TILL DEATH DO US PART
I am humbled by the opportunity to write this story about my Mom and Dad. My father, William Sr. passed away in the summer of 2016 and it’s been very difficult for the entire family. He wanted me to officiate his funeral and as I began to write about some of the great memories I had with him, I also began to seriously consider what an effect his illness had on my Mother. You see, when my dad was young, he was very strong and filled with energy, but the second half of his life proved to be the opposite. A few weeks after he was laid to rest, I thought about this couple who loved each other through good times and times of great difficulty. Mom may not have literally suffered the physical agony but as a caregiver, she definitely went through the emotional and mental struggles that many do not think about. Allow me to take you behind the scenes and share a small glimpse of the beautiful relationship and the unwavering devotion my parents had with one another. I believe what they had was true love and hopefully, those of us who are married can appreciate this solemn dedication to the holy vow of matrimony.
2016 was a difficult year as we also lost Cheryl’s mother in November. She lived the last four years of her life in a nursing home after experiencing a devastating stroke. To say the least, we are still in shock from these unexpected losses but we are also filled with hope and joy in knowing they are healed and living with Jesus! I spend a lot of time visiting people in nursing homes and I see the agony and disappointment that comes with sickness and the decline that is associated with aging. In knowing that we all have a strong chance of making it to our “winter season” there are many things to consider. Life does not come down to what we accomplished or the accumulation of material possessions. Our peace and joy will rest on how close we are to God and the comfort of having those around us who love us. “Till death do us part” includes lots of great stories along with some spiritual insights that I pray will inspire you and encourage your faith.
DO US PART
WILLIAM F. HOLLAND JR.
Dedicated to my Mother and Father
The memories of love are beautiful and yet can also be a painful reminder of a time and place that cannot be lived again. The quiet contemplation of the past, when even the challenges were exciting and everything seemed more vibrant and clear can haunt us with sentimental and melancholy feelings that churn deep within the soul. Turning the pages of our thoughts, we view the captured images like a vintage movie and pay close attention to details like the warmth and brightness of the sun on a summer day or the sounds of laughter coming from loved ones at a holiday occasion. As we patiently stroll through the long hallways of yesteryear, we occasionally stop and reminiscence back to a time that was filled with adventure and enthusiasm along with the milestones of heartbreaking disappointments. My mother’s first name is Janet and everyone called my dad Jack or Jackie. His real name was William but when he was a baby, the man who owned the old country store would always tease everyone by saying my dad looked like a little Jack – which of course was his own name. Somehow this nickname followed him throughout his life and all I can ever remember anyone including my mom calling him was Jackie.
The last six weeks have been a blur as she sits alone in her small and dimly lit apartment. Picking up the remote, she turns off the television to stop the rambling and meaningless voices that weary the mind. As the chaos of background noise fades into the distance, she escapes to her secret place where she can close her eyes and travel through time. Without leaving her sanctuary, she reflects back on a life that has passed by much too quickly like a flock of wild geese in the fall against an overcast sky. She was born on August fifth, 1938, in a small shack out in the woods, in a tiny community called Eagle Creek. My, where had the time gone? She has asked this question several times lately, as it seems like only a short time ago she was a young and pretty girl who was apprehensive about venturing out from a disheartening childhood. Now alone for the first time in her life, I believe it would be accurate to include the words afraid and insecure as she contemplates what lies ahead.
When growing up, she remembers being curious and outgoing but without the guidance and security of a normal childhood. She was always being hungry but when we are young it’s difficult to comprehend the reality of such things. In most cases, those who have been isolated do not actually realize how unfortunate they were until they grow up and see how the rest of the world lives. There are only a few pictures of her as a child, and it’s obvious with how thin she appeared, there was definitely a serious diet-related problem that leans toward malnutrition. It was no secret that food was scarce as she recalls waking up in the mornings and the relief she felt seeing her brothers dragging coffee sacks of vegetables into the house. The neighbors would generously harvest from their gardens and lay the bags on her front porch because they were obviously worried and felt sorry for the children. Sadly, we are surrounded every day by innocent little ones that are hungry and neglected.
She had three brothers and three sisters, and when her dad finally came home from the military to stay, he did not seek employment because he said he felt bad, but strangely also never received any type of social security or disability payments. It would have been understood if he could not work, but the dysfunction is evident in the reality that he just did not want to work and with him not producing an income we can clearly see why the burden of providing fell upon her weary mother. However, he did have the energy to do all the shopping and the cooking, in fact, he so dominated the kitchen that no one was allowed to enter or touch anything including his own wife. It was later discovered, that sadly, he would secretly travel to his parent’s house while she was at work, to eat country ham and steak only to return home and prepare baked potatoes and macaroni for the evening meal. Evidently, there were mental disorders on his part along with a negative character trait of ingrained selfishness but her mother quietly accepted their fate and continued working until during a routine partial hysterectomy she developed a blood clot and suddenly died on the operating table at 62 years old. Her mom’s name was Nellie and according to everyone who knew her, she was somewhat of a professional seamstress. Of course, working in a sewing factory for many years explains how Nellie became so talented as she walked to work year round. She had a sewing machine at home and after a long day at work, she would cut our patterns and sew clothes for everyone in the family. Mom remembers watching her mother sew and how it seemed like magic. She recalls starting first grade with beautiful dresses and how everyone would give her compliments and brag about how lovely she looked. It was also known that her mother was a woman of faith and dearly loved by her brothers and sisters in the church but in reality, she was unable to protect herself and her children from the cruelty of this abusive husband and father. I can barely remember her after all these years, but according to all who knew her, she was a wonderful person and a woman of integrity.
