Our existence on this planet began at birth and ends when we are laid to rest. You might believe, as I do, that while our spirit may be separated from our body for a time, the message of Easter - that both our body and spirit will one day be reunited in the resurrection and we will live on in a perfected state.
I have been thinking about life and death recently, perhaps the result of being with my father-in-law during his last few days of life. His death wasn’t a surprise to his family – we all knew it was going to happen - we just didn’t know the day or the hour. Having lost my father thirty years ago, I felt seeing my wife’s father begin to slip away would be a similar event. What I experienced was something quite different.
One of my favorite movies is Private Ryan. It is about a fictional character whose 101st Airborne unit jumps into France on D-Day. Private Ryan quickly learns he has earned a ticket home on account of all of his brothers being killed in action elsewhere. In the movie, Tom Hanks character is tasked with going behind enemy lines to find Private Ryan and send him home. The opening scene shows an old man walking through a cemetery in France, his family trailing behind him as he searches out the grave of the man that saved him.
His life flashes back to the final words his rescuer utters as life drains from his body. “Earn this,” he says, referring to the sacrifice he and a number of soldiers in his platoon had made to rescue him. Finding the headstone, he kneels down and in solemn tone hopes that in his somewhat ordinary life he had done enough to have earned the sacrifice others had made to preserve his life.
I would bet that all of us hope that we have done enough in our lifetimes to earn all the sacrifices made by our forefathers as they worked to provide a satisfactory existence for us.
My grandfather Lenkersdorfer hardly knew my dad, let alone any of his posterity. His death in 1928 took him away from a lot of people, including my own father, who was just six years old at the time of his father’s passing. Doing research about my grandfather takes me on a journey from Iowa to Montana and on to Utah. His actions lead directly to his children’s successes in life that endured well after his own life ended at the age of 63.
My father-in-law has a posterity involving around fifty lives that would not have had an existence on this earth had he not done all that he could to make a life for himself, and by extension, all of his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Aside from my grandmother who lived to be 100 years-old, the only grandparents I have ever known were the ones lent to me through my association with my wife. Her grandfathers became my grandfathers through marriage, helping enrich my life in a way that only senior members of our families can give us.
Having lost my own father before I turned 30, my father-in-law sort of became my father and as such was someone I could bounce ideas off of and seek council from when a pivotal choice had to be made. Prior to his final breaths we were allowed to gather around him and express our love and gratitude for him. This was an experience I couldn’t have with my own father, given the circumstances at the time of his death, so it took on a greater significance with him.
The guiding message I take away from each Easter is that of making a difference to those who are most important to us, yes, but also the difference we have made to those we might have called strangers but for a brief encounter. My introduction to my wife would have never happened had I not rented an apartment from her great grandmother while living in Hawthorne, California. Her kindness to me led to me helping her with her garden long after I had moved out of her neighborhood. It was during one of the visits to weed her garden that my future wife introduced herself, thanking me for the service I was doing for her great-grandmother.
Making a difference to an elderly lady, even for something as simple as pulling weeds from the garden, has guided me to the wonderful life I am able to live today. Will you make a difference?