The drop in

A few weeks went by after Lee’s passing. Pam and David readjusted back into “normal” life, continuing to see patients and build the practice. But life’s glossy finish had lost some of its shine, and David even started to question the meaning of it all. Lee’s death had raised questions that lingered in the air. David couldn’t get them out of his mind.

5

He needed answers – answers which he felt would be found in the Scriptures – but as a Jew, he’d only read the Old Testament. The parts about heaven and hell were on the Jesus side of the book, and Jews really don’t read about Jesus.

David decided he needed to talk to a Christian.

On May 7, 1983, David dropped in on his only Christian friends, looking for answers. Arnie and Fran were a couple that Pam and David had spent many a meal with, both couples running in the same professional circles in town. They had lots in common at this stage in their lives, but one thing that set them apart was that when they would sit down to a meal, Arnie would say a prayer that sounded like an actual conversation with God. It was almost like he was on speaking terms with the Almighty!

So on this particular Saturday, David dropped in on Arnie and Fran, who commented how unusual it was for them both to be home at the same time on a Saturday. This fortuitous situation was in David’s favor, since it allowed both of them to respond to his query. He mentioned Lee and the tragic loss and how it had rocked his world. He brought up Pam, and how she had mentioned they lacked any kind of spiritual component in their lives. He wrapped up by asking, “Do you think we could attend church with you sometime?” That would be nice, they responded.

The next day, while Pam and David were still waking up, the phone rang. Arnie was on the line.

“David! I know you mentioned perhaps going to church with us some Sunday. Well, today is Sunday! Would you like to come along?”

Pam and David looked at each other. “We don’t have any plans,” Pam said. David shrugged. “Why not!” They would go.

At his first church experience, David took some mental notes. Firstly, everyone was warm and friendly – and at such an early hour! On a weekend! Secondly, the service itself was comfortable. Although the content wasn’t very heavy or “meaty”, much like a warm cup of coffee, the service was pleasant but didn’t fill the stomach. In summary, attending church didn’t seem too burdensome. David thought he would probably return.

When it all sinks in

Prior to Lee’s death, Pam and David were virtually irreligious. Spiritual matters gave them little cause for concern. Their interests were basically selfish yet harmless: To build their careers and enjoy the fruits of their labor. Religion hadn’t really been on the radar.

David had been raised in a middle-class Jewish household. During childhood, he attended synagogue and Hebrew school, as per his mother’s wishes. Hebrew school met three times a week in the afternoons after school, preparing him for his bar mitzvah, the Jewish ceremony designed to transition boys into men of the faith. David’s bar mitzvah was a traditionally festive occasion, with all of the family and friends in attendance. When this was complete, David figured that his religious training was finished. His mother thought otherwise.

Marian, David’s mother, desired that he continue his religious training in Confirmation Classes, which continued through Junior High School. These classes met only once a week – a small price to pay to keep maternal guilt off his back, David thought! When classes ended, Marian felt that after coming this far in religious studies, David should continue in Post Confirmation Classes, which would continue through high school. His Jewish mother won again, and religious studies continued. But once high school was behind him, so was David’s religious training.

David had many Jewish friends and family members, and he identified with the American Jewish culture. But he felt that Judaism hadn’t offered him any answers or opportunities. When he left home to go to college in Philadelphia, he left Judaism behind. It wasn’t that he had any negative feelings toward it. It just seemed irrelevant to his future and his goals. David viewed himself as a modern Jew who chose not to practice the religious traditions. With hopes and ambitions of climbing the ladder of the American Dream, spiritual matters faded away.

Until now. Now, when an unexpected death had rocked his world. Now, when his Christian wife was stating her beliefs about life, death, and what comes next.

Miracle blog photos 6x4 (1)

Pam had been raised in a traditional American home in Pennsylvania. Her young mother and three siblings thrived in a small town where her father had started a dental practice. The focus of Pam’s upbringing was centered around education. Don, her father, had come from very humble beginnings, dropping out of high school and joining the U.S. Navy. While in the Navy, he realized he “wasn’t so dumb after all”, and decided to get his GED and go to college and later dental school.  Don’s education catapulted him out of poverty into a lifestyle that he’d never imagined, and it was his dream that all of his children experience similar opportunities in life.

Jo, Pam’s mom, frequently took the kids to a Lutheran church in town, where Pam learned the basics of the Christian faith in Confirmation classes that would allow her to take the holy communion. The liturgies established the deity of Jesus for her, and the hymns sung by the congregation remained stored in her memory for years to come, and she would draw on them in times of need.

Although religion wasn’t a big part of her awareness, the hymn “In the Garden” with the the line, “He walks with me and He talks with me, and He tells me I am His own” was an especially impactful song. Pam would recall these words and believe that there was a God she could have a personal relationship with, but her prayers were primarily on an as-needed basis, rather than a daily conversation with God.

———————

In the present, Lee’s death had brought up Pam’s distant memories of spiritual training – the whole heaven vs. hell concept seemed more relevant now that a close friend had passed. What was it that the Sunday School teacher had said about all that? If only there was a way to find out.