These dark and disturbing times may be forgiven but not forgotten, as she recalls how for some reason her father despised milk and butter and would absolutely not allow them to be brought into the house, even though the doctor had told her mother the children desperately needed the nutrition. This is just one example of the bizarre behavior that caused everyone in the house to keep their distance from him. Her mother being afraid of verbal and possibly physical confrontation, would discreetly give her some change and tell her to run to the store so she could buy a small container of milk. Of course, this included the stipulation she had to drink it before she returned. She also witnessed other acts of cruelty, like for example him literally kicking her brothers and sisters out of the way when they would play in the floor and every so often he would have a screaming fit of rage and demand that her mother should try and find somewhere else for all of these children to live. Through the years each of the children struggled with the pain of rejection and no doubt suffered emotional agony that was directly associated with the lack of parental nurturing. With bitterness and disappointment, they were challenged to learn how to deal with resentment and unforgiveness the rest of their lives.
It was somewhere around 1956 when in her late teens, she went to a tent revival church meeting with her sister and her husband. A young man close to her age just happened to catch her eye and she timidly told her brother-in-law that she would like to meet that handsome boy. He went over to the young man and said there was a young lady that would like to speak with him. They ended up sitting together that night and she still recalls the overwhelming emotions of being awkwardly nervous and excited all at the same time. He brought her home that evening and the next morning to her surprise he was knocking on her door. She was embarrassed because she came to the door dressed in old dirty cleaning clothes and had a rag tied around her head. Nonetheless, they sat on the porch swing talking and laughing and everything seemed to click and as they say, the rest is history.
After a brief and innocent romance, they were married on September seventeenth, 1957, in the living room where she lived and now as she turns the pages of an old photo album, the faded black and white images reveal a small and simple service with family and a few friends. Her family had moved to a small town on a dead-end street that on one side was lined with large brick sewing factories and on the other side was scattered a few small frame houses. She lived in a plain white house with wooden siding that had a front porch that was painted blue along with white posts and railings across the front. She remembers after the wedding ceremony, her parents stood on that porch and she just walked right past them, down the steps and into the car. No final hugs or kisses, no exchanges of encouraging and loving words. Oddly they seemed like stone statues and she remembers turning around as they were driving away and the scene of her mom and dad still quietly standing there is still as clear as ever. It was strange and peculiar but it also exposes a little more about how distant and indifferent they were.
She eventually learned throughout her childhood that she was being raised in poverty because she listened to the other children at school talk about delicious dinners and always having whatever they wanted to eat. However, she did not fully grasp the extent of how dysfunctional her life had been until later in life after witnessing the lifestyle of her husband’s family and how normal people lived, she began to put the pieces together. As the youngest of seven children, she feels sorry for her brothers and sisters because she realizes that she probably escaped most of the worse horrors that her siblings had suffered years before. She also understands why they did not have any warm and fuzzy feelings toward her father in his last years.
Her mother had always worked long hours because her father always complained of mysterious back problems that he said had originated from the military. Her brothers and sisters told stories of how he was gone for long periods of time and after he would return after being home on leave, her mother would become pregnant again. So, after a period of time, the situation became critical with him not being there to provide, and her mother was left trying to figure out a way to feed a house filled with hungry children. What made things worse was that her mother’s family were angry because they did not want her mother to marry this man and warned that if she did they would not help her. I guess many can agree that in this particular situation maybe her mother should have listened. Nonetheless, she has only told the story to a few people about the first time her future husband brought her to his house for dinner and how shocked she was when she saw the table loaded with delicious food and how she was constantly being reminded she could have all she wanted. There was a lot of laughing as it seemed the atmosphere was filled with hope and happiness. When it was time for him to take her home, everyone wanted to hug and tell her how much they were glad she came and later that evening she wondered about these strong emotions of love and affection and how wonderful it felt.
Like many young couples who start out with very little money and few worldly possessions, they were filled with boundless determination to secure a place to live on their own and plan their wonderful future. She now looks back on the happy times when her handsome husband was strong and filled with endless energy and the sparkle in his eye when he would talk about the freedom and joys of managing his own business. He had been working in a factory but soon grew restless and frustrated like a wild horse performing in a circus act. He eventually joined his father in the construction trade where they specialized in pouring concrete and soon after they were consistently providing a good living for both of them. She had watched him over the years work long hours but knew that he loved every minute of his new found independence and the personal satisfaction it gave him. He was a perfectionist when it came to his craft and he soon developed a solid reputation of being skilled and honest. She was proud of him and actually had become spoiled for the lack of a better word because he had treated her like his queen and provided for her a lifestyle of ease and security. Over the years they had three healthy children, a boy and two girls that were born seven years apart and were an average middle-class happy family. There was no need for her to work outside of the home as finances were never a serious concern. In fact, after years of him being a successful subcontractor for new construction projects, he eventually became a custom home-builder and invested his time and labor into his own homes. This gave him the opportunity to literally build houses that he designed and every now and then they would move into one of them. They lived the dream with new cars and trucks, took fun-filled vacations, and did whatever they wanted.
