Grant Swank
I believe in miracles: Paul and Evelyn
By Grant Swank
April 20, 2009

I had just attended my 40th high school reunion in Maryland. It was one of those emotional mixes — both grand and confusing.

I had not seen those friends since our 1957 gradation from High Point High.

Therefore, it was the usual identity questions, hugs and memories. But also, it was knowing we would not all be there after another 40.

Of course, the reunion committee had planned such galas over years — every five years, in fact. But this was the first time I'd been able to get to one. After leaving the hotel gathering, I concluded I would kindly refrain from another.

It's not that the reunion was not wonderful. It was. But there's another side to those smiles and kisses. At least there was for me. I left on such a high that it was unbelievable. Zing — way way up there in the netherlands. But there was also a lingering heavy loneliness, a depression that clung like an anchor.

I had an appointment to go to the next morning at ten o'clock. That meant driving through the night from Maryland to western Pennsylvania. Wide awake the whole way. Priscilla was with me. I could have asked her to take the wheel. But no need. After that reunion — faces still glowing in head and heart — I was wide wide awake.

Nighttime. Trucks. Cars speeding along. Motel signs. Directionals. Intestate's state of the art road ribbon. I sucked it in as drinking a cold ice tea with lemon. Click click click. One memory after another flicked across the years..

I recalled that at our graduation we as a class sang, "We May Never Meet Again." Now that was one tearjerker that held on for dear life. Nighttime miles gave me lots of hours to remember — most of it quite marvelous. I had had a terrific high school log-in at High Point.

Our class got in on the ground floor of everything. The school had just been built. We walked into fresh environs — shiny floors, colorful tiles all over the place, brand new desks. We chose our school colors, ring, mascot, yearbook design, special events. From start to finish, I can't think of anything but fun years at that school — most of all the students and faculty. Some of us keep in touch.

Therefore, seeing them for the 40th was a boon extraordinary.

All night long I thought of nothing but days past, memories that time had covered over and over again. Then seeing those teachers and fellow students shot the focus in clearly. While Priscilla slept, I meandered through scenes, relishing the nostalgia.

However, the dark pit of our next appointment dug far deeply in my innards and of course wouldn't go away. We were traveling to visit our adopted son in prison. It was directly from the gala to the Big House.

Of course, I had cranked those miles before. It was a five hundred-mile journey one way. That's a day's trip. Then another day's return with a two-day visit in between. Talk about emotional mixes. Yet after being with such love and memory flow at the hotel, I shoved the approaching prison coldness far from my thoughts. I didn't have to mesh the two until I got to the prison parking lot. And then I'd just buck up.

I was still dealing with a lot of anger and discouragement from what my son had put us through during his mid-teen years. Not a year, but years. All the while, I attempted to minister to my congregation about the keeping power of God.

From the day my son left that foreboding courtroom in shackles, wearing his horrid orange prison suit, I wrote him a letter. He got a note from me every day for 5 l/2 years. Every day, including weekends.

In the first letters I told him frankly about my anger, my disappointment in him, my fear of what he could have done to us when breathing under our roof. I told him all that came to mind — stream of consciousness reamed.

I informed him that he needed to read all I wrote for one day he might have a child. Then he would want to know what that child could do to him. And he needed to know what parents go through when their children turn utterly selfish and violent.

"Milton." That meant Milton, Pennsylvania, as in "behind bars."

Now I'd better shape up, I lectured my heart. It's time to disembark, walk straight ahead.

Why bother staring upward to take in blocked cages in the sky where armed guards spied out everyone who stretched across the lot?

Next: take in faceless guards in lobby, put things in the wall locker, keep locker key in pocket, take off shoes and anything else that would set off alarm when walking through metal detector.

Make small talk with other visitors. Smile at children. Keep up happy front. After all, I'm Christian. These people had feelings, too.

