June 15, 2014 was a sunny, warm day in the Appalachian mountains. It was a day to celebrate dads everywhere. As the morning sun peaked the tip of the mountains, I ventured to my dad’s house where my son spent the night. I was tired, achy and irritable from staying up late at a wedding the evening prior while 9 months pregnant. I was greeted by a cheerful 20 month old and a father eager to have breakfast with me but he needed to run into town and buy milk. I sighed and asked him to please hurry because I, myself, was eager to go home and rest my swollen body. I was rude, but he was understanding and kind.
During our last breakfast together, I presented him with a card that contained a rushed Father’s Day message written inside and a check to purchase materials for his home remodel project. I felt a twinge of guilt not putting more thought into his gift because he endlessly helped me in so many ways throughout my life, especially by babysitting my son everyday and helping my husband build our addition. I reassured myself my dad understood how exhausted I was with a 20-month-old, last trimester of pregnancy, selling our home and searching for a new home before baby #2 arrived in a few weeks. I explained we would spend the next day together, just the three of us- me, my son and my dad. This would grant me time to make him a cute, homemade gift from his little buddy. I never imagined God would rob me of another day with this loving man.
My dad came to my house briefly to help my husband finish work in our addition. We joked that a father’s hard work is never complete, not even on Father’s Day. However, he did take a break to chase my son up and down the hills of our yard overlooking the cornfields. I rested in the grass watching the happiness in my dad’s eyes as he ran after a giggling Tucker. I noticed my dad began to tire from running up and down the hill, so he switched gears and initiated a carefree game of catch with Tucker. The tremendous love on his face while tossing the red ball back and forth with Tucker reminded me to be more appreciative of the simple moments with my young son.
As we said our goodbyes, I felt there was something different about this goodbye. There was a noticeable difference in the way he looked at me, hugged me and spoke to me. I vividly remember the look on his face and the feel of his arms around me as he softly whispered, “I love you, hunny.”
I will never have that day back. I will never have that moment back. I will never have my dad back.
A few hours later, I received the most feared phone call. My dad was in a motorcycle accident and was unresponsive. The car ride to the hospital with a silent husband, hysterical mom, and unknowing child felt like eternity. I prayed with my whole heart for God to place his hands on my dad and heal him. I was not ready to lose my first love, my teacher, my dad.
Arriving at the hospital, staff rushed us into a private room. The doctor walked in with a sullen expression. She sat beside me and quietly explained, “I’m sorry, I’m afraid his accident will not be survivable.”
I stopped breathing. I stumbled for a response as I tried to comprehend the words I just heard. “Please,” I begged, “It’s Father’s Day.” I placed my hands on my belly as if to hold my unborn child. It was as if I could hear my dad’s voice instructing me to breathe and stay calm for the life growing inside me. The doctor calmly explained he would have difficulty making it through the transfer from the ER to the ICU, let alone surgery.
“Take me to him,” I cried.
I held his hand and stroked his face as I poured my love on to him. Tears rolled down his cheeks and I knew he heard me. He felt my love and appreciation that I did not show him earlier because I was consumed in my own life stressors. Things that now seemed so minimal.
Tucker and Jeff stood by my side. Tucker babbled happily to his pap… his best friend. His gibberish and love for my dad stabbed my heart. Jeff cried thanking him for his love and help over the years. He leaned Tucker over to kiss his pap one last time.
When my brothers arrived, I wiped my tears and assumed the nurturing role I always assumed with them. I somehow found the strength to regurgitate the information from the doctor. I leaned against the wall and cried silent tears listening to my little brother vomit in the bathroom.
Despite the nightmare we were living, God blessed us with a gift not many people receive. He allowed us to be with my dad in his final moments of life. My dad’s loved ones circled around sharing our favorite memories with him and thanking him for taking his role as a father seriously. We held him. We thanked him for playing the leadership role in our family and teaching us the values of hard work and a sense of humor. Most importantly, we thanked him for teaching us to simply love life. Nothing in this world comes easily but we promised to carry on his “Life is Good” attitude. And then, in the middle of the night on June 16, 2014, my dad took his last breath.
My family and I walked out of the hospital together like sheep lost from their shepherd.
Looking back, God tried preparing me for this tragic loss, but my heart and eyes were blind. Eight weeks before my dad’s accident, I sat in a church pew on the Third Easter of Sunday. My husband teased me, as he did every Sunday, that I was “getting my geek on” as I jotted down notes on my yellow notepad. I shushed him and went back to business. Once home, I slipped into blue jeans and shoved the bulletin and notes in the drawer of the secretary desk and carried on with my day.