Her memories take her back to a time when he had told her that he had been looking at motorcycles. He had never owned one or even ridden a bike but just thought it would be nice to fly down the road and relax with the wind in your hair. She now laughs and says it must have been a mid-life crisis, but anyway, since he was making decent money, he stopped in one afternoon at the cycle dealership and paid cash for a brand new beautiful red Kawasaki 750. He came home and told her they needed to go pick it up, and the plan was for her to drive and follow him as he rode it home. She recalls him in the parking lot being instructed by the salesman how to change gears and other crucially important features like where the brakes are. So, off he went on one of the busiest highways possible as she pulled out behind him. It was quite a harrowing experience with all the abrupt jerking and erratic driving but somehow by God’s grace, they made it home. Over the next few weeks, he would take it out for a spin as he was continuing to learn how to drive more smoothly. One day a nephew who already knew all about motorcycles came over and wanted to ride on this beast. He said he would just be a passenger and let his uncle show him what it could do so they both took off and in a flash they were gone. About an hour later they pulled up and got off, but seemed to be noticeably shaken. Come to find out, they had been cruising down this country road when all of a sudden a large dog ran out in front of them and he had run completely over it with both wheels, yet somehow still managed to keep from crashing. They thought the dog was alright but felt at that moment they both had a pretty good idea of what a heart attack felt like. One question that had never been settled throughout the years is whether this miracle had been manifested as a result of his superior driving skills or was it mostly a miracle of angelic intervention. Whatever the case, it was only a few months after this that he lost interest, advertised the bike and sold it.
As the old bumper sticker said, “life is good” this is a good way of explaining how things were rolling right along until one day he accidentally fell off the back of a box truck as they were moving into another one of his beautiful new homes, and with a brief medical examination he was diagnosed with an aggressive and debilitating kidney disease. His family had been dealing with hereditary health issues for years but he had not shown any serious symptoms and had just been too busy to worry about it. The medical world at that time really did not understand a lot about Polycystic Kidney Disease and honestly did not know how to treat it. Later on, a transplant was offered as a possibility but he was not interested because he thought the surgery would be devastating and the anti-rejection medicine would prove to be too much for his entire system. His primary doctor actually told him to get his house in order, so to speak, and begin preparing to die. This negative advice was definitely a mental and emotional strain. So, everything from that point forward changed drastically and, being the serious thinker that he was, he took the bull by the horns and began to back away from his dreams and pulled the plug on his growing company.
Being afraid that he would leave her in a financial disaster, he sold out and downsized from their large quality home to a more modest dwelling while filing for disability. The deterioration of his kidneys began to progress and what once was a happy and carefree life that had few limitations was now a steady series of doctor appointments, treatments, diet restrictions, a world of different types of medications and of course the main event – kidney dialysis. Most people are vaguely familiar with dialysis treatment but it is a modern technology that extends the life of those who lose their kidney function. Basically, the machine receives the blood from the patient, runs it through a system of filters and delivers the blood back into the individual within a process of about 4 hours and is needed 3 times per week in order to keep the toxins and fluids under control within the circulatory system. It is common that people do not last long on dialysis because they usually have several other problems that are causing the kidneys to fail, and generally they pass away months or a couple of years after they begin. He was a model patient and did everything exactly right so that he could live and after all was said and done he lasted a month over 20 years on the machine. And then all at once, the world they had always known came to end as he quietly passed away on a Friday afternoon after undergoing a routine flushing of his fistula. This is what they call the plastic tube inserted under the skin in the arm that connects the veins and arteries so the needle sticks for dialysis can be done more easily. It was supposed to be a simple outpatient procedure but to the shock and horror of the treating physicians and others who had taken care of him through the years, he died instantly.
The death certificate said the cause of death was a pulmonary embolism but the medical records said he had experienced respiratory arrest. No one would step forward and explain, so the basic conclusion was either a blood-clot had moved into his system or the fluid build-up from not having dialysis for a week had caused congestive heart failure. Whatever the case, we have always heard the old saying “here one minute and gone the other” and according to all accounts, this was no different. The hospital report describes how they tried to feverishly to restart his heart but it was just more complicated than they could handle. It just did not make sense. He had promised her that after the simple procedure was completed, they would go out for lunch at their favorite restaurant as everything seemed like an average ordinary day. She remembers sitting in the waiting room reading a magazine when one of the staff came out and told her that for some reason his heart had stopped and they were doing all they could to try and get it started again. She was left in shock trying to process what had just been said and called her children. Twenty minutes later, the nurse came out again and said they were still working on him and that is when she and everyone else in this frantic phone cycle realized he was gone and was not coming back. How could this be?
