Inches and Seconds

“Life is decided by inches and seconds.”

A wise friend once shared these words with me, asking if I ever wondered about the “what-ifs.”

Your beloved dog runs into the street and the oncoming car stops just in time. Another inch, another second, and everything would be different. Your newly-minted 16-year-old casually tells you about the brake-screeching near miss at the school intersection. Your toddler gets too close to the edge of the pier, rocks taunting below. You grab the hood of their jacket just before. Each tragedy avoided by the inches and seconds of what? Fate? Luck? Provision? Exhaling, you offer a breath of thanks for the miss of the near miss.

Inches and seconds were measurements of grace during a difficult loss for our family a few months ago. The outcome was still sad, yet I believe we were spared the worst. Fate? Luck? Provision?

In November, our sweet dad and grandfather unexpectedly entered his final days. At 86 years old, his life was full and active. He walked every day, even during Michigan winters. After the death of my mother, he moved into an apartment building for active seniors. He still drove. He went to the beach to watch the sun set during every season. In the days before his last days, he traveled south, seemingly in excellent health. It had been awhile since he had flown, but he was up for it. The night before he left, he asked to stay at my house. A slumber party with my dad? Yes.

My niece came over to enjoy dinner with us. My storytelling dad was in rare form. We laughed as he told stories of his army days serving as a receiving clerk for the officers’ dining hall. A man of impeccable ethics, his younger self wasn’t quick to say “no” to good fortune when it fell into his lap. A farm boy from South Dakota, he had covertly feasted on lobster and champagne during that assignment. There were other stories too. Most we had never heard. We laughed and laughed.

The next morning as Dad and I lingered over coffee, I asked him if he’d like me to read the story I had been working on. He jumped at the chance to hear the story of his ancestors. He had been so interested as I researched and had asked when he could read it. I had told him it wasn’t ready.

“Well, I hope you’re ready soon. I’d hate to miss the opportunity because of perfectionism,” he responded with a twinkle in his eye. Point taken.

In the hours before his flight, I read and he listened. He smiled, interjected, and corrected as we both learned new things about his family.

Later, I accompanied him through ticketing, bag check, and security. As I was leaving the airport, he called to say, “All set and waiting to board. See you in 10 days.”

During those 10 days, Dad lived. He had lunch with his grandsons—little boys who had turned into “fine young men.” He dog sat for his favorite Labradoodle and Shih tzu. He enjoyed conversations with his son and daughter-in-law. He walked his favorite stretch of the Gulf Coast beach and rested in an Adirondack chair at the edge of the surf. He searched for sharks’ teeth, threw shells for the dogs to chase, and watched the sun set. He spent a day with my Florida girl, who glowed when she talked of the fun they had. During a phone call the morning he was to come home, he calculated that he had seen his entire family in the last 14 days. I couldn’t remember when he sounded happier.

During that call, we planned for me to pick him up at the airport. I was to wait in the cell phone lot for his call. I waited just past the expected time and then decided to look for him. On my second drive-by, I saw him on the sidewalk, talking with an airport employee, bag in hand.  “Ah, I did have it wrong,” I thought and quickly pulled over. I touched his arm and he turned toward me. I knew immediately something was wrong.

I sat by his hospital bedside thinking about the first call, his instructions for me, and the second call that never came. I thought about his condition when I found him and how quickly things had changed in the minutes after. I thought about how it all could have been so much worse.

A divine hand had held back the offending event until just the right time so he wouldn’t be alone and afraid.

Precise timing allowed for a loved one to find him just as he could no longer communicate or care for himself. Inches and seconds.

All who we told marveled at the unique timing of each event. We know Dad had the ending he would have chosen, had he known he was choosing it. Too many coincidences aligned for Fate or Luck to get the credit. We can only name it Provision—the inches and seconds of God’s divine and beautiful grace. Exhaling, we give thanks for each precious inch and second.

Jill English is an avid encourager of people and a lover of words. She is most at home out-of-doors, especially if the out-of-doors involves a beach. Her most magical moments happen as ‘Mimi’ while spending time with her well-loved grandchildren and her adult kids. Jill spends her workdays helping others discern vocational call through theological education. Her favorite conversations involve connecting the sacred dots of everyday life and faith. Jill lives in Grand Rapids, MI with two small, elderly pups.