By Robert M. Nelson, M.D.
The fishing seaport of Grimstad, on the southern coast of Norway , was a jewel of a village at the turn of the century, thriving and alive with the activities of the day.
Two tall ships lay at anchor, their crews busily making them ready for their long journeys, and the fishing fleet was at the waterfront. Housewives critically surveyed the bountiful catch while fishermen mended their nets in small sheds along the shore.
Close to the water’s edge on the road called Storgaten (literally, “The Great Avenue “), named for its importance to the village, not its size, was the bakery owned by my Bestefar or grandfather, Baker Johnsen.
Surrounded by inviting sights and smells, villagers, sailors, and fishermen would gather for coffee, pastry, and conversation. They found much more: Baker Johnsen’s genial spirit overflowed with a love of people, a love of country, and a love of God, a spirit he shared warmly and without reservation.
Regrettably, Bestefar’s generosity and friendship caused his financial downfall. Ships were permitted to secure provisions on credit. A “friend” who needed a note cosigned disappeared. The bakery shop was sold to satisfy creditors, Baker Johnsen, without bitterness but with faith and hope in the future and God, set sail for America .
A new life awaited Bestefar and his family, but he did not forget the old. Years later, in 1930, he returned to Grimstad a local hero. He had voluntarily repaid every one of his creditors dollar for dollar what was due them.
After Bestefar and Bestemor came to America , it was my good fortune to share a home with them and my parents, a home I cherished until I was eighteen and went off to college. During these years, my grandparents were the center of influence in the home, the neighborhood, and the church.
At the age of twelve an event occurred that changed my life. Near the end of the school year, the students in the seventh grade were given a Mantoux test. Two days later the inner aspect of my right forearm was markedly swollen and tender.
About a week later, on returning from school, I noticed a letter in our mailbox. It was from the Principal of the school and addressed to my parents. Not known in school for good behavior, I was sure this was another complaint.
Strong curiosity overcame ethical conduct. I went to the kitchen; turned on an old teapot, and waited what seemed a long time for steam to form. I carefully steamed open the envelope and read: “We regret to inform you that a Mantoux Test done on your son, Robert, indicates he has childhood Tuberculosis.”
My heart sank. The event is as clear in my mind as though it were yesterday.
Although I knew nothing about childhood tuberculosis, the gravity of the letter suggested to me that I was going to die. Remarkably, in the weeks that followed, no one, physician or staff, sat down and explained to me in simple terms the significance of childhood tuberculosis, and the reasons to be optimistic about a cure. It seems to me that at that moment seeds were planted that would later develop into the Meland Foundation and the great need to give patients a full explaination of the health issues that impact their lives.
Almost overnight a boy who had been happy, nonchalant, spontaneous, and carefree became serious, introspective, and careful. His bicycle, treasured and hand assembled from parts gathered from the neighborhood, lay unused. From the porch of the family cottage at Lake Lookover , during that summer of prescribed bedrest, that boy, once so full of life, watched the other children boating and swimming.
However, the faith of my Bestefar–the faith nurtured in Norway and tested during his own trials–and the care given me by my parents lifted my spirit and helped dissolve my great anxiety. I found special comfort from my grandfather’s favorite Psalms, the ninety-first and the twenty-third, and he often read to me in Norwegian.
” Thi han skal give sine Engle befaling om dig, at de skal bevare dig paa alle dine Veie.”
“For He shall give His angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.”
” Herren er min hyrde, mig fattes intet”
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want”
Through my grandfather I came to believe in God and His Son, and to know for certain that His angels surround me. Through my grandfather a course was set for my life, a compass setting that has time and time again steered me in the right direction.
And the twenty-third Psalm has been a Compass Rose and an inspiring influence in my life.
1 Herren er min hyrde, mig fattes intet
2 Han lar mig ligge i gronne enger, han leder mig til hvilens vann.
3 Han vederkveger min sjel, han forer mig pa rettferdighets stier for sitt navns skyld.
4 Om jeg enn skulde vandre i dodsskyggens dal, frykter jeg ikke for ondt; for due er med mig, din kjepp og din stav de troster mig.
5 Du dekker bord for mig like for mine fienders oine, du salver mitt hode med olje; mitt beger flyter over.
6 Bare godt og miskunnhet skal efterjage mig alle mitt livs dager, og jeg skal bo i Herrens hus g jennem lange tider.
1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
This essay has been published along with essays written by Dr. Viktor E. Frankl, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, and Rabbi Ungar in a book titled “A Compass Rose.”
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