It’s customary to meet the family of your intended prior to making a lifetime commitment to each other. Ray had ample opportunity to interact with my parents in Delaware, but it took a 1,400-mile trek to South Dakota for me to get to know his kin.
The sixth of seven siblings, Ray was preceded by three sisters and two brothers. Youngest brother, Phil, completed the family. In addition, there were 18 nieces and nephews at the time of my first visit in September 1982, hence much of our flight was spent going over relationships. Ray patiently coached me on who was married to who as well as names and ages of their offspring.
Although I’m an only child, I’m no stranger to big families. My dad was one of ten, my mom one of eight, so I had plenty of aunts and uncles as well as 31 first cousins. Nonetheless, knowing Ray was seeking his family’s input before he asked me to marry him made me somewhat nervous. I’m not sure what those fun-loving folks from the heartland thought of this serious, urbane introvert, but they welcomed me warmly. Furthermore I must have garnered enough support since Ray proposed three months later and a substantial Midwest contingent attended our wedding the following year. Ray and I exchanged vows one sweltering August evening as they and other relatives and friends watched. Thus I became “Patsy Kuipers”, an official member of the family.
Years passed. We added two daughters to the tally of nieces and nephews and we strived to return to Ray’s hometown every other year, keeping in touch via phone calls and cards in between. And then came April 19, 1997. I trembled as I dialed my sister-in-law’s number, tasked with placing a call I didn’t want to make. I was relieved when her husband answered, confident he was strong enough to hear the unthinkable news, wise enough to know how to convey it to the unsuspecting kinfolk: Barely 39 years old, Ray had succumbed to a fatal heart attack, like his father 34 years before him.
Once again my Kuipers family made the journey eastward, first to Georgia for Ray’s funeral, then onward to North Carolina for his burial. In our shared grief, we cried, we laughed, we celebrated the life of the one we’d lost. We reminded each other that death is not the end for those who belong to Jesus.
Mary, Jessie and I resumed our every-other-year visits until cumulative life events kept us away for almost eight years. When we finally returned in 2014, our family unit had increased by three. What a delight to have son-in-law, Justin, and grandchildren, Joshua and Lyla, with us for the long-awaited reunion.
Last week found Jessie and me back in the heartland. Ray’s hometown, Platte (population ~1,300), is a picturesque farming community. The surrounding land is flat, the roads straight, and the horizon seems to stretch forever. The vista is a swath of differently-hued greens and browns, dotted with placid cows and classic red barns. As the crops sway in the ever-present breeze, it’s virtually impossible to keep from mentally humming “America the Beautiful”.
Inevitably, when I mention I’m going to South Dakota to visit my Kuipers relatives, someone will comment, “How nice that you’ve kept in touch with Ray’s family.” I suppose some would view Ray’s death as having severed those ties. How wrong they would be! As I traversed miles of open country on this most recent trip, I thought how familiar it all feels, how much I enjoy the traditions that have developed over the years and treasure the relationships. My brothers and sisters-in-law connect me to Ray, while my children and grandchildren allow them to see glimpses of their brother.
Although much levity accompanies our visits (I laugh more in a week in Platte than I do in a month at home!), our visits are tinged with sadness for the ones no longer with us. My melancholy has lingered this time. Maybe it was the visit to South Dakota State, Ray’s alma mater, or watching brother-in-law, Dave, tenderly clean the grave marker of his beloved wife or standing by Phil’s grave for the first time since we attended his service. But most likely it was the photos from one of my early trips to Platte that nudged me over the edge. Ray and I were newlyweds, blissfully unaware of what lay ahead. Grief that normally resides deep within my soul after 20 years without my partner spontaneously surfaced as I gazed at our youthful innocence through tear-filled eyes.
I lost Ray’s care and companionship when his earthly life ended, but I didn’t lose his family, my family. How thankful I am our shared history will soon span 35 years. So many memories – times of laughter and tears, rejoicing and sorrow. Yet I am most grateful for the strong heritage of faith that exists in my family-by-marriage. Our shared belief in Jesus as Savior and Lord sustains us. It’s the real tie that binds us. The one that will last through eternity when we are reunited with our loved ones around His throne.
“Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love; The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.
Before our Father’s throne we pour our ardent prayers; Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one, our comforts and our cares.
When we asunder part, it gives us inward pain; But we shall still be joined in heart, and hope to meet again.”
 1 Corinthians 15:20-28
 John 6:40; John 10:28
 Revelation 7
 “Blest Be the Tie That Binds”, John Fawcett, lyrics