It is true he desperately needed dialysis because the arm had been blocked, but there will always be a mystery as to why something was not done sooner. They could have easily placed a temporary port in his chest and gave him the dialysis first in order to reduce the fluid that had built up and then worked on his arm later but hindsight will not bring him back. Just moments before, in the waiting room they had called his name and he walked down the hall with confidence and trust that this was going to be a routine procedure and now her stare was penetrating on that very same door as she wondered if he would ever return. She felt her heart beating wildly and like a huge ocean wave she could sense the flood of fear and anxiety. She was alone in that room, drowning in fear, helpless to do anything, speechless, confused and not able to comprehend this whirlwind of emotions. This cannot be true, there must be a mistake, maybe he will be revived, isn’t there something else that can be done? Another doctors opinion?… surely this is not the way it’s supposed to end.
Yes, life had been a hard road and he endured a lot of suffering and misery but he was not the type of personality that lived in a pity party. In the midst of constant discomfort, he chose to be a gentle and kind person of integrity, a tender-hearted warrior. He would force a smile and grit his teeth to seem joyful and excited but if you looked closely you could see in his eyes that he was held in the bondage of constant pain, weakness, and agony. Through the years he would daily push himself to keep going because he loved his family and wanted to be with them. He was an affectionate people person that loved to hug and have lengthy conversations. He deeply cared about his children and his grandchildren as each one fondly remembers the safety and security of sitting in his lap with his loving arms around them. I’m sure he wished he could do more and go more places with them but he was just too weak. He openly testified and acknowledged that he had a blessed life and wanted to live as long as he could for them. It’s no secret that he was chained to that dialysis machine but he was also a man who loved God and it was obvious that Jesus was his actual personal life support system. He was a model patient and was very organized and enthusiastic when it came to his eating, drinking and medicine routine. He had such a dedicated responsibility to develop an awareness of his food and liquid intake and closely monitored the delicate balance of certain chemicals and minerals that needed to be kept in check. It’s common for many patients to care less about all of this and suffer the consequences, but he was driven to follow instructions to the best of his ability and this no doubt contributed to his success. Above all, he was a man that was filled with love for God and his family and this will remain as his legacy.
Life partners who are bonded together in God’s great charity embrace what the other one is going through like it is their own and are so close that when one is happy the other is glad and when one is going through a difficult time, the other one literally grieves in sorrow. That is the way of true love as our wedding vows of holy matrimony declare that all who are truly committed to one another other will be there in sickness and in health until death separates them. Yes, it is true that throughout the last 30 years of a 58-year marriage, the disease had taken a toll on him but what many people do not realize is that behind the scenes there was another victim. Most of the time she was left standing in the shadows out of sight and mind because the sickness consistently played the lead role with a tendency to steal every scene. It was not really anyone’s fault that it loomed so large but rather it was just another facet of this sad reality. How many had remembered to pray for her or discussed the agony of a caregiver that walks every step along beside the one who is afflicted? She was there every minute as a faithful witness watching in horror as a ruthless and devastating disease stole away her knight in shining armor and slowly turned him into a shell of a man that he once was. The tears she cried, the nights of being by herself, the places they were not able to go, the things they could not do, all because he was too weak. Is this not suffering and is this not also losing an essential part of life very similar to the one who has been stricken?
It was a cold February afternoon a couple of years ago when I stopped in to see them, and very short into my visit, they just came out and asked if I would speak at both of their funerals. Since I’m a minister, I said it would be an honor to officiate the services and would do whatever they wanted. He shared with me a few things about how he wanted it to be a time of celebration and even had a package of pictures for the memorial video ready to go whenever that day might come. After I left, mom said he was sad but relieved to put in place one of the last pieces of the puzzle. Life is a collection of milestones that remind us of a roller coaster that’s a normal part of our evolution. We can look back from our earliest moments of childhood and follow these life-changing events all the way through our journey until our final chapter is read and our book on earth is finally closed. The good news is that our new book is just being opened and that book will never close! The family had thought several times in the last few years that he was entering the valley of the shadow of death, and then miraculously he would slowly but surely crawl back into the land of the living. We watch others that go through these struggles and it always reminds us that we never know what is around the next corner. We can be going along with everything seemingly fine and then suddenly a crisis steps into our path and changes everything forever.
We have heard stories and known individuals that have had sudden strokes and heart attacks that brought paralysis or death and left everyone dumbfounded. Wealth has very little to do with escaping our fate as even a “rose garden” life has its share of thorns that will test and shake us to our very core. No matter where we are or what we have, it is having Christ as our Shepherd to lean on that can definitely keep us firmly anchored in the promise that He will never leave us or forsake us. I have heard the old saying many times, “it’s not what happens to us but how we react” and yes it is true but also much easier said than done. For those who love to express and communicate, we can come up with all kinds of wise and clever proverbs but it’s another thing entirely to take our own advice. As a community chaplain, I regularly face this challenge to come up with encouraging words without using memorized and worn-out clichés. I received a call the other day from a person visiting in a nursing home and the patient was crying out in pain and wanted prayer. They said they thought of me and held the phone to their ear for me to pray. The Bible says to be “instant in season and out of season” which means to walk in His Spirit and remain in a constant state of spiritual awareness. I will never forget one of his comments which seemed honestly blunt yet absolutely profound when one day he said, “wonderful, inspirational messages and stories as miraculous and encouraging as they are, do not really help him with major decisions or the reality of what he is getting ready to face. When we are afraid and standing at death’s door, it’s very difficult to focus or consider anything else.” This is wisdom that can only be known by those who have been there.
