JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)–A bouquet of bright purple balloons climbed high into the sky Oct. 13, piercing the grayness of an otherwise dreary day.
Like the balloons, which took flight easily after being released by family members, Pam Hannigan, my 45-year-old sister-in-law, had gone quietly into eternity in the early morning of Oct. 9.
Unlike the balloons’ anticipated ascent, however, Pam’s departure was a surprise and a mystery –- a shock to her husband, Brian, and three children in their early 20s.
Pam had a number of chronic illnesses but none were considered life-threatening. Married for nearly 25 years, the couple had put off celebrating their milestone until their second grandchild, due any day, could make her debut.
My 23-year-old niece, Leah, and her husband, Brice Myers, were looking forward to sharing Gracie Mae with Grandma and their son, 2-year-old Brayden. Gracie Mae would be named after both of their great-grandmothers.
Instead, Brayden toddled about his grandparents’ home, knocking on the door of the master bedroom, demanding, “Bee-bah! Bee-bah!” his name for Pam.
And Leah sat forlorn and brave next to her father and brothers trying to delay labor until after her mother’s funeral.
Sometimes I think death followed me to the Sunshine State, and now that I’ve been here for two years I would like to bid death good-bye for awhile.
Just after my first month on the job, my mother died unexpectedly of a blood clot in her lung. Months later my brother-in-law, Joseph Steckmann, succumbed to cancer. Not quite a year later my mentors and second parents, Jim and Marti Hefley, left this earth. And now–almost exactly two years after moving to Florida — Pam is gone.
I have to admit, all this death is a little daunting for me. When I add to it the tragic stories I’ve covered on death and dying in recent months, it can be a bit overwhelming at times.
Yet still, while standing in the arms of my own nearly 23-year-old daughter earlier this month, crying my eyes out, I could hear in my mind the bold, loud assurance of a popular inspirational song:
“Forever God is faithful. Forever God is strong … Forever God is with us, forever.”
As the tears flowed, and while I have learned the value of waterproof mascara and a package of disposable tissues, I also have learned that to try and understand is futile.
In the midst of hurricane coverage a few weeks back, I was reminded by a church member of the truth of Ecclesiastes. Whether it’s a tropical-related storm or one of life’s unexpected storms, there is a time and a place for everything. As long as I rest in the belief that God is in control and I put the tragic and sad circumstances of this life into His hands, I can and do feel a peculiar peace.
I hope in the future I can help my niece and nephews — and my great-nephew and great-niece — know that same peace that comes through a lasting relationship with our Reedemer, Jesus Christ.
In Indiana for Pam’s funeral, I saw my niece for the first time since she has become a young mother.
Looking at her and my great-nephew together brought back memories of what it was like to be a young mom and to enjoy the various seasons of life.
I joked about dressing my daughter as a Native American for her first fall festival. The family got a big laugh out of visualizing her as a red-headed Indian with big blue eyes framed by a large feather. I couldn’t remember what my son wore — until someone reminded me he hadn’t yet been born.
The outfit, I explained, was inspired by my mother who lived near a reservation in Arizona and who sent a specially made costume, complete with soft leather moccasins, to help celebrate the occasion.
My grieving brother-in-law brightened up then and said Pam had enjoyed listening to and watching the Miami Indians who owned land across from their previous residence in Peru, Ind. He also told me the tribe operated a gift shop from which they sold genuine goods.
It my mind, I could already see the cute little moccasins I would leave for little Gracie Mae — and the more practical ones for Brayden.
What I couldn’t have expected was how there would be a perfect little pair of pink leather size-one fringed moccasins waiting for me to purchase, and how complete it would feel to be able to share this little gift with my niece before I left to return to Florida.
Gracie Mae came into this world Monday evening, Oct. 18, at 7 pounds, 12 ounces. It is the week after her own grandmother died and the day before what would have been my mother’s 69th birthday.
The family has gone through a gauntlet of emotions. We are happy to welcome Grace Mae into the fold. We are sad that my sister-in-law Pam could not share this moment with us, but rejoice that Gracie Mae’s grandpa will be there to tell her all about “Bee-Bah.”
And the pink moccasins that bind me to Gracie Mae will remind me to be bold in telling her and others about the peace that only Jesus brings.
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of Florida Baptist Witness, online at www.FloridaBaptistWitness.com.