And what a surprise to learn that David didn’t even believe in a heaven or a hell! It was one thing to wonder about where you’d end up after dying; it was quite another to contemplate not ending up anywhere at all! But could that be the answer? There is no afterlife whatsoever?

It took about a week for the reality of Lee’s passing to sink in. The finality of death – and that death being a close friend – weighed like an anvil around David’s neck. He felt devastated. On a quiet Saturday afternoon, David reflected on all that happened while gazing out the family room glass door, lost in his thoughts, with Pam by his side. Her comment about where Lee’s soul had gone came to mind again.

An afterlife? What kind of concept is an afterlife? It makes no sense to me at all, David thought. And if I’m being frank with myself…I’m not even sure about the existence of God. I mean, it’s not that I don’t believe he exists. It’s just that I’m not sure that he does. How confusing!

Turning to Pam, he asked, “Do you believe in the existence of God?”

“The existence of God? There’s no doubt in my mind,” Pam replied, calm and confident. “After all, how did all those trees and living things get out there?” sweeping her arm toward the horizon.

David raised his eyebrows. “I’ve had years of education, and I’ve been taught that it all started with a big bang. After eons of time, there was what has been termed as a primordial soup, and from there came living slime, and over the billions of years, the slime crawled out of the soup, grew appendages and one thing led to another…and here we are.”

“I don’t know if evolution is right or wrong,” Pam responded, “but I do know that all that stuff out there didn’t get there by itself. Someone had to create it.”

Well here was another core difference in beliefs! Unbeknownst to David, his wife was a creationist! Who knew?!

One thing was clear. These two theories were not synergistic. One theory had to be correct – or at least, more correct – than the other. And the theories were so different, that it begged the question: Who was right?

David’s mouth opened to respond, and the words that came out surprised both of them:

“Maybe we should start going to church.”

The first conversation

“He’s in the ground. That’s where they put dead people.”

Lee had just passed. David could barely process it. Crossing the country to attend the funeral with Lee’s family, friends, and colleagues had been draining. It was a whirlwind trip for this periodontist, who had patients to see upon his return. And now his wife had a simple question that yielded his simple answer.

“I wonder where Lee is?” Pam had asked.

David was almost dismissive in his response. Dead people were put in the ground, and that was the end of the story. But Pam wasn’t so sure.

“Yes, I know where his body is,” she said. “I was wondering about his soul.”

“I don’t know of such things,” David responded. “I’ve always thought that you only go around once in life. Reach for all the gusto you can. Because when you’re dead, you’re dead like a dog.”

“Is that what you really believe?” Pam asked, somewhat incredulous.

“Yes! What do you believe?”

“Well I believe in a heaven and a hell, and when you die, you go to one or the other.”

This was new information to David. “That’s not what I believe,” he said.

And that exchange, seven years into their marriage, was Pam and David’s very first spiritual conversation.

The wake up call

By any measure, everything was going well. The dental practice was booming. Pam and David owned a lovely home, drove nice cars, and took frequent vacations. With their spare time and money, they pursued personal hobbies, which for David included flying lessons. Soon he was an instrument-rated pilot and took the plunge to buy his own personal plane.

13

The couple was living the dream, flying around on weekends, visiting friends in other cities, and even flying to nearby Philadelphia for dinner or haircuts when the fancy struck.

Miracle Blog 4x6

All this was made possible by their education, hard work, grit, and…no children to drain them of funds.

But in early 1983, an unexpected event changed all that.

Lee, David’s best friend from perio school and a fellow periodontist practicing in California, was in an airport shuttle bus in Mexico when a drunk driver crossed the highway center line and slammed into the bus in a head-on collision. Lee and two others were killed.

Lee was the last person this was supposed to happen to.

He was vibrant, high on life, and a “teddy bear” friend – the kind of guy you just wanted to hug. Lee was in his late 30s, just hitting the prime of life, building his career and enjoying the fruits of his labor after many years of education.

His death was a complete shock.

Pam and David attended the funeral in California on a Tuesday in March. The trip was a whirlwind that took them from the East coast to the West coast and back again, all while they were reeling from the sudden loss of their friend whose life was not too dissimilar from their own.

As they traveled back to Pennsylvania, David reflected on a few observations he’d made in California: Prior to Lee’s untimely death, he was at the top of his career. His brand new Mercedes Turbo Diesel had been parked in front of the funeral home. He had just placed a deposit on a piece of land in an exclusive housing development. His interests and pursuits seemed appropriate for his station in life, and prior to his death, his life mirrored David’s in many ways: Make as much money as possible and spend it all on yourself!

But none of these material goods mattered now. Lee didn’t have any of them anymore. They were all left behind.

On the flight back from Lee’s funeral, Pam turned to David with a question, “I wonder where Lee is?”

David’s answer would surprise her.

