Meditation for My Father’s Celebration of Life
and Witness to the Resurrection
Lester R. Barker Center, John Knox Village of Central Florida
September 15, 2019
In Memory of Robert Kornspan
Aug. 23, 1934-Aug. 21, 2019
Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
29 He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
30 Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
31 but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.”
–Isaiah 40:1, 28-31
My Dad was a quiet man—a listener, not a talker—a gentle, family man, a home body, an early riser, a breakfast eater, a reader, a genealogist, a gardener and a walker. He was artistic, though he didn’t think so. He created self-portraits with charcoal in college that looked just like him! I still have them. He was a lover of music and took piano lessons for 11 years after he retired, because he didn’t have the opportunity as a child.
He was a dreamer.
Raised in a row home in Washington, DC, he was the first of his family to go to college, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1952 from the University of Md.
He enlisted in the Navy because he loved ships, and he wanted to see the world, he said. He spent much of his time in Cuba, where, along with his military service, he photographed many beautiful flowers growing in the wild.
After the Navy, he got a job with the Weather Bureau in DC.
In spring of ‘61, a neighbor of his invited him to dinner at her home so she could introduce him to someone with whom she worked at Bethesda Naval Hospital, a dark eyed Navy nurse from Daytona Beach. He fell in love with Elaine at first sight. The quiet man found his voice and called her almost every night to talk after that. They got married in December ’61.
They had 3 children before moving in 1968 to a rancher in Damascus, MD, a rural community of rolling hills, fields planted with corn, and cows grazing almost in our backyard. It would mean a long commute to his work in Rockville, Md., for what would become NOAA in 1970. But he didn’t care in those early years in Damascus. He was excited about the country home with a large yard, though his wife, a city girl, was less enthusiastic.
Dad grew a variety of flowers, shrubs, and trees in Damascus. When we were moving in, he was so anxious to get started on the lawn that he dug up an evergreen hedge in their former yard and planted it in their new yard. It was January. Who does that? Plant a hedge in the dead of winter?
We had huge, Crimson King maple trees that dropped a sea of purple leaves every fall. My brother, sister, and I helped rake and bag, but we also piled the leaves up high and jumped in them. I enjoyed lying down in them, staring up at the clouds. He also grew fruit trees– apple and peach, from which Mom made applesauce and pies that Dad and the rest of us loved.
Our plantings drew all sorts of wildlife to our yard. We had Concord grape vines that attracted birds who ate them and dropped purple on my mother’s clean clothes hanging on the clothesline. The grapes also brought swarms of wasps, of which my sister and I were terrified. I remember thinking how brave Dad was when he was stung by them, then stoically went inside, put baking soda mixed with water on the welts, and went back outside to work. We had a strawberry patch that drew rabbits that ate the strawberries faster than we could pick them. So Dad covered the patch with chicken wire on a wooden frame. It didn’t work. The rabbits nested in the patch and the day we discovered the adorable baby bunnies, I lobbied to keep them as pets, along with our cats and dog. Dad probably would have let me, but they got away.
Dad had a vegetable garden, with tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, carrots, peppers, yellow and green squash, and sometimes broccoli and asparagus. He would carefully prepare the soil every year, tilling the ground, removing rocks and adding topsoil and manure. I was one of his helpers, picking up and piling rocks into a border or loading them into the wheelbarrow. I marveled at his strength and skill with the wheelbarrow; it was too heavy for me to move.
In winter, caring for his houseplants was a labor of love, making sure they were in the right size pots, with good soil and fertilizer and just the right amount of water. He grew African violets, ivy, philodendron, wandering Jew, cactus, aloe, spider plants, begonias and others. He also read Flower and Garden Magazine cover to cover. Some years, he started seeds in peat pots with grow lights in our basement and planted them in spring, along with the bulbs that wintered in our refrigerator drawers.
In addition to raking leaves and grass and picking rocks, I had other duties assigned to me as Dad’s gardener and maintenance assistant. My sister and I pulled dandelions and thistles we called “pricker” bushes; it was harder than it looked. Dad was very concerned that we get them by the root or they would just grow back! Mom assigned me the job of sitting on the bottom of his ladder when he climbed onto the roof or painted the house. She was always afraid he would fall off the ladder, and was too nervous to watch him herself. Dad wasn’t afraid and would climb the ladder even if I got distracted and wandered off, and he was on his own. It was my job to bring him glasses of water when he was working in the heat and to hand him tools that he would have to describe to me in detail and tell where I would find them. I often brought the wrong ones and he would patiently send me back again, looking for what he needed.
One of my vivid memories of gardening with Dad is picking off bagworms from the hemlocks and Japanese beetles from the roses and dropping them into peanut butter or jelly jars of gasoline. I didn’t mind any of these jobs. They were way more interesting than cleaning the house! It was an adventure with Dad and meant special time with him.
