“It was my first Christmas in sixty-two years without her. I don’t know how to act.”
That was the first thing he said as we sat down to lunch. Arby’s. It was his idea. His wife had died about two months earlier, one day after her eighty-first birthday. At her memorial service, their pastor encouraged everyone there to invite Jim to lunch at some point and ask him to explain his “vertical connection.” I was curious, so I wrote it down, and promised myself that I would invite Jim Goodwin to lunch. I told him so in the fellowship hall immediately after the service was over.
King David of Israel once said, “our steps are ordered by the Lord…when we fall, we won’t go far, because He holds our hand…I have lived a long time, and I have never seen God’s children forsaken” (Psalm 37:23). Our family’s connection is evidence that this verse is true. We had only moved to Oklahoma a couple of years earlier, and then we moved to the country, where we had no friends, no family, no acquaintances. It had the potential to be devastating to a thirty-something stay-at-home mom with no drivers license. No wonder mom was so excited to meet a woman her age at the Cub Scout organization meeting in town. Not only was she close in age, she had two sons, the same age as Spencer and me. Her oldest was a year younger than Spencer, and a year older than me, her youngest was a year younger than me. It was perfect! She couldn’t wait to tell dad. But dad had a story of his own to tell. He had been introduced to a man who shared similar interests to him. “I feel like I have a new best friend,” he said. Mom said, “Me too!” They started putting the pieces together and realized that mom’s new best friend and dad’s new best friend were married to each other. See? It was meant to be.
We were together all the time. Fourth of July, Memorial Day, you name it. We would go to their house to eat dinner, and watch slide shows from each others’ vacation, or tinker with some new tool or motorcycle. Once, while Jim was showing us slides from a few years earlier, dad told him to stop on one particular image. He walked up to the screen, and pointed to three figures in the crowd. It was us–dad, Spencer, and me. In 1971, President Nixon had come to Oklahoma to dedicate the Port of Catoosa, and we went there to see him. I was five, I didn’t have a clue what was going on. But I’ll never forget the goose bumps I felt as a teenager, realizing that we were in a man’s photo years before we met him.
Of course, cookouts and slide shows were just the tip of the iceberg. He helped dad build our house. We rode motorcycles together. We camped together. All four of us boys earned the rank of Eagle Scout within the same five year period. We spent ten days hiking in the Rocky Mountains together–a trip that would have been a disaster, if Jim hadn’t pulled mom off to the side one day and told her to ignore my dad’s insistence that she buy our hiking boots at K-Mart. Mom trusted Jim implicitly, and he told her that her boys would miserable if not properly equipped. “Spend the money,” he told mom. “Get the good boots.” She did.
Glenda was a classically trained pianist and vocalist, whose father was a bona-fide member of the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee. Any time I needed a piano accompaniment for audition tapes, Mrs. Goodwin was always there for me. In the months after mom died, I turned a corner at Reasors, and right there in the dairy aisle was Glenda Goodwin. I had to steady myself, because it was as if I was seeing mom.
We were as close as family. Closer.
Mom didn’t work outside the home until I started school, and when she did get a job, she hated it. I don’t know why. But having friends means having a network. Jim happened to be the executive VP for sales and marketing at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Oklahoma. He encouraged mom to apply there, so she did. She went to the interview, and was quickly turned down. She was in her thirties, a little older than many of the women in that department. Plus, she really hadn’t worked outside the home since she left that job at a camera store in Timonium, Maryland several years earlier. That evening, Jim called to ask mom how the interview went.
“I didn’t get the job,” she said, sadly.
“They said I wasn’t what they were looking for.” (At lunch this week, Jim smiled when I brought this up, because he remembers it).
“OH YOU GOT THE JOB. LET ME CALL YOU BACK.”
As she hung up the phone, Mom said that Jim sounded mad. She seemed confused. She WAS confused, until a few minutes later, when the hiring manager called to offer her the job. It quickly became obvious that Jim was the kind of friend that you could trust to take care of things. Mom worked there for thirty-five years. Years later I met the CEO of Blue Cross, and when he saw my name tag, he smiled and asked if I was related to Ingrid. “She’s my mom,” I said proudly. He smiled even bigger as he shook his head and said, “She’s one of our stars.” Mine too.
As is typical of good men, at lunch this week Jim wanted to hear about everyone else more than he wanted to talk about himself. And he didn’t do what a lot of folks do–since we forget names and all–he didn’t say, “how’s your brother,” or “how’s your sister?” He said, “how is Spencer doing?” And later, “tell me about Kristen. What is she up to nowadays?” Good people remember names. As I told him about where everyone is, and how everyone is doing, he would gently toss little observations into the mix. Those observations were always on point, and clearly reflected a spiritual vibe. I don’t remember him referencing spiritual things that much when I was a kid. But at lunch, it was like talking to a fellow pastor. His relationship with Christ was sprinkled throughout our conversation. His boys are both extremely successful, and he is rightly proud of them. But his greatest source of pride stemmed from the fact that they both had solid relationships with the Lord. He talked about how God had directed his life, led him to a successful career, and has brought him through these most recent days, the toughest he’s ever had to face.
That this man had an impact on my family is a monumental understatement.
I could have sat there all day, but it was Lisa’s birthday, and I needed to get home. Problem is, I still hadn’t ask him “the question,” the reason Dr. Miller had encouraged us to ask him about. “Before we leave, I have to ask you to explain your ‘vertical connection.'” The look on his face left me a little unsure. Maybe I shouldn’t have brought it up. He looked kind of sad, or perhaps contemplative. It was like he wanted to say something, but couldn’t. “I’m really not sure what he was talking about. I just don’t remember.”
People forget stuff. I get that. I do it all the time. But not the important stuff. We remember the things that matter. But Jim didn’t, which confused me. Then it hit me.
I told him that I knew exactly was Pastor Miller was talking about. Jim had already told me about his vertical connection, he just didn’t realize it. Like asking a fish if he minds all that water, but the fish doesn’t know what you’re talking about because he doesn’t see the water. He LIVES in the water. He BREATHES the water. Water is LIFE to the fish. Jim doesn’t see the vertical connection because he lives it. He is immersed in it. It is his very life, the thing which has kept him going. It is the thing that kept him faithful to the same lady for sixty-two years. It is the reason why his business life was blessed like it was. I told him that this his relationship with Jesus–the vertical connection–was woven into every fiber of the conversation we’d just had. I get it now.
And once again, I’m learning from a good man.
2 thoughts on “Vertical Connection”
First Jason why are you amazed that Jesus loves you back?? You are a child of God no matter how old you get. Second I absolutely love reading your writings. This was a great story. I am so glad you’re a friend of mine even though I’ve not actually seen you or Spencer in years. Love you both!
Thank you, Kelli, for your gracious words. I’m glad you’re my friend too! I’m like the hymn writer, who was reflecting Scripture, when he said, “I stand amazed in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene, and wonder how He could love me, a sinner, condemned, unclean.” I don’t deserve His love, I’m more unworthy than anyone I’ve ever known. That’s what makes His love so amazing–He is faithful to love me despite the many reasons I’ve given Him not to.