Christmas II, 2017
By Christmas 1982, it seemed everyone in Pt. Loma knew the Simpson family. Mr. Simpson was the gruff Health & Driver’s Ed teacher at the high school. If you wanted a driver’s license, you had to take his class. He scared everyone showing a movie called “Signal 30” which was the Ohio State Trooper’s radio call for a crash with fatalities.
Rumor had it his crew cut was the same as it had been when he started in the late 50’s. He was also the defensive backs coach on the football team. Mrs. Simpson was gentle, gracious and adored as the mainstay in the concession stand that was situated under the football stands and literally 50 feet from their backdoor. She had a warm smile and a ready ear.
Their three children Kent, the skateboarding soccer player was a student at San Diego State, Shelley (a year older than me) was as her mother, gentle, but committed to Neil Young and causes that she felt needed justice. She was also a joy-filled person who had moved back to town after a year away at college.
A few months earlier, Shelly had been designated “morale officer” on an arduous Grateful Dead road trip. That day had started at the Old Mission Beach Athletic Club’s Over-the-Line tournament. The plan had been to head to Ventura, site of the concert, as soon as Joel lost his game. Problem was, anticipating a quick getaway, I had parked in a tow-away zone. Before we could hit the road, we had to reclaim the car! We needed a moral officer! Hitching a ride with some roughnecks, we found the tow lot. Scrapped together the $75 fine and fee and headed up Interstate 5 on the three-hour ride to Ventura. Anxious all the way, Shelly kept our spirits light and laughing with her wry wit.
Burke was the youngest, two years behind me, he had finished high school the previous June and was sorting out life as a baggage handler at the airport. He was the chief comedian/prankster in a family of like-minded kids. He also played a pretty good guitar and together we had recorded a love song of sorts for a girl away at school. Yes, folks, I once sang on a record!
I had come to know the Simpson’s through school, sat in Mr. Simpson’s class, (and yelled at when the linebackers were thrown at his defensive backs), enjoyed Shelley’s spirit and Burke’s jokes. Yet, where I really grew to know this marvelous family was in church. They were very active members of Pt. Loma Community Presbyterian Church. The parents taught Sunday school, Mrs. Simpson worked in the day care center, and the kids were active as leaders in youth group. By the time I was involved, we had all moved on to college and what we termed the church’s “college/career group.” It was through these connections that I was moved by the love and faith that was the foundation of this great family. Stories of their passion and commitment on mission trips in Colorado, Idaho, Mexico and Central Valley abounded.
Several times we took youth groups out to their beloved ranch in North County to work the land, retreat and learn about God’s presence in nature. It was there, after a hard day’s work that I saw my first ever laden farm table. A lunch so bountiful and filling, I can almost taste it now. No wonder the kids from high schools with farmers always clobbered us in football. On those trips, Mr. Simpson wasn’t the gruff teacher and coach we all knew, but a caring, compassionate man. Interested in where we were headed in life, and obviously the source of the family’s comic timing and humor.
The farm was about an hour and a half’s drive from our Pt. Loma neighborhood. Mr. Simpson, an avid pilot, seemed to love nothing more than to fly out to the farm from one of the local airports that dotted San Diego. It had also become family tradition that on Christmas Day, Mrs. Simpson would drive out to the farm while Mr. Simpson and the kids would fly out. She would finish last minute decorations, special treats and prepare another legendary meal. Meeting up in the early afternoon, the family would enjoy each other and their farm for several days before returning home to town.
In the middle of that Christmas afternoon of 1982, phones started ringing throughout our college/career group. It was the first time I heard the phrase “wind shear.” As he attempted to land, in the field just past his farmhouse, a wind shear had picked up that small plane with four wonderful, faithful people aboard, and slammed it into the ground. In one moment a charming, faithful, lovely role model of a lady, lost her husband and her three children. Friends and fellow church members were stunned. All we could imagine was Mrs. Simpson’s devastation. How could she cope? How could she go on? What must her despair be?
Yet here is where she taught us about God’s love in the gift of Jesus Christ. For Mrs. Simpson believed as deep as any I have ever encountered in the end story of Christmas-- that the Babe born in the manger as incarnate God, overcame death with his Easter resurrection. That belief has sustained Mrs. Simpson to this day.
In the days after the crash, she welcomed us warmly into her home as together we cried and shared, remembered and laughed. Rather than bringing meals – as had happened a few years earlier to my family – we carried nothing but our own tears and grief. Mrs. Simpson, in her grief, fed us with care and comfort. And what I later learned as hesed, the Hebrew word for “steadfast faith.”
When I served as an usher at the combined funeral where over 2,000 attended, I watched as Mrs. Simpson a pillar of dignity, through her simple presence, gave testimony to steadfast faith in God. It was not that God protects from all despair and devastation, it was obvious she was brokenhearted. But rather that the affirmation of our Christian conviction that the birth of the Messiah indeed meant Emmanuel, “God with us.” God was with Mrs. Simpson, for as she mourned her loss, God knew the same grief from the loss of a child.
When I’m in San Diego, I try to see Mrs. Simpson. Over the years I have seen her cry and express grief, I have seen her mourn and wonder about what might have been. But I, and I don’t think anyone else either, ever saw or heard Mrs. Simpson turn away from her faith. She stayed at the church day care center for years, she continued as a beloved Sunday School teacher, she is an adored member of the church, a stalwart of the bell choir. Yes, she grieves her earthly loss, but this gentle, devoted woman stands fast on the promise of Christ’s resurrection and that her beloved Hugh, Kent, Shelley & Burke rest in his eternal kingdom. Beginning that Christmas of 1982, she taught us all that.
I saw a picture of Carol the other week. It showed up on my FB feed. She was posing with several other women at a Christmas luncheon. The post indicated it was the church’s grief ministry team. Carol was the team leader. Imagine that!