The funeral was a whirlwind as time does not consider an event and slows down for no one. It was strange that only a few weeks before, I had felt an urgency to speak with them about taking care of final arrangements and they mutually decided that after years of talking about it they should go ahead make these decisions – and thankfully they did. I presided at the celebration service and spoke to a standing room only crowd that was truly an amazing testament to how much he was loved. I began the service with how the family appreciated everyone for coming and how this was a special moment where we could show our respect and honor for a good and noble man and hopefully find some closure in this time of loss. The family had helped gather more pictures and the funeral home had made a beautiful video of his life. It’s so emotional to watch an entire lifetime, all the captured memories and to recall the stories behind the pictures are wonderful. Several ministers and friends along with his brother were invited to share their relationship and whatever was in their heart. This is an excerpt from that message.
“We deeply thank you for all of your thoughts and prayers, your kind words, hugs and handshakes. I realize there is not a lot to say but just your presence here today is comforting and means more than you will ever know. Dad was born on Christmas Eve and I remember all the holiday festivities we always included a birthday cake. This made everything even more exciting and festive because it was like we were celebrating Jesus birthday and dad’s birthday at the same time. By the way, it is a small but significant fact that he passed away on June 24 which means he was exactly seventy-seven and a half years old. He said to make sure to tell everyone that he had a great life and in spite of battling the kidney disease, he was very blessed with happiness and peace because over the years he had learned where to turn when life became difficult. He said he leaned on God (just like we are now) and ran to Him as the Bible describes in Proverbs chapter 18 and verse 10, “The name of the LORD is a strong tower; the righteous run into it, and they are safe.”
With a life of continual suffering, he was constantly running into the arms of His Lord while he was here on earth and the moment he left this world he ran once again straight into the arms of Jesus. He wanted me to make it known to everyone that he is a winner today and not a loser! He said he has the victory because there is VICTORY in Jesus! He told me NOT to give a speech about the constant pain and discouraging details of what it was like to be sick all the time but rather to proclaim the goodness and mercy of a loving God whose promises are true – who is faithful – never late – is always perfect and is always there. He wanted everything on this day to be positive and could not stand the thought of his life or his death as being a failure or discouragement. So today we declare with all confidence and sincerity, that though this is the end of his life on earth – it is only the beginning of his eternal life in heaven! May we always remember that when God’s children leave this mortal existence, it is not the time to be sad but rather it is a day to stand up straight, embrace our faith, and rejoice in knowing this life is not all there is! Tonight we celebrate because this is a going away party for one of God’s children. This is a time to smile because we know that God’s Word is true and to give respect for a job well done. Some of us today have memories of Dad that go all the way back to his childhood and there are others here that entered into his life somewhere in between. But all of us have the same thoughts…he was a thoughtful person, gentle, easy going, a good Christian soldier and a kind-hearted gentleman. I have heard these attributes about him all of my life and it would always make me proud that he was my dad. You see, when you read the book of dad’s life, you notice it was like two books in one – some of us knew Dad when he was younger, strong and healthy and others have only known him in the second half of his life as being weak and sick, but in both parts all have been an eyewitness to how a person could withstand a devastating blow and then respond to a life-changing crisis with such an incredible strength and ability to not only adapt and endure but to actually flourish.
We constantly hear about people that are talented and are praised as heroes but each of us here today can say that we actually knew a “real-life hero.” We knew someone that never complained, whined or surrendered but rather smiled and gritted his teeth while he was in pain just so he could be with those he loved and to keep them from worrying. His love will forever be his legacy. He was an inspiration to those who face incredible adversity and his battle cry was to never give up! He was a light and encouragement to those who worked in the clinics and was a “poster child” patient to the doctors and nurses who watched over him year after year. His discipline and commitment to diet and follow their instructions to the letter speaks volumes about his perseverance and determination to live. You see, he sacrificed because he loved us and wanted to stay with us and we thank God that he battled as long as he did. Of course its hard to let go of those we love, but for us who know God and believe His word is true – it is very exciting and comforting to realize that dad is now living in a place more beautiful and spectacular than words can express! If there was ever a reason to shout and dance for joy – it would be now! If we are in Christ we have the security in knowing that someday we will join him and that is very good news. We praise the Lord today because he has a strong new body and thanks to God there are no hospitals, nursing homes or dialysis clinics in heaven! He has stepped out of this temporary shell of a body and is now walking with his heavenly Father – celebrating the glories of God Almighty, worshiping with the angels around God’s throne.
And while we are talking about heaven, dad also wanted to make sure that I mentioned about how we must be saved to go to heaven. He wanted me to tell you that God loves you more than anything and that Jesus came to suffer and die on the cross, and rose from the dead so that you and I might be saved from an eternal death. The blood of Christ is the “ransom price” that can redeem a spirit and adopt a person into the family of God so that when life is finished (like dad) we can also live with The Lord forever. John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” The “whosoever” in this promise includes anyone that hears and responds to the gospel of Jesus Christ. I quote dad, “call upon Christ this hour – reach out to Him in faith – Jesus loves you and is waiting for you to trust Him today.”
