowing dude in white?"
"No way! He has really risen!"
“Jesus is alive!”
"Hurry! Let's go tell the others!"
Then we would run back to the house as fast as we could--which for me wasn’t very fast, but I tried my best. Bursting through the front door, we would wake up Daddy, the dog, the neighbors, whoever was within earshot with our shouting:
"He is risen!"
“He came back from the dead, just like he said he would!”
This year’s holiday, however, isn’t about the traditions of Easters past. This year I have traveled to Montana, alone. It is my turn to care for my elderly father-in-law, still in frail health after a fall led to a massive brain bleed and emergency surgery. I sit on the adjustable bed in Dad’s simple room at the rehab center; he sulks in his recliner and sighs. What limited conversations we have are generously peppered with his growls and grunts and his favorite word, “Bah!” as he waves his hand to dismiss the confusing emotions he feels. He wonders whether he will ever return to an acceptable quality of life, if he will ever again be able to live in the home he loves.
I speak to Dad (and his medical team) about the idea of busting him out of rehab and driving down into the valley to his beloved little church for Easter Sunday. I suggest it might serve as a big encouragement to him.
The staff approves, but to my surprise, Dad is not excited about the idea. As can be expected with recent traumatic brain injuries, his speaking ability is not reliable. Sometimes the words come, and sometimes they just don’t, leaving him frustrated and humiliated. He depends upon a wheelchair for anything more than a few shuffled steps and is embarrassed that he doesn’t have the strength to walk. I insist that his friends there won't care, that they will be happy to see him whatever his ability level, that he belongs there, at his church with his church family on Easter morning. He is nervous and far from enthusiastic, but reluctantly consents.
On Sunday morning, I load Dad and his wheelchair into my car and we drive to his church, three towns away. The whole 40 minutes passes in near silence, aside from the nervous drumming of his fingers on the Bible in his lap.
As I anticipated, though, he is mobbed upon arrival with love and support, hugs and handshakes, smiles and so-good-to-see-yous. His ability to speak holds and he is able to give simple hellos to everyone who greets him.
By the time we sit down, Dad is all smiles. Then, when it comes time to sing, he is suddenly stronger than only an hour before. He grips the chair in front of him for support and pulls himself stubbornly to his feet so he can stand with the rest of the church body.
"Up from the grave He arose," he booms, gravelly and off-key, "with a mighty triumph o'er His foes!” He holds his head high and juts out his chin. “He arose! He arose! Hallelujah, Christ arose!”
The next song, though, catches us both by surprise. "Because He lives, I can face tomorrow,” my voice sticks in my throat as I consider the timely lyrics. “Because He lives, all fear is gone.” I slip my arm through my father-in-law’s and squeeze him close. He turns toward me and we each see tears welling up in the other’s eyes. “Because I know He holds the future, this life is worth the living just because He lives."
After more hugs and well wishes from his church family, we drive back to the rehab facility, quiet, but peaceful. There is no run to the river this year, and there are no shiny new clothes or family photos or chocolates. There is not even a special family dinner--Dad eats his reheated meal on a tray in his room, and after I get him settled in for a nap I drive over to the pancake house in solitude.
This has not been my favorite Easter, honestly. I hope to never have another one quite like it again. It is deeply meaningful, though. This Easter, stripped of its precious traditions, has reminded me that we can face tomorrow--whatever it may bring--because Jesus lives.
He is risen.
He is risen, indeed.