Christmas in Probate

Ever get one of those terrifying phone calls?  The kind that puts things into perspective in thirty seconds or less?  I was sitting at my desk on a Monday afternoon and the phone rang.  I picked it up to say hello, and heard the following words, as if uttered into some type of macabre megaphone: "Hello this is the Sheriff's office.  So sorry for your loss."  

My loss?  What loss?  Who is lost?  Details were only forthcoming after I was able to speak again.  Visions of my children or wife in the car on the side of the road wrestling with the Jaws of Life came to mind.  But no, this news was regarding my 74-year-old uncle.  He had been found in his bed a day earlier, and the authorities were now looking for next of kin.  He had died from natural causes. 

It was shortly before Thanksgiving when I received this news.  People all around me were hustling and bustling, talking about Black Friday shopping and succulent turkey.  Soon after it would be on to Christmas plans from there: what to get the kids ... what kind of decorations to put up.  But not for my uncle.  No, uncle Steve's time on this earth was at an end.  Fortunately he lived a long life.  Steve enjoyed simple things.  A good book and a piece of chocolate pie would suffice over and above any other kind of activity, at least in his mind.  He frequented the same convenience store every day.  He had his own stool by the grill.  The staff even labeled it with a sign.  After all, it was Steve's seat.  

He was a handyman by trade, able to fix anything in a single bound.  When he used to come visit us in Des Moines my mother would always put him to work replacing or fixing some type of home appliance, lawn mower, or electrical problem. Rows of handyman books and technical manuals lined the office wall in his own house.  But there was no fixing things after he fell ill.  'It's just a cold, it will get better' people would hear him say.  It didn't get better.  Sometimes it doesn't.

In the weeks immediately following his passing I would drive back and forth to his house to sort through his things.  I couldn't help think of what a curious Christmas gift uncle Steve had left me.  I had begun the probate process, which entailed hiring a lawyer and filing the appropriate paperwork in order to be appointed executor.  It seemed all too familiar, as I had done the same thing with my mother seven years earlier. Everything he cared about was now in the hands of someone else.  One day you wake up not feeling so well, and then all of a sudden it's over.  All of the books he loved are stacked in a line as part of his middle island bookshelf on the other side of the kitchen.  In fact, he had just ordered a new set - they were stacked neatly on the mantle.  They would garner no audience now. 

All of this reminds me of a famous passage from the Gospel of John.  We are studying John this week at church.  I roll it around in my mind as I make the final turn off the highway and up to Steve's empty driveway.  Jesus was comforting his disciples in the face of his impending death under Pontius Pilate.  John 14:2 says, "In my Father's house are many mansions, if it were not so, I would have told you.  I go to prepare a place for you."  
Steve's gift to me was his home and his land.  He had chosen my sister and I to receive it. Though a humble ranch style home, it had been in his family for years - it was his "mansion."  It held many fond memories for me as well, as my own family would travel there on occasion when we were kids.

Jesus was making a promise to his followers in this passage.  A promise that he would take care of them.  That he would come back for them.  That they shouldn't let their hearts be troubled.  But my heart is troubled, at least for now.  Lining up probate paperwork and cleaning out vacant houses is difficult work.  I now stand in the family room where I used to visit as a small child, back when my mother and father took me to visit Steve's parents (my grandparents).  How much it had changed ... how much it had remained the same.  A flood of memories enter in, as I see an old blanket that I swear was there 25 years ago. 

It is likely that my wife and I will be working through my uncle's estate well through the Christmas holidays, and even after.  There is much to be done.  He is in a better place now I hope. He had given us the only thing he had left to give.  Maybe I need to remember the verse directly before John 14:2.  It says, "Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me."  

While sifting through some papers on Steve's desk in one of the bedrooms I come across a torn envelope.  Inside it are pictures of my 3 kids.  "He kept them after all", I thought.  In the kitchen on the refrigerator door there is also a picture of my sister's family.  He loved us, and in a certain way, he has also prepared a place for us.  If it weren't so, he would have told us.  We wouldn't have seen the photos ... I wouldn't be executor.  Even so, the message that Christmas is a gift for you and I now becomes that much clearer.  I am glad there are many rooms waiting for those who believe in God the Father.  I think uncle Steve would be glad also.



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