Then put out right hand, palm downward, for infrared purple stamp to press against my skin. Walk through metal door, hear it close mechanically behind me.

Walk across newly mowed yard, smell the grass, take in ducks flying overhead, stare at next metal door awaiting us in the clutch.

Wonder about young guard: where he came from, was he married, how many children, how'd he get that sort of job, did he like it, did he ever get weekends off, what were his thoughts at a prison site every working day, did he care a twit about us, did he know God?

And then into that large visitors' room — chairs and more chairs, all lined up perfectly so in rows. To the back was the stark platform, not all that large. Big enough to hold a desk with phone and chair and then a few floor feet to spare. So it's a uniformed she who's watching over us today, eh? Yes. Did she care to smile? It didn't matter. She would take in our every move — every move.

Time for checking out the candy machines and the coffee and cocoa machines. We pulled out our plastic bag full of coins. No paper money allowed in prison. Plastic bags full of coins were acceptable for using in food machines. After all, food machines were our only entertainment and recreation for the next 8 hours or so. It was the excuse to get up from the hard chair, walk around the room, and have a destination to go to. A diversion — minimalism at work.

Inmates could eat from those machines whatever was given them by visitors. And did we eat. Not that we were hungry. We just wanted to handle something, do something. Of course, when mealtime came and there were no meat and potatoes, then food machines with candies and hard sandwiches came in handy.

Eventually the day was over. Time to leave. We hugged our son, tears in our eyes.

Back through the mechanical doors, guards checking out our infrared purple stains to make certain we were visitors and not escapees. Then on to lobby, unlock locker, leave key in locker door, put on watch, slide wallet into back pocket, belt up, and walk out into fresh air again.

It's awkwardly quiet when leaving a son in prison. What do you say? There is a time for keeping silent, turning on key in ignition and then driving out a dreaded parking lot into the lovely countryside toward Milton.

Ah, Milton. Not the "behind bars" Milton but the Milton Paulyn Bed and Breakfast.

There awaiting us were our dear friends, Paul and Evelyn, Mennonites. It did not matter what time we got in, the lamps were on.

Just inside the front door was a welcoming side room where miniature white lights glowed night and day. They decorated a huge, real-live plant in the corner. All around were antiques — desks, chairs, coverlet's, pictures, cups and serving dishes, and a pump organ.

In the bedroom awaiting us was a comfortable bed laden with quilts. The sidetable held an antique china doll and Bible with lamp lit. Walls were graced neatly with 18th century cloth napkins — crocheted — in frames. Heirlooms were aplenty. A large chest housed blankets. In dresser drawers were tucked away doilies and snapshots of yesteryear. Plus much more that warmed us to the soul.

Sleep. Welcomed sleep. Most welcomed sleep.

I could smell the coffee, half-awake. Had the night passed so quickly? Evelyn and Paul got up so very early to ready their guests for the day.

"Good morning!"

And so we were there once again, welcomed by Evelyn's embrace and Paul's manly hug, just as in the numerous visits prior.

What a relaxing pleasure to be seated at their breakfast table — juice, fruit cup, eggs, bacon, ham, homemade breads, muffins as well, jellies and jams, coffee or tea, and a treat to take on the road when we bade good-bye.

"It's too much," we'd sigh as we took in the table delight in front of us. "Just too much." Yet we surely did enjoy every bite and never complained when the eating was done.

Paul and Evelyn always held out their hands toward ours when we first sat down to eat. It was time to say the blessing. The blessing. Paul prayed, he the head of the house. Then I prayed, thanking God for such friends along the way. Indeed, they were more than friends. They were angels.

As we would drive away from their country home toward the interstate for another five hundred miles in Maine's direction, I'd offer a sigh of gratitude to the Lord God for yet another miracle along the way — fast, understanding friends who know Him, too.

© Grant Swank


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Grant Swank

Joseph Grant Swank, Jr., is a pastor at New Hope Church in Windham, Maine... (more)

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