That DINK life

Full of fresh energy and new ideas, David and Pam’s new dental practice quickly made news in the small town of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, as they began to wine and dine the local dentists and build a business from scratch. After renting an apartment for a few months, they bought a small house in town for a couple years. Although the city bungalow was a place to call their own, they felt drawn by the “Mr. Blandings dream house” concept and soon had purchased a property that included 168 acres of rolling land, a modern barn, and a traditional 95-year-old farmhouse.

They gutted the house (which did not have a pre-existing kitchen) and lived amongst the construction debris while managing many of the renovations themselves.

They added all custom finishes and furnishings throughout, transforming the old house into an executive home.

Times were good, and David purchased a brand new white Cadillac for Pam, mainly because she looked so good driving it.

8

David had his own preferred form of transportation – his personal plane:

It was all going according to plan. At least, it was going accordingly to David’s plan – earn lots of money and spend it all on yourself. There were no kids to spoil this dual-income-no-kids strategy. That had all been covered on the first date.

Pam brought up the topic of kids once, and David responded in a neutral manner to confirm that his position had not changed. Several years later, in the early 1980s, Pam brought it up again, testing the waters. This time, David’s response was swift and severe.

“If you want children, we should get a divorce!”

Pam never brought it up in conversation again.

A new union

Within two years of meeting, David and Pam were married. In what David would later describe as the best wedding he’d ever been to, they were married by a Jewish rabbi in a hotel in Philadelphia, surrounding by family and friends.

Miracle blog photos 6x4 (2)
Final details at the rehearsal. The couple wrote the wedding ceremony and procedures themselves.

The wedding ceremony was simple and fairly non-religious – David was a non-practicing Jew, and Pam was a non-practicing Christian. They danced and partied and filled the night with their huge smiles and loud laughter.

Miracle Blog 4x6 (1)

Miracle Blog 4x6 (2)

Following the wedding and honeymoon on Paradise Island, the pair set off to open up a brand new dental practice – David as the periodontist, and Pam as the managing hygienist. Location was the key – where would these two set up their lives and livelihood? With possible options ranging coast to coast in the U.S., the couple weighed their choices: They could pursue life in California, following in the footsteps of David’s Jewish cousins. They seriously considered Atlanta for a hot second, even touring possible facilities and looking into licensing requirements, all while being charmed by the Southern hospitality. And then there was David’s home state of Connecticut, where his immediate family all resided.

But Don, Pam’s dad (also a dentist), recommended that they consider Williamsport, Pennsylvania – a town in a rural part of the state, situated halfway between Philadelphia and Pittsburg, that was under-served in the periodontal field. Maybe it was the prospect of being a big fish in a small pond, or maybe it was the proximity to family in the Northeast, or maybe it was just the familiar Pennsylvania dental licensing requirements. But whatever the underlying reason, Williamsport won the practice lottery in this round.

The real reason the couple landed in Williamsport, PA would not reveal itself for years to come.

 

The deal breaker

Although it’s hard to find a true beginning to this story, the place I like to start is on a first date.

David and Pamela met at the University of Pennsylvania. Pam was part of the undergraduate dental hygiene faculty and David was a postdoctoral dental student. While passing through dental hygiene clinic one day, David spotted Pam “across a crowded room” and promptly asked the program director nearby who she was.

“Oh, that’s Pamela,” said the director. “She’s lovely, isn’t she?”

And so David, with his thick mop of black-brown hair and his equally thick mustache (all too appropriate for 1974) managed to arrange a meeting and ultimately score a date with a pretty little lady with a winning smile.

Miracle blog photos 6x4.png
Oh, that Sonny and Cher look that worked so well in the ’70s.

That first date started off pretty chill. Just a casual coffee at McDonald’s (thanks to a college-era budget) to get to know one another. It all seemed very light and benign until David pulled out the big guns.

“Do you want to have children?” he asked, catching Pam totally off guard. (How’s that for a first-date-getting-to-know-you conversation starter?!)

“Because if you do,” he continued, “we shouldn’t get involved. I don’t want to have kids!”

For David, children were a deal breaker. Even the consideration of children was a taboo topic.

dad college.jpg

Pam, pulling from her years of classical ballet training, maintained her poise under the pressure from such a weighty question from this soon-to-be dental specialist. She may not have realized it, but the couple’s future depended very heavily on how she answered his question.

She had grown up very active in her high school, captain of the cheerleading squad, secretary of her class, crowned homecoming queen, and on the go with lots of extracurriculars and social engagements. She had danced for years, pursuing ballet for the sheer love of the discipline. She had recently graduated from the University of North Carolina and was now teaching at an Ivy League school, focused on her career and shaping the next wave of hygiene students. She was in her mid-twenties and living in Philadelphia, enjoying all that life had to offer.

Now she was on a date with handsome older student who appeared to have a bright future ahead of him. And of all things, she was being asked about her family plans.

To put it mildly, David’s question was from way out in left field. This was not typical first-date chatter. But it seemed critically important to him, and his question required an answer.

“No,” she replied, “I’m not all that interested in children either.”

There would be a second date, after all.

And that’s the first miracle.