The photo albums are filled with so many memories. My sisters and I have wonderful recollections that we share together, but it is our individual time with dad that we hold so dearly. Being seven years apart, allowed us to enjoy and experience things separately that were special and personal and its the same with the grandchildren, they have been places and enjoyed times with dad that gives them special memories they will treasure as long as they live. When I was young, we would go to my Grandparents house out in the country every weekend and it was always so much fun and exciting for a kid my age. We would spend the night which included eating great meals, listening to my Grandfather tell stories, secretly playing in the fireplace, and sleeping in feather beds. Every so often, my papaw Sherman would pick me up when he got off work with dad, and take me to his house for the weekends. They would let me go exploring, take me fishing at the river, I would work in their garden and we would go to the creek where they would wash their car. I loved throwing rocks and looking for crawdads. Sometimes, my cousin, Daryl would also come down and they would let us camp out in a tent in the old apple orchard which was very exciting and always a lot of fun.
I remember times when mom and dad would take us out to eat and sometimes they would stop at the old root-beer place that had the giant mug of root beer that rotated on the roof. I’m really showing my age, but I remember when the waitresses would bring it out to your car where you would roll down your window, and they would fasten those trays to the car door. I can still recall mom and dad taking us kids to the drive-in movies, and they would pile blankets and pillows in the back seat so we would be comfortable. After two or three movies, drinks and popcorn we would be sound asleep and when we got home, dad would carry us to bed. I remember all the vacations and dads excitement and spirit of adventure. I remember us going to Canada in a pick-up truck with a camper top and he would pull over on the side of the highway and cook us breakfast on an old Coleman stove – it was delicious!
On one of our Florida trips, we were attacked by a huge swarm of hungry mosquitoes in the Everglades and were forced to desperately run to the car to escape from being eaten alive! When visiting Florida, dad would always bring his fishing gear and loved to wade out in the ocean to catch beautiful and exotic looking creatures while we would have so much fun playing on the beach and swimming in the motel pools. We also would take trips to the Great Smokey Mountains and these are always entertaining places for kids. When I was growing up, he owned a couple of small boats and he and I would go on all day fishing trips – usually to Beaver lake or a Creek in Paris, Kentucky called Stoner. Mom would pack us a picnic basket filled with goodies and I can remember like it was yesterday how he would get just as excited as I would when the fish were biting. One time when mom was very pregnant with my sister Terri and my other sister Beverly was in the first or second grade, we were all in the boat on Stoner Creek and suddenly noticed some very dark clouds were gathering in the sky. There was a cool gust of wind and out of nowhere came a boom of thunder so loud I thought we were going to jump out of our seat. We were pretty far away from the dock and Dad immediately started putting things away and started the engine. We were now headed for home “full speed” as of course, it started pouring rain and bolts of lightning were striking all around us. I know I was terrified but looking back at dad, I could see he was steady and focused as I’m sure he knew this was a dangerous situation. Thank God we finally made it back to the truck and I remember us out of breath, drenched and water dripping from the end of our noses but after we calmed down we all started to laugh. Just to give you a glimpse at the adventurous and fearless side of dad, we went back the very next day!
I recall as a kid how much Dad loved to watch wrestling even when most everybody knew it was fake. I can clearly see him as he would pull his chair up close to the TV with sweat on his brow (we did not have air conditioning at the time) and he would punch the air and jump and jerk like he was one in the ring. Come to think of it, there were two things on TV back in those days when he demanded everyone to be still and be quiet. One was wrestling and the other was when Dolly Parton was singing. He also loved to grow vegetable gardens and the rows were always perfectly straight. In fact, everything he put his hand to had to be neat and orderly. I’ve seen him wash his cars and trucks when it was dark outside as it was like he had a phobia to kept things clean and organized. He was obsessed with systems and methods and mom has also had a driving determination with being clean and uncluttered. As I look around this room, I can see these quality character traits have definitely been passed on to many of you here tonight.
As I was growing up, sometimes he would ask if I wanted to go to work with him and the things I witnessed on those job sites were truly amazing. In his younger days before his illness, he was a fairly big man and to me, and especially as a kid, he was always larger than life. I can honestly say that I have never seen anyone work any harder or sweat as much in my life. The men that worked for him would also tell me stories of his feats of endurance and strength and they were always impressed with his abilities. I’ve seen him lift huge and very heavy center beams that had three guys on one end and just him on the other end. I’ve watched him bull float long driveways by himself and noticed people would gather around like they were watching a circus or a rock concert as he demonstrated his amazing skills. It seemed he could go day and night without being tired and he could drink more water than I thought was humanly possible. Many nights us kids would ride with mom to construction sites where she brought him food and drinks because he would pour an entire basement of concrete during the day and finish it by himself at night. He loved the freedom and the challenge of creating and building – it was like art to him along with a sense of accomplishment, independence, and adventure that many people never experience. He took pride in his work and he took time to make it right. He was from the old school of thinking that quality and integrity were important and that is exactly how he lived his life.
