Around 2:30 a.m. on Jan. 16, my phone buzzed, waking me from a sound sleep. I fumbled for the cellphone while removing the C PAP mask that not only keeps me breathing (Darth Vader style) while I sleep, it also makes me look like serial killer Hannibal Lecter with his face guard strapped on to prevent his acquisition of new victims.

As I picked up the phone, the screen said it was my step-daughter, Laura, calling. As groggy as I was, my heart still gave a happy leap because Laura had been due to deliver the latest grandchild (our ninth) the previous day. My wife, Beth, had driven up to Pittsburgh more than a week earlier to help Laura and her husband, Nick, with preparations. Finally, our new grandson must have decided to make his long-awaited debut.

“Hi Jeff, this is Laura. I’m calling about my mom. …” And time lurched from strolling in a sun-drenched meadow to staggering along a dark cold alley.

Beth had taken ill in the night and Laura had found her lying on the bedroom floor, clammy to the touch, her stomach feeling like someone was stabbing her and twisting the knife. What was wrong? Laura didn’t know, but she’d called 911 and the ambulance was taking Beth to the hospital. Laura would call me back when they knew something more.

After she hung up, I began to think about Beth’s and my life together — the daily routine of sharing a household and doing work, cities we’d explored, churches in which we’d served and made lifelong friends, Beth’s counseling and nursing career, annual vacations to the Outer Banks, celebrations with family, and so on. Especially I took stock of the plans we’d begun to make for my eventual retirement, what we would do, where we would go, adventures we might enjoy, old friendships we’d like to renew, time we hoped to spend with children, grandchildren and the rest of the family. And I realized, as we all know but sometimes forget, it could all be gone in an instant. As fast as a phone call.

I lay in the darkness thinking. Should I get up and start packing for the drive to Pittsburgh? Or would it be better to try to sleep a little so I wouldn’t be so drowsy while driving? There were details to handle. Boarding the cat. Stopping the newspaper and mail. Canceling meetings. Making phone calls. Arranging for someone to preach and cover pastoral care in my absence. I slept a couple of fitful hours. Laura called back to say the hospital would be keeping Beth and they didn’t know how long she’d be there, but she was stable.

I was on the road at lunchtime and got to Pittsburgh around 8 p.m. I visited with Laura and Nick, and granddaughter, Frannie, for just a few minutes. Then I headed to the hospital and found Beth in her hospital bed in obvious pain. I sat and held her hand and we talked. The doctors believed they knew what was wrong and were treating her and she hoped to be released in a couple of days. I went back to Laura and Nick’s house and got to bed around 10 p.m.

About 1:30 a.m. there was a knock on my bedroom door. I slipped off the CPAP mask and said, “Come in.” It was Laura again. This time she was holding her stomach and whispering. “It’s time to go to the hospital to have the baby. Nick and I are going to leave now. We’ve left Frannie instructions for you on the kitchen table and the car keys are there for driving her to day care. The car seat’s already in my car. You can watch the video to see how to put her in it. Thanks so much. We appreciate it.” “OK,” I said, half awake. “Blessings.” And then they were out the door.

Once again, I lay in the darkness thinking. I was excited for Laura and Nick, but it dawned on me that I alone, Grandpa, was responsible for taking care of a 2 ½-year-old girl. What was she going to do when she woke up and her parents were gone? Grandma Beth (Yayo) was gone too. Yikes!

In the morning though, I got Frannie dressed, fed, and ready for school. She didn’t cry or ask for her parents and seemed perfectly content as I drove her to day care. Our new grandson, Bruno, was born at 10:50 a.m. He and Beth came home from the hospital the next day.

It was a strange few days, not exactly what we’d predicted or planned, but filled with unexpected grace.

Our time here is short. So let us focus on the things that matter. And not postpone joy.

Jeff Paschal is the pastor of Guilford Park Presbyterian Church in Greensboro and a News & Record columnist. He can be reached at The views expressed here are his own.

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