When you hear “one year anniversary” it typically signifies a positive accomplishment and therefore causes a celebratory feeling. But for some of us, it brings only heartache as we are forced to relive certain events we’d rather have never experienced. And it further confirms there was an end to a love we never wanted to be without.
Exactly one year ago today – April 20, 2016 – we watched my dad struggle to take his last breaths until there were no more. God called him home.
The movie reel in my head plays freshly as if it happened just yesterday: the messy emotions, the finality, the extreme sadness of his departure, the darkness of death, the disbelief and shock as if I were walking in a dream world, the immediate perspective change. I hesitated to leave the hospital, as if I was leaving him behind. It was very unsettling, as my heart and mind argued that he was truly gone. I remember pumping gas right after leaving the hospital and thinking how meaningless it felt in comparison to the death I just witnessed. I don’t have time for this, I thought. I remember feeling the urgency to just run, to escape, to hide. Somewhere, anywhere. Perhaps to a place no one knew me. I remember feeling marked, as if I carried a sign that read “I just lost my dad” around my neck. And yet still I wanted to tell someone, anyone who might care.
But still, amidst all these emotions, there was peace. I had no uncertainty my dad had stepped into the presence of Jesus. Heaven never felt more real. In fact, more than ever I wanted to be there too. (A week or so before his death, I told him I was a little jealous that he may see Jesus soon. He smiled and said, “I bet.”)
God’s grace, it never depleted. It picked me up and carried me over the next few days, weeks and months. It was also seen through the love of others who poured out their kindness and generosity on our family.
On March 22nd (just a few weeks ago) I wrote, “If you were to ask me what my current feelings are at one year, I would have to say: sadness (always!) with tiny splashes of anger and acceptance here and there. Within that array of emotions there is no longer room for shock. I suppose my mind has finally accepted the reality of his death, but my heart isn’t quite sure.” However, I cannot say I’m in that place now. Tomorrow I’m having a biopsy of my uterus to see if it’s cancerous and this has caused a re-experiencing of sorts and a complete overload of emotions. To survive this overload, I’ve put myself into a protective state – not allowing myself to think or feel too deeply, at least until I find out the results in a few weeks. On the surface, I may appear fine, but I need to hold it together because if I expose any emotions then all of me will fall apart.
On January 13, 2016 – five weeks before my dad was taken to the emergency room – I wrote this in my journal:
(You’ll have to excuse the punctuation and grammar, it’s unedited.)
Very weird and saddening – extremely saddening – dream last night!!!
First, I was sitting beside Dad at some banquet or something (no other family was there that I recall). I get this notion or feeling that something was going to happen. Pretty soon he nods off to sleep (or looks that way) and goes unconscious. I can’t arouse him. He has a pulse and he’s breathing. Next thing I know I hear news that Mom…Oh, I yell to Mom, who is out in the hallway with the servers, to call 9-1-1. Then somehow it becomes Mom and that she had a massive heart attack. I thought she died. I took pictures of a very pretty mountain side and cried because she’d never see them. And who else would want to see them. Then I was back at the banquet hall yet serving this time. People were coming and going. Ben, my husband, called me to tell me Mom was okay but she likely wouldn’t make it. Brother Ben was in the dream too but he didn’t mention anything about Mom or Dad. Nothing else about Dad. So weird!
Makes we want to make sure I talk to them…! Makes you wonder if it means something or if it’s “just a dream”.
Following this excerpt – in the weeks leading up to my dad’s sickness and death, I wrote several times how I felt the “winds of change” and that “something big was about to happen”.
The Bible records visions, but in today’s world I don’t usually bank much on them. However, I dreamt correctly all three of my boys’ genders before the ultrasounds. When I was pregnant with my oldest, I had a dream of three closely-aged blonde boys – which I have. In another dream someone handed me a baby girl – claiming she was mine – but I argued she wasn’t. I also dreamt my sister-in-law went into labor and the next morning I found out they went to the hospital that night. She was three weeks early.
So, dreaming this about my parents and the sense that something was going to change certainly had me on alert. I was very attentive on March 20th, the day he started running a fever and feeling sick. My conversation with him on Monday morning (21st) was…odd. I remember thinking that very thing after I hung up. He had fallen very early that morning; he seemed confused. I knew when my dad was taken to the hospital later that day it wasn’t just the flu, it was something serious. After the doctors’ lists of possible illnesses, observations of a lung mass, off-the-charts high blood count, vague and beating-around-the-bush dialogues from the medical teams, I knew deep down he was not going to pull through.
But I still tried to hold onto hope. Although that’s what I wanted, I never really prayed for his healing. Instead, I prayed for God’s will to be done. For God to use this to reach others for Christ. God’s plan – even if it was to take his life – was far more important than my selfish desire to keep him alive. Even now, I rejoice he is in the presence of our Lord, but I have moments when I am angry. It seems so unfair. I need him; my mom needs him; his church needs him; our family needs him. But God’s purpose is far better than mine.
When I look back I see God’s hand intertwined throughout the whole situation and in our family’s lives. The timing and details of everything, the wisdom that only could come from above, the answered prayers, the peace despite the heartache of watching his life crumble before us, the unity of our family during this time, the generosity, kindness and multitude of prayers from those around us.