Not many people know this story but I know I will always be amazed at how close dad came to be wealthy beyond our imagination. We used to joke around about playing the lottery and when the jackpots would grow unusually large, we would both remind each other to pick up a two dollar ticket just for the fun of it. On one of these occasions, dad had bought a ticket and had not really thought much about it until a few days later he remembered to look in the newspaper and check the numbers. He said when he glanced at the numbers he became short of breath and kept rubbing his eyes thinking he was not seeing correctly. The date of the drawing was June 25th, 2003 and the reason why I know this is because I wrote it down so I would not forget. Of course, in order to win the grand prize, someone must have all six numbers that are drawn. So, with the ticket in hand, he began to match them up. The first number was 5 and he had it. The second number was 26, yes. The third number was 35, yes! whoa! The fourth was 43, right again (you must be kidding). Things were definitely becoming tense as this is already better than anyone I have ever known. His eyes run ahead and cannot help but notice the sixth number which calls for a four and is amazed that he does indeed also have the four. It is the fifth number that causes him to stare in horror because the ticket called for a fifty and he had a forty-eight. Five out of six and the sixth number he missed by only a fraction. I mean how close can someone be? The potential prize was one hundred and ten million dollars. Yes, I am not sure we comprehend how close this actually was and we can only wonder and speculate how being the winner would have impacted our entire family.
Dad was a family man. He loved his wife and was a committed faithful husband and father that tried to do everything he could to keep everyone safe and make life enjoyable. He was wise in his decisions and tried to always plan ahead in order to provide a peace of mind for their nearly 60 years of love and this is a perfect example of what marriage should be. He was an affectionate man who loved to hug and was never shy to show how much he cared. Today, he holds a special place in the hearts of the children and grandchildren because we’ve all had the opportunity to spend lots of time soaking up his love. I truly believe his love for all of us is what kept him going and I know he prayed for all of his family and was very proud of each one. Sure there are obstacles and disappointments in everyone’s life but in every trial, there is a crossroad – a place of decision all of us will make at the difficult times in our life. We can choose to be angry and bitter; to give up and stop fighting to live or we can accept the facts, learn as much as we can, allow God to adjust our attitude and live each day with a sense of gratitude. This was what dad leaves as his legacy.
I think of dad when I read this verse in second Timothy that says, “I have fought a good fight – I have finished my course – I have kept the faith! Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them that love His appearing.” I realize that none of us really have any words that can ease the pain of our loss but just to know you are here with us and that you sincerely care is worth more to us than you’ll ever know.” He concluded the service with singing a song that his uncle had written 45 years ago when his father had passed away. The last words of the chorus said, “to me, you are and will always be the greatest daddy in the world.” I said a short prayer and that was the end of the service.
Speaking of music, there’s an old pop song that says, “what the world needs now is love, sweet love” and I cannot agree more. It is important to not allow our conscience to become so dull and calloused that we cannot sympathize with another person’s pain. Human suffering is all around us but if we are not spiritually sensitive we can become an emotionally paralyzed zombie that is only concerned with ourselves. Love and prayer are very closely associated and it is sad but true that we will not pray for anything or anyone unless we have been deeply moved by the love of God. For example, when someone is going through a difficult time we commonly hear “I’m praying for you” or someone might say, “please remember them in prayer” but how many will actually do it? There are a few people in this world take praying seriously and may God richly bless and encourage them and it is worth repeating that intercession is always inspired by true love. I guess we could say that according to how much we care will inspire and measure how much we pray.
There is another side to prayer and that is when it seems our words go no further than the ceiling. When we wait patiently, expecting, believing and the breakthrough does not come, it is common to feel bewildered and the agony that accompanies rejection. It would be so nice if we could just sit around the kitchen table and have a heartfelt discussion with the Holy Spirit and listen carefully as He explains all the details of our circumstances. The frustrating part is not knowing why our request is being rejected especially after we try to believe so diligently. Granted, I believe our life is all about God’s will being fulfilled but sometimes I would just like to know if I did something wrong that kept the doors locked or if the Lord maybe has something better planned for later. Whatever the case, I know that trusting Him takes courage and determination to keep pressing forward. It will require reaching down within the deepest part of our soul and embrace the truth that can set us free from the bondage of resentment. Trusting that He is in control and wants the best for lives is very hard to do when things are not working out, but if we stop and think about it, our journey was always intended to be a life of walking confidently even when we cannot see clearly. Fear is seeing God through the eyes of circumstance while faith is seeing circumstance through the eyes of God, which is no doubt why it is so crucial for our mind to be transformed. If we did not realize this at first, I’m sure we know it now. In the times when we are knocked down and certain aspects of our lives are just not working out and are disappointing, we do not need more humanistic philosophy, we need more spiritual trust! We cannot change the past but we do have the choice to turn inward and ask God to help us and heal us. TRUST is a common yet very important decision that can keep us safe in God’s peace but it will require letting go of our emotions and surrendering our will to Him.
