We have a mock orange shrub in our backyard where it borders on our neighbour’s property. Thirty years ago it bloomed, producing white blossoms with an orange tint. It has never bloomed again. That’s because Jack, our neighbour, trims all the bushes on the border to the point where next year’s bloom is doomed. Everything he touches turns into a round, sterile ball. The emphasis is on neatness and uniformity. Nature is not allowed to shape its own configuration, not permitted to flourish into a loose and free array of branches and leaves and blossoms. I have asked Jack not to trim this one particular bush so that it can freely express itself, but to no avail. Before I know it, the old shears are clipping away, and the bush has its monthly haircut.
This coming year, I have the hope living within me that the mock orange bush will bloom again. The reason being that the hands that wielded the shears have kicked the bucket, to use a dated mixed metaphor. My neighbour passed away last summer.
That day, Alice and I went for our daily walk at 6:45 in the morning. No sooner had we returned home than the phone rang. It was Jennifer, Jack’s wife. She told me that Jack had passed away about an hour ago. Could I come and pray with her and her two children? The evening before I had been at Jack’s bedside and had known that the end was near. Jack was at the point of losing a 10-year battle against prostate cancer. Jack was dead set against any religious talk, and had told the hospital chaplain he was not interested in bedside visits. But when I asked him two months before he died whether I could pray with him, he told me, “Do what you feel you have to do.” Quite a concession.
I jumped into our car and drove to the nearby hospital. There I found Jack lying in bed in the same position I had left him the night before, except his belaboured breathing had stopped. Next to the bed sat Jennifer, her son Darren and daughter Diane, both in their fifties. They seemed forlorn. It did not take long for me to grasp what the problem was. They were not able to grieve. Neither one of the children felt any affection for their dad, and that bothered them. They told me how Jack had never shown any love for them; how he had never encouraged them. In fact he had been physically and verbally abusive to both children and wife. How do you say goodbye to a man who had been a miserable s.o.b. as far as they were concerned? My feelings about our castrated bush in the back yard paled in comparison with their life-long suffering at the hand and mouth of their husband and father.
In the wilderness
I turned to Psalm 90 and began to read the age-old words of Moses. “You turn people back to dust, saying, ‘Return to dust, you mortals.’ You sweep people away in the sleep of death. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence. All our days pass away under your wrath; we finish our years with a moan.” I interrupted the reading a few times, to point out that Jack had been a difficult man and that he had made life miserable for others, especially those close to him. Darren and Diane responded with strong affirmations.
I came to the point where the psalmist pleads, “Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, for as many years as we have seen trouble.” I pointed to the fact that as children they could do two things: they could break the cycle of abuse with their own children and, if they could find it within themselves, to forgive their dad, so that the root of bitterness does not destroy them as it had destroyed their father. Both Darren and Diane said that they try to encourage their children and show affection for them. Darren envisioned a great difficulty to forgive his father. For most of the time, Jennifer had listened without saying much. As Jack’s wife, she had born the brunt of his unhappy nature, and felt perhaps some guilt that she had not been able to protect her children better.
I ended by praying with the family. Afterwards, I was amazed at how the ancient words of Psalm 90 had been able to address the troublesome effects of a dismal life lived right next door to us for the past 30 years. And I have no words that can adequately explain how satisfying it had been to be led by God’s Spirit to speak a few words of healing and comfort.
Jennifer, by the way, has agreed not to touch our mock orange bush and to allow it freedom to shoot into all kinds of erratic directions. I want the bush, too, to be glad for as many days as Jack has afflicted it.
Bert Witvoet, who changed the names of the people in this editorial, lives in St. Catharines, Ontario, where he numbers his days, being satisfied in the morning with God’s unfailing love.
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