A few months ago, I stumbled upon a dusty box in the attic that was placed there three years ago when we moved into my dad’s house. Inside were journals and church bulletins. A church bulletin with a small, yellow piece of paper stapled in the corner caught my eye.
“Inspiration” was written, in my handwriting, on the top of the paper. Below it, I wrote “You’ve had good memories. Stop feeling sorry for yourself and hold on to the good memories you were fortunate enough to have. Never forget.”
I instantly thought of my dad and the grief I carried with me over the years. Then, I saw the date of the sermon and goose bumps climbed up my arms. I wrote this message during the church service weeks before my dad died. At the time, I had no idea what these words would mean to me in the future.
I continued reading the bulletin. I was stunned when I saw the sermon was titled, “Letting Go” John 15:26-16:13. I honestly could not recall the details of the sermon, so I opened my Bible and re-read the scripture:
The Work of the Holy Spirit
26 “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—he will testify about me. 27 And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.
16 “All this I have told you so that you will not fall away. 2 They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God. 3 They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me. 4 I have told you this, so that when their time comes you will remember that I warned you about them. I did not tell you this from the beginning because I was with you, 5 but now I am going to him who sent me. None of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6 Rather, you are filled with grief because I have said these things. 7 But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8 When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 about sin, because people do not believe in me; 10 about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; 11 and about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.
12 “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14 He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. 15 All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.”
The Disciples’ Grief Will Turn to Joy
16 Jesus went on to say, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me.”
Although I previously read this exact scripture in church, the power of it did not resonate with me. God used these words to point to my dad’s cross, but I was not able to see it. Now, God uncovered my eyes and I interrupted the same scripture with different meaning. It was as if he needed me to walk through the darkness before walking into the light.
The scripture is part of the concluding conversation between Jesus and his disciples. The most intimate part of the whole Gospel when Jesus, the disciples and God were brought together. Just as my dad, myself, and family members shared the intimate moment in the hospital as my dad left the earthly world and entered the spiritual world.
This particular scripture teaches us the Holy Spirit is a gift. The Holy Spirit is God’s spirit dwelling inside of us. It is always present. Always willing to counsel and comfort. I discovered deep comfort in knowing God’s help is available to me through the Holy Spirit when I wake in the middle of the night, sobbing over a dream of my dad and feeling lost in my pain.
Just as childbirth is filled with intense pain followed by joy, death and grief follow the same predictable pattern. The loss of a loved one afflicts us with intense emotional pain but the realization our loved one experiences not only a new life but also a level of intimacy with God brings joy to our hearts.
God’s words were so clear to me now that I could not believe I did not capture the meaning before this moment. I smiled as three years of pain, suffering, guilt, anger and sadness washed away from me.
It was the greatest revelation of my greatest suffering. My heart felt a peacefulness it had not felt since my first child was placed on my chest after hours of anguish.
My first child is now four- years- old. He senses when I experience my deepest despair from time to time. One day, driving by a cemetery, he questioned, “Mom, do you miss pap?”
“Yes, I miss him very much.”
“Well, I can tell you stories about pap. Would that make you happy?”
“Yes, that would make me very happy.”
He continued to lavish me with adventures of him and my dad. All completely untrue, but thoughtful nonetheless. He paused and stared out the window.
“You only die once.”
You only die once. The statement played over and over in my mind the rest of the ride home. It is a simple rule of life yet very profound. Death is a one-time experience. But life? Life is continuous. My dad’s life carries on. I cried tears of joy as my son’s words comforted me greater than he knew.
Everything grows with love. My dad loved us fiercely. He never stopped teaching us through his words and actions that nothing in this world comes easily. It takes the right attitude and self-discipline to reach success. His love allowed us not to be afraid of failure. We knew he would catch us after countless hours of failure only to smile, all knowingly, when we succeeded.
My dad’s love helped me bloom into the woman, wife and mother I am today. His earthly life ended but his love did not. It is now our turn to take the baton and carry on his life’s lessons to his grandchildren. We will shower his grandchildren with his love, so they grow into a loving, giving and kind person like him.
June 15, 2017 is a sunny, warm day in the Appalachian mountains. As the morning sun peaked the tip of the mountains, I woke in my dad’s house… my house.
I am sitting on the porch, sipping coffee and reminiscing that tragic day three years ago.
I smile through the tears because I gaze in the yard and…
I see him in the face of my children.
I hear him in their laughter.
I smell him in the morning breeze.
I feel him in these mountains.
In loving memory of my dad, Gary David Stewart.