Soon

(From 1987 to 1999 I wrote a monthly column in the publication of Baptist Children’s Homes of North Carolina, where I was director of communications, called In a Word. This piece is reprinted from a 1997 column, written while my oldest son was getting ready to leave for college)

Shuffling down the hallway in the early morning, the glistening blue of Nathan’s freshly polished truck in the driveway arrested my sight through the window.

The little truck represents a promise I made to the kids that if they ever earned a full college scholarship, I would get them a vehicle to drive to school. Nathan did his part, and will be playing basketball for UNC Greensboro this fall.

I stood with my arms across my chest, watching the rising sun lay dappled ribbons of light across the pickup, and I pondered sadly the thin week that stood between that moment and Nathan’s departure to write a new chapter in our family’s life.

That evening my wife and I visited a young couple who were still doey-eyed and dopey over their eight-day-old baby. We toured their new house, admired the baby’s room, and talked of the tremendous emotional highs and lows that lay ahead of them through their daughter’s growing years.

It’s a brief journey, I said, from the hospital to college. Nathan’s leaving has taught me the shortest measurable unit of time is the moment between the delivery room cry, and the dorm room good-bye.

Why didn’t someone warn me about that when Nathan constantly wanted me to throw a ball, ride bike, shoot baskets, play with Legos, and read, read, read to him? Or when he fussed with his siblings on long drives? Or when he consumed the month’s grocery allowance in a week?

I confess to lunacy, actually having hoped some trying moments would pass quickly. I thought “how long?” when I cringed with him in the bathroom, trying to peel a gauze pad from the back of his 7-year-old thigh. He’d hit a bump, got tossed from his seat and his knobby bike tire rubbed off a 4-inch diameter of skin, two layers deep.

Like a fool, I put gauze over the open, oozing circle. Two days later we had to soak him in the shower to peel off the pad. I still hear his screams.

“When will you have it, dad?”

“Soon,” I said.

When he entered the Optimist oratorical contest I promised to help him edit his speech. Caught up in other work, he pestered me about when I could help him.

“Soon,” I said.

As he grew, and the family grew and my job grew, but the hours of my day stayed forever stuck on 24, “soon” seemed a reasonable answer to his requests. When could I help him memorize his play lines? When could I show him how to change the oil in the car? When could I take him practice driving? When could I talk to his teacher about math? When could I teach him a hook shot? When could I help him paint a 3-point line around his basket in the driveway?

Soon.

I don’t worry as much as their mom when the kids are out with friends. But now, watching the blue hue lighten with the rising sun, I remember once waiting through the interminable minutes for the clock to lift its heavy arms to curfew hour. With a shudder I feel the terror that grips a parent when the appointed hour arrives, but the child does not. Tingling ears measure the speed of every passing car, listening for one to slow, hoping the next one is his.

Yawning and stretching, my wife came out of our room, looked at the clock, and asked when I expected Nathan to be home from his early workout.

Soon.

Today she looks at his empty place at the table, walks past his room devoid of trophies, pictures and inspirational posters, marvels as the pantry shelves stay full like the widow’s oil lamp after Elijah’s promise, and pats the washing machine at rest. She cries, and asks when I think Nathan might come home for a visit.

I put my arm around her, look out the window where his truck used to sit, and say, “Soon.”

 

There are no old windows in Mainz

During a special anniversary trip to Europe this spring, we visited the ancient German town of Mainz. As with all excursions from our riverboat, we connected with a local guide glad to share his encyclopedic knowledge.

As he led us to the Mainz Cathedral, we entered to admire this gorgeous, active and functioning worship center on which construction started in the year 975. For those of you scoring at home that makes the cathedral 1,041 years old.

It stood during the Crusades. In fact, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa officially announced his support of the Third Crusade from this cathedral in 1188.

Surely the building buzzed with the excitement of Columbus’ discovery of a new world, and it was 500 years old at the Reformation started by Martin Luther.

Just saying that reminds me of how I laughed when President Reagan hosted an international economic summit in 1983 in what was continually referred to as “historic Williamsburg” Virginia. Some of the European attendees worked in office buildings older than Williamsburg.

Moments like these, embraced by walls that hold the secrets of 1,000 years, make travel an extraordinary experience.

We visited the Johannes Gutenberg Museum, honoring the Mainz native who invented moveable type, and viewed some of the most valuable and historically important books in the world.

But Mainz is more than the cathedral, museums and history. During WWII it was an industrial center producing war material for Germany. Because of that, allied bombers tried to turn it to dust.

The war ended for Mainz in March 1945 when the Third US Army occupied it without a fight. Eighty percent of Mainz had been destroyed.

Consequently, as our guide said, “There are no old windows in Mainz.”

That line stuck with me ever since.

Our guides in Germany talked about the war in matter-of-fact tones. They didn’t apologize, justify or defend Germany’s aggression that plummeted the world into war. Simply, “when the war was over” the industrious residents of Mainz understood their city was blown apart. Few elements remained of its life, identify and character.

Everything fragile was gone. There are no old windows in Mainz.

They understood that rebuilding their city was a chance to start over. And starting over meant deciding what to keep, what to restore, what rubble to haul away, what remnant to patch.

They knew that the part of their history created long before there was clearly a Germany or a France was the core of their identity. It was to be the magnet for visitors – like me – to come and marvel at the majesty of the ancient. Their restoration of center city reflects Mainz as it was long before German aggression rained destruction on it.

Today Mainz is a modern economy, centered on tourism and industry once again. It thrives because people are attracted to its core.

No one wants his or her life to be blown apart. But sometimes, exterior circumstances, decisions made by others, mistakes and bad choices of your own cause everything that’s fragile in your life to shatter.

When the majority of everything you’ve known has been blown to dust, but yet you live, you rebuild. Those elements of your life that were fragile are gone, and only the core remains. Is your core strong enough to become the base upon which to rebuild?

Is there a cathedral at the center of your life that stands tall and strong in whatever chaos rains around it? Or have you spent too much time installing glass windows, and putting on display fragile things that will not stand when bombs fall?

Identify your core before the wars which will come. Strengthen it. And when the dust settles, you’ll be standing, still.