The Saturday before he passed, I remember driving the hour-and-a-half or two hours home thinking, I shouldn’t have left. Sunday morning came and I told my husband, “I don’t know why, but I feel like I need to be there. I just…I need to be there.” That was the last weekend I spent with him. It was the last days he could really talk (though Sunday he slept most of the day). That evening before heading home, I was out in the hallway talking with the staff and some family when I heard him coughing. I came quickly with a cup to his side and he replied, “You’re really quick on helping.”
“I try,” I responded.
“I guess that’s why you like to be here.”
“It’s because I love you.”
“I know – I can tell.” He said, with a loving, but sickly half-smile.
That was our last real exchange. I remember thinking as I drove home, I’m not sure why I felt the pull to be there. Except for the start of severe chest pain that evening, it was an uneventful day. But looking back I realize God handed me time and said, “Here, go be with him.” Because around midnight I received a message that he had been taken to the Intensive Care Unit after his health declined rapidly.
(Reflective side note: ice cream was always a big hit with our family. Every Sunday’s supper we enjoyed ice cream with chips or pretzels – it was our tradition. On Sunday afternoon, my mom and I went down to the cafeteria to get him some ice cream; that was his last food.)
Even in the last days, I debated about staying and needing to go home. It’s hard and not always possible to spend an indefinite amount of time at a hospital. But with my dad’s deteriorating and unstable health, I hated to leave. My brother encouraged me to stay and when I called my husband he told me his boss told me to stay at the hospital. I am so incredibly grateful because early the next morning, he died.
We didn’t simply see God working through the actual events as our lives unfolded, but also through the hearts of others. The outpouring of love – especially toward my mom – overwhelmed us in a wonderfully, amazing way: the cards, gifts, prayers, visits, benefit meal. The kindness and thoughts obviously could not take away the pain, but the support was very appreciated in this saddening time. And even after. Countless times over the past year my mom, especially, has opened the mailbox, picked up the phone, read a message or answered the door to a beautiful blessing; encouraging her heart and uplifting her spirit in some of her darkest and saddest moments. Thank you all for being obedient to God’s leading! And I apologize if we did not personally address your kindness and love. It is impossible to thank everyone – some even preferred to go unnamed – but know it was not overlooked nor underappreciated!
Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.
I’m certainly not trying to undermine the unmatchable sacrifice Jesus did for us on the cross and my dad hardly saved any lives, but he did yield his life to death for the sake of God’s plan and glory. He told us he struggled his first days in the hospital. He shared with us that he felt God asking him if he was willing to go through this so that his kids would experience a closer relationship with God. He told us his answer was yes. From that point on you could see the evidence of God’s peace on his tattered body.
All my life my dad did so much for me; he was always there for me – my spiritual leader and encourager. A pillar on which I could lean. He sacrificed so much for me and it seems his death followed the very example of the life he led. He placed in God’s hands his life for the benefit of others and ultimately God’s glory.
My dad was a godly man – perhaps seen as almost perfect to some. But he was not, as all of us are bound by our sin. His strive was not perfection but a relationship; he fully committed himself to God. And the harder you run after God the further you run from sin. But even that did not happen overnight. As a family friend explained it: “it took 65 years of dying to self, running hard after God, studying His word, committing himself to the Lord’s service.”
Gratefulness. Even though this turn of events took the life of my dad, I am still so grateful. I’m grateful that, above all, he gets to sit at Jesus’ feet! Something I too want so badly. Secondly, I got to spend hours and hours of precious time with my dad in his last thirty days; more than I have in the past year and more than I would’ve had he not gotten sick. And thirdly, God is not done! We cannot see the plan of God, the ways He is using and will continue to use my dad’s life and death, but rest assured He will!
His funeral. I’ve attended my share of funerals. Though it being my father’s offers a whole other experience like none before, it was still completely different. Several commented that it was more like a worship service. My dad would have enjoyed it. Some of his favorite hymns were sung. Two of my brothers, my brother-in-law and my dad’s pastor and friend spoke. The gospel was most certainly shared; it was even written on a handout for all who took his memorial pamphlet. Shock worked as a buffer to carry us through the services, and perhaps even weeks afterward, but soon there was no longer a shield to protect us, just raw pain and sorrow.
I am also awaiting some news from the doctor during this difficult first anniversary, as I shared earlier. I do believe I have put myself into a state of protection. Or perhaps that is God’s grace. We don’t know all the forms of grace. But I feel peace which is only from God – by His grace. If I looked down right now, I’m sure I would see only one set of footprints. God is carrying me. This peace, it came unexpectedly. It’s as if God knew this month would come crushing down and He’s taken His hand and shielded me from the pain. Am I still sad? Without a doubt! Am I still missing dad? Oh my, yeah! Am I still worried about my test results? I would be lying if I said I wasn’t. But it’s like God has placed His hand protectively over me to deflect all the arrows of sorrow and pain as the memories flood freshly back into my mind and to cast out fear and worry as they try to set up their permanency camp in my head. You are my hiding place and my shield; I hope in Your Word (Psalm 119:114). He has also provided strength way beyond what I’m able to produce within myself, especially during this time. Oh, the tears still roll and flood my pillow at times and I still have moments when I feel I’ve been thrown out into the raging waters of uncertainty and sorrow, but deep within there is a peace that I cannot explain.
He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might He increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.