I admit I didn’t pay much attention when he walked in. Hospital room doors should be revolving. The flow of nurses, doctors, therapists and staff never stops. In that moment, he was just another human in stream of traffic checking on one part or another of my Dad’s post-stroke condition. A guy with a beard and a name tag that said “Jerry”.
He announced himself as one of the chaplains and proceeded to make small talk with my Mom. Dad never spoke again after his stroke. He could only nod and smile.
Jerry looked at a piece of paper. “Says here you are from Swea City, Iowa. I knew a guy from there once.” I looked up from my laptop and saw him putting mental puzzle pieces together. “You wouldn’t be Todd, would you?”
I would be Todd. Or I might be Todd. It depends on who wants to know.
“Todd, it’s me. Jerry. Jerry Vander Lee.”
Jerry and I lived on the same dormitory wing at Northwestern College. We hadn’t seen each other in at least 25 years. Last I knew he was part of his family’s car dealership. Now a licensed marriage and family therapist, he also serves as a hospital chaplain.
“Dad, I bought my first car from Jerry.” Dad smiled.
Jerry said, “Let me think…it was a 1985 Oldsmobile…Cutlass Sierra. It was white with plush maroon interior.” I could tell Dad was impressed that he remembered all those details after so many years.
Seeing Jerry was a great encouragement, especially given the circumstances. However, there’s something I wish I would have thought of in that moment.
When I bought that Oldsmobile from Jerry there were a couple small gifts the company put in the glove box. A cassette tape of mixed music, including the Oldsmobile theme song. “There is a special feel in an Oldsmobile…more than the factory ride, it’s a feeling of pride that you feel inside.” And in a small black box, a gold key fob.
Having just graduated college, it was a big deal to attach the keys to my new Oldsmobile on that fancy key chain. My life was on track. I was moving forward. Full speed, straight ahead. When you’re 22, you don’t think about life’s detours.
When Jerry was standing in my Dad’s hospital room remembering the car he sold to me, I had that key chain in my pocket. In fact, I’ve had that key chain in my pocket every day since I drove off the Kooiker Motors lot in Rock Rapids, Iowa in October of 1985.
That key chain has been with me every day for 29 years.
Over that time it’s held keys for two homes in Iowa, three in Arizona and two in Texas. It’s held keys for vehicles from Oldsmobile, Chevrolet, Pontiac, Mazda, Hyundai, Nissan and one GEO Prism. Never a Ford because the Thompson’s haven’t been a Ford family since 1935 when my Grandfather owned what he determined was a lemon that would make Henry Ford pucker in his grave for eternity and beyond. After that, all Fords were horrible cars, never to be trusted.
This key chain was in my pocket when I left my native rural Iowa for big city Phoenix and graduate school, feeling smart and full of anticipation. I had it in my suit pocket 5 years later the night I graduated from seminary, feeling dumber than a sack of hammers, my education having thoroughly taught me how terribly little I know.
This key chain was in my pocket when a neonatal ICU nurse tried to squeeze my farm boy shoulders into a too small hospital gown so I could go peek into the incubators that held my adopted daughters. I looked at Annie first. When she opened her eyes, I was gone. Emma squeezed my finger. I’ve been wrapped ever since.
The key chain was in my briefcase for 9 years as a life insurance agent as I wrote policies for newlyweds and sat on death beds helping clients put their final affairs in order. It’s been on the podium while I preached the funerals of family members, friends and total strangers. It’s been down back country roads in Oklahoma, seeing wheat fields and hearing Meadowlarks. It’s been over mountains in Montana and walked the beaches of Barbados. It’s laid next to dessert forks on the tables of fine dining restaurants in New York City and next to coffee cups at hole-in-the-wall Kansas diners.
It’s traveled through the desert on Route 66 and more interstate highway miles than I could count. It’s paced hospital halls with me as I frantically prayed God’s intervention for a friend’s deathly ill child and it’s heard gut busting laughter around kitchen tables with the dearest of people.
It’s been with me at the Art Institute of Chicago as I stared in silent awe at the masterpieces of Seurat, Van Gogh, Renoir, Rembrandt and Monet. And it’s been held in the hands of my children while I admired their latest Crayola creation. It’s been to more concerts than most everyone I know. It’s heard U2 and the Eagles and the Rolling Stones. It was in my right front pocket when Andrea Bocelli sang “Ave Maria” with such beauty that I gave a brief thought to turning Catholic. And it’s been on the coffee table while I watched my kids sing the theme to “Phineas and Ferb”.
This key chain has been with me for new beginnings and tragic endings. It’s been on the dresser at the end of days I couldn’t wait to be over and days I couldn’t wait to begin.
Today it holds keys to our little house on the lake, a Hyundai Santa Fe, the church, the lock to a storage unit, and one for the “God totally did this” teaching job I begin in a few days. There’s also one very special antique Russwin key, circa 1910, that’s always on my chain. It’s to an unknown lock from an unknown place. A reminder to me that doors open and close yet there are rooms in the heart, full of memories that are always with us.
This key chain has been with me every day for 29 years. That’s a long time. Yet the days of my life have been written down in God’s book before time began. The God of the universe put time and forethought into my life. He’s always been here. He never leaves. He never forsakes. After His salvation, my favorite promise of God is that He will never leave us. In Him, we will never be lost and we will never be alone.
Being the sentimental guy that I am, I hope this key chain is in my pocket when, God willing, I’m old and gray. But I could lose it. Or it could finally give out. Or maybe someday a grandchild will accidentally drop it in the lake.
If and when that happens, God will still be here.
Even should the day come that I need a new key chain.
“Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations!”
– Psalm 90:1
“Remember, I am with you always. Even to the end of the age.”
– Jesus. – Matthew 28:20
Todd A. Thompson – July 28, 2014