Tuesday, January 3, 2012

3:01 p.m. on December 15th

She was one of the young wives I had just met in a new town. Her husband was attending classes at the Seminary. He wanted to be a missionary in a foreign land, so foreign that he would need a pilot’s license to fly there. 

 She was a shopper like me. We loved talking as we walked from one store to the next all over the huge mall near our apartment complex. We were wives of ministerial students, and the fact that we had very little money to spend did not diminish the fun of window-shopping.

One December afternoon, we pushed a shopping cart through the narrow aisles of a discount store. There were just a few Christmas gift items that we needed to find and it was payday, the 15th of the month. Our husbands would be home soon, so we hurried to the check out counter. I was at the front of the cart busily unloading and separating my few items from Karen’s when I realized that she hadn’t responded to the last comment I had made. I turned to look back at her, but I saw only a ghostly white face that didn’t seem to go with the slight frame of my new best friend.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. The cashier was ringing up the items unaware of the panic that was rising from somewhere deep inside me. “Karen, are you okay?” She didn’t respond. She didn’t seem to be able to see me. Was she going to faint? Did she even have a pulse? I had never seen anyone instantly turn such an awful shade of gray. What was she looking at on the ceiling? Her eyes were glazed and I knew she had no idea where she was at that moment. I looked at my watch. 3:01 p.m. Instinctively I knew that I would never forget 3:01 p.m. on December 15.

What was she saying? “Karen, what are you saying?” I almost whispered to her. She wasn’t saying anything. She was singing. Very softly, she was singing a hymn. Somehow I paid for all the items in the cart, and managed to get her and the shopping bags into my car. I had to get her home immediately, before I lost control completely. I thought everything would be okay when she got home. Kent would be home by the time we got there, and he would take care of her. I needed to get home, too. All I could think about was getting back to our apartment complex as quickly as possible.

Karen continued to sing in the car. “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling,” she sang in a hushed voice. Then for a few minutes she hummed another familiar hymn. She had not spoken a word to me, and she was still that very strange color of pale gray. As my car coasted to a stop in front of the stairway to her apartment, I could see our pastor standing at the top of the steps. “Good,” I thought, “he will know what to do with Karen.” It didn’t really seem strange to me that he was waiting there on the top step. I thought he must have been there to visit with Kent and maybe he had been invited to supper. Without a word, Karen gathered her things and gently stepped out of the car. She stood there smiling at me as I drove away. I waved, but mostly I wondered, “What just happened?”

Quickly I put the purchased items away, and began preparing to cook dinner. I hadn’t really planned to cook a big meal, but it just seemed like the right thing to do. I found myself preparing to roast a whole chicken with a pan of homemade dressing. I would add a vegetable side to go with it, I thought. It seemed like seconds later that I was opening the oven to take out a golden brown roasted chicken sitting atop bubbling hot dressing. It smelled wonderful, and I was just about to take it out of the oven when the phone rang. I don’t recall what was said, but I realized that our pastor was speaking to me. I hung up the phone without knowing whether I had spoken a word.

Kent was dead. He was 27 years old. How could a brilliant young seminary student die? He wanted to get more flight experience over water, so he had signed on with one of the oil companies to transport executives out to the oil rigs and back to their plush office suites in downtown New Orleans. At exactly 3:01 p.m., his plane caught a tower wire and burst into flames. Exactly at 3:01 pm on December 15. Our pastor had been waiting outside their apartment door to deliver the grim news to this 23-year-old widow.

Another seminary wife, was watching their two-year-old daughter, and she offered to keep her until family members arrived. I wrapped up the chicken and dressing to take to Karen’s apartment. I realized that it was never meant to be our dinner, but had been prepared for those who would come to comfort her. I don’t remember the rest of the week. I don’t remember when she left campus or how often we talked on the phone over the next couple of years. I just know she was the first widow close to my age that I had ever known.

There really is no ending to Karen’s story. Those of us who have lost a loved one in a tragic instant have found that there is no ending. My place in her story would resume at a later time, but for the moment there were others who would hold her hand. Family members came to take her to the safe place called home where she could rest and prepare to begin a new journey. 

"Sing unto God, sing praises to his name, extol him that rides upon the heavens by his name Jah (the Lord, most vehement), and rejoice before him. A father of the fatherless, and an advocate of the widows, is God in is holy habitation" (Psalm 68:4-5).

LORD, thank you for giving a song in our hearts even in times of grief and sorrow. We praise you, O God, for the protection you provide for the widows and the fatherless, and we thank you for the comfort of the Holy Spirit in times of sorrow. In Jesus' name, Amen. 

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