Chapter Seven, "Grace of God, or the grace of life"

Photo Essay, Carroll County Times, December 26, 1998

By Ken Koons

Elizabeth Seebass, Ruth Aukerman's mother, repairs her grandson's jacket. She was visiting from Ruth's native Germany.

Ruth Aukerman tends a blooming Christmas rose in the flower garden in front of their home. Christmas 1998 was the first year in which the plant produced blossoms. In 1953, children at the refugee camp in Germany where Dale was working put on a play about the Christmas rose and people who didn't believe Christ had been born. "They saw this rose blooming in the snow," Dale said. "They said, 'Well, if there can be the miracle of the Christ rose blooming in snow, there can be the miracle of the Christ child coming.'"

The information age enters the Aukerman home on Christmas Eve as Miriam's husband Chuck looks up a recipe on the Internet before the family dinner.

Hours after receiving a dose of chemotherapy, Dale gives the work of digging the family Christmas tree over to his son Daniel and son-in-law Chuck Pazdernik. Each year, the Aukermans dig a tree from their land and replant it in the new year.

Ruth places the star atop the family's tree after placing candles in antique holders on the tree. Candles are an important tradition on the Aukerman Christmas tree. When they are lit on Christmas Eve, it becomes a time of relfection and reverence for the family.

After the ritual of digging a live Christmas tree, the Aukerman family has coffee, tea, and cookies that the family bakes only for the Christmas season.

Article, Carroll County Times, December 26, 1998

By Scott Blanchard

They brought the young Norway spruce inside on Christmas Eve, as always, to be decorated with straw ornaments and candles set in tin holders with pinecone-shaped lead weights to balance them on the branches. That night the tradition continued: they lit the candles, letting them give the only light inside their Stem Road home, and read from the Bible and sang about the coming of Jesus Christ.

``It was the most beautiful and intense Christmas I can remember,'' Dale Aukerman wrote in the journal he had begun keeping.

Dale, then 66, had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in early November 1996. Medical statistics indicated Dale, a writer, peace activist and Church of the Brethren minister, could expect to die in about six months. He, his wife Ruth and their children Daniel, Miriam and Maren knew it could be their last Christmas together.

But with the help of medicine, of faith, of love and of prayer, Dale's journey has not ended.

On Wednesday, hours after receiving a dose of the cancer-fighting drug navelbine, he went out behind his home to the rows of spruce trees that, over the years, have been dug up as Christmas trees and replanted after the New Year. He, Daniel, Miriam and her husband Chuck dug up this year's Christmas tree - the same chest-high spruce they decorated in 1996 and again in 1997.

``Last year, I didn't want it dug,'' Ruth said. ``I was worried that if we dug it a second time, it would die. I didn't want that tree to die.

``This year, I wouldn't have it any different.''

The tumor in Dale's left lung has stabilized for now, and he just finished radiation treatment to get rid of cancerous spots along his spine. The reminders of the cancer and the uncertainty about how much longer he will live are still there. But the oppression of the disease has become lighter.

On Christmas Eve, the family's thankfulness warmed the house as much as the two woodstoves.

In the winter of 1996, Ruth sometimes would lie in bed and listen to Dale breathe, then when he woke up, she would tell him how precious it was to hear.

``We're in a place right now where it's a little better,'' she said Thursday as she hung candles on the tree. ``[But] I'm very thankful when I wake up and he's still there, he's breathing.''

Daniel came in to help Ruth hang candles and ornaments. Almost a year ago to the day, Dale in his journal had quoted Daniel saying: ``Father, I love looking at you.'' Grace, he said, has kept his father here.

``Grace of God or the grace of life,'' he said, remembering that the mother of a friend recently died of cancer. ``There's the question of `Am I more deserving of my father living?' I don't feel that. I'm just thankful he is given the time and the grace.''

In the kitchen, Miriam and Maren were getting things ready for the traditional Christmas Eve seafood dinner. Using his laptop, Chuck had pulled a recipe for scallops off the Internet - leading Daniel to joke that in one sense his parents' simple way of life had evolved into the computer age. A baking dish full of shrimp thawed atop the dining room woodstove.

``With the first Christmas, we were still very much in shock,'' Maren said. ``I think we were all sort of more focused on the immediacy of the death.

``Even though that immediacy hasn't really gone anywhere, we're able to focus a little bit more on the celebration.''

Miriam said the family is grateful even for the fact that Dale tried to open a window in the house in October. He felt sharp pain in his back, and tests revealed the cancer had spread there. Doctors then treated it with radiation.

``What at the time seemed like a mistake and something to be regretted actually turned out not to be,'' she said.

In the same room where Dale had opened the window in October, Ruth's mother Elizabeth Seebass was donning her scarf and coat. She and Ruth were getting ready for another tradition: a hike to neighbors' houses to deliver cookies and other baked goods.

Elizabeth had made a plane reservation in September to fly in from Germany. She would not have regretted making the trip, no matter what awaited her.

``We didn't know what will come,'' she said Thursday, sitting in Ruth and Dale's living room. ``We had in our view that it could be a very dark and sad Christmas.''

But on Christmas Eve night, as always, the family would wait in other parts of the house as Ruth lit the 4-inch, yellow-orange beeswax candles. Then she would call for them to come in. They would sing carols in German and English. In the glow of the candles, Dale would read from the Bible, verses that heralded the coming of Jesus Christ: And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory ...

For Dale, and for his family, it was one more night to celebrate life, love and God. This Christmas had become, Elizabeth Seebass said, a ``Christmas in joy.''

Go forward to Chapter Eight, "He died who he was"

Go back to Chapter Six, "Whenever I am weak, then I am strong"

Go to the Living with Dying page