The truth is, I always think of my father when I am outside in my yard or taking a walk. I think of something Dad told me about flowers, trees or shrubs, and I think, “I wish Dad could see my black-eyed Susan’s or cone flowers in bloom” or the huge, Crimson King maple trees that remind me of Damascus. I can’t look at my pink roses, without remembering how he grew delicate, miniature roses and would cut them and put them in tiny vases. I still have the vases. Whenever I see them on my shelf, I remember his joy.
Dad rarely talked about his work. Though he liked the people he worked with, he didn’t like his job very much. Whenever I visited him at his work, he was anxious to introduce me to all his co-workers before we headed to Gino’s for lunch. “This is my daughter, Karen,” he would say, smiling. His desk was full of family photos—my brother, sister and me as kids and my mom with her hair frosted and teased up high.
He and I were talking once, years ago, about how he came to major in Geography in college and work as a cartographer. That wasn’t his first choice. He had started in Horticulture and wanted to work in a plant nursery, maybe have one of his own someday. But when he realized the other students in the program were sons of fathers who already had nursery businesses, he was intimidated. He gave up on his dream. He let it go.
Our reading in Isaiah is about dreams and disappointments–and hope. The prophet Isaiah shares a vision of restoration for the exiles in Babylon. They are forced to live in a place they don’t want to be, a life they don’t want to live, away from their Holy City and the Temple, which are no more. They grieve their old life and fear that God has abandoned them or is punishing them for their sin.
Isaiah assures the exiles that God is still with them and that a beautiful new life will replace their harsh reality. They are tired—physically, emotionally, spiritually. We’ve all been there. Isaiah encourages God’s people in all times to hope in Him. We can trust the Lord to be the source of our strength, if we wait on God and are patient through life’s disappointments, struggles, and sorrows.
The Lord never needs sleep or tires of helping and guiding us. He is not a remote God; he knows us intimately, better than we know ourselves. He has eyes of eternity to see our future—what we will be when the Spirit is finished with its work in us, and we live new, resurrected lives with Him. God, who created the heavens and the earth and planted a garden, made human beings for companionship. The Lord wants to be in loving relationship with us!
Isaiah assures us that God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted, but those who wait for the Lord—hope and pray– shall renew their strength. They shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. They shall mount up with wings, like eagles!
Driving through the mountains of West Virginia a couple of weeks ago, I remembered how my dad told me after he retired to Florida in the 1990s that he missed the change of the seasons and the colors of the leaves in fall. He was always the gardener, though as the years passed, he worked outside less and less. In July, when I visited him and Mom, he talked about his trouble growing flowers in his little yard on Sweetgum. But I don’t think he cared that he wasn’t gardening anymore. And I don’t think he cared where he lived, as long as he was with Mom.
When I was a teenager, I asked him what attracted him to Mom. They had such different personalities and interests. He said she was so much fun. And she was a good kisser.
As Mom took care of him in the nursing home, I watched him look at her when she wasn’t looking. She kept saying how she was sure he was tired of her, but he never agreed. He had such love in his eyes, just as he did, I imagine, when they first met—and the quiet man couldn’t stop talking. He always said with pride that she was the smart one. He said that about his children, too, that we were smarter than he, but that wasn’t true. He was humble about his own gifts and talents.
My gentle, quiet father loved his family more than anything else and wanted to be with us. He never gave up hope that he would get better and go home. He did try to escape once, packing his underwear, get well cards, and photos into his walker and walking right out the door. My brother found him on the road and brought him back. He dealt with many physical challenges courageously and recovered remarkably well after many surgeries, illnesses, infections, and falls. Some medical professionals called him, “The Miracle Man.”
We never stopped praying for his healing and peace. We were shocked when he went to sleep the night of August 20 and left us the morning of Aug 21–two days shy of his 85th birthday. We weren’t ready. Mom called me at 1:30 am to tell me that he had passed and she was with him at the nursing home. “ How peaceful he looks,” she said. “But I just miss him.” “Me too,” I said.
It doesn’t seem real that he is gone, and then it seems too real, too much for my heart to bear. I am hungry for special time with him, even just one more phone conversation. I have things to tell him. And I just want to hear his voice, give him one more hug. Tell him that he was always a good Dad. A good man.
It comforts me that he’s waiting for us now. I have dreams of my father, the dreamer. No more wheelchair, walker, or coughing when he eats and drinks. No more tremors, nightmares, fatigue, or pain. In the Kingdom of God, Dad has renewed strength and health and a new life in the everlasting, where there is no sickness, loneliness, sadness or fear. Where the Lord will wipe away all our tears and eat with us at a magnificent banquet table.
God will heal and make whole what is broken in us and renew our strength—now, in this world—as we trust, hope, and rely on Him, day by day. We have the promise of a new, beautiful reality that will, someday, replace any harsh reality that we have suffered. With faith in this world and the world to come, waiting on the Lord, we will run and not be weary, walk and not faint. We will mount up on wings, like eagles.