I will be the first to admit that I struggle with love and prayer. I know that prayer is the most powerful act we can do, but why is it so difficult? I think one reason is that our mind and body have partnered together to be contrary to anything that is connected with God and just because we are a Christian does not mean we automatically have the cooperation of our fleshly nature to work with us in spiritual matters. In fact, there is a major conflict between our will and God’s will and this enmity is commonly recognized as spiritual warfare. If anyone would like to put this to the test, I challenge them to make plans to pray and they will see what I mean. Our human nature is perfectly content to live carefree and independent from any type of spiritual discipline and is always ready to fervently fight against it. When experiencing a crisis, and this includes the loss of a spouse, it is good to find a quiet place to think clearly and express our feelings to Jesus and this will bring peace to our soul. Meditating, praying and confessing God’s Word is our most powerful resource to incorporate into our spiritual walk. Letting go of our worries and trusting Christ will never be easy but it is a necessary component of the faith process. In His presence we find peace, hope, love, and security and remember; fear is seeing God through the eyes of circumstance but faith is seeing circumstance through the eyes of God. It has been eerily strange now that she is by herself.
The shock is still fresh and as she watches the calendar, she is amazed at how quickly the days are passing by. There was the first week anniversary, then the second-week milestone, the one month and just recently the first family gathering without him. To say the least, it was awkward and uncomfortable not having him there but now the pain is slowly fading into a sad reality with the realization that life goes on with or without us. As much as everyone tried to be festive and happy, there was a somber feeling of sadness in the atmosphere that could not be denied. It seemed the family did not really know what to talk about and it was definitely not the same without his hugs and traditional prayer over the food. He is no longer there to sit and talk with her in the evenings, to go out and get a hamburger, to pray with, or just to say goodnight. She sits quietly, trying to find a solid anchor to which she can learn the art of independence and for some reason finds it difficult to even connect with God. She is afraid and does not have her husband’s advice and wisdom, his balance of reason, logic or judgment and is overwhelmed with a sense of worry and abandonment.
Yesterday was her birthday and she told the story of how every year since they had been married that he had always placed a birthday card on the kitchen table for her to find. When she woke up and went into the kitchen she looked at the table and realized there would be no more cards from him. The harsh and cruel truth had reared its ugly head and reminded her that she will be alone for the rest of her life. From now on she will need to draw from her inner strength and lean heavily upon her Lord. The thoughts of her own mortality are ever present and every letter and legal document that comes in the mail reminds her that life is fragile and soon she will also be leaving this world on her quest to find the peace that passes all understanding. Life is fleeting like the sun that rises early in the morning and in a short time dries the dew on the grass. Ecclesiastes talks about a time for everything and how our days are scattered with special moments that will rearrange our hopes and plans, some for the better and some for the worse. At one time or another we will face an event that can be compared to dropping a porcelain dish on a ceramic tile floor and no matter how we try to glue our world back together, it will never be the same. This is the pain that comes with loss and the realization that life keeps rolling on in spite of our tears and misery. She is now the survivor facing a future where she will need to manage on her own. She is left with her thoughts about heaven and earth and trying to make sense of things that are much too high to understand. Resting now in the recliner where he always sat, she returns back to the archives of precious memories, back to a time when life was filled with promise.
She realizes that she should appreciate the blessings and basic provisions but at the same time she fights against resentment as she cannot help but feel like they were not allowed to fulfill their intended destiny. It is commonly agreed that God is sovereign but this does not necessarily mean that foreknowledge is the same as predestination. Others believe that everyone has been given a free-will and these personal choices determine every brick that is laid into the wall. I have always thought that instead of being overly dogmatic in both views, there could be some of each blended together. These are very deep waters and since we are only able to see through a glass darkly, there is much we will never understand. Whatever the case, I am convinced that God knows the day we are going to die but that day is not always a part of His intended desire. There are many ways we can interrupt our divine destiny and not fulfill the original plans of God. For example, someone can overdose on heroin or decide to text while driving down the interstate and hit a bridge. We are sure that it was not God’s plan for a young person to die this way neither does He make car accidents happen. The Bible talks about the consequences of wrong and right and declares that all who follow His Word will enjoy the blessings of a long and abundant life. This does not mean we will not have resistance and tribulations but rather promising that we can have joy in the journey.
Much of the second half of their marriage seemed like the disease was a fierce enemy who was aggressively fighting against until they were exhausted from the battle and now she tries to resist feeling as if the disease finally won and is standing over her and laughing at her. It is amazing how thoughts can play on the mind and how images and scenes can arise that bring fear, doubt, and discouragement. She wonders what would have happened if they had demonstrated more faith, or maybe they did not fight hard enough, or if maybe they could have made better decisions…and ended up paying an expensive price for crucial mistakes. She battles with the avalanche of thoughts and second-guessing along with being bombarded with voices of the past from teams of doctors that had so many different suggestions, predictions, and opinions. Together they simply prayed to God and were continually giving their situation over into His hands and now she must for the sake of her own sanity believe that this is all anyone could have done. She must now realize that death comes to everyone and the most important aspect is how we lived and where we are going in the next life. She can find contentment in knowing that our journey was never intended to be heaven on earth but rather a series of decisions where we surrender our will and embrace His sovereign will with all of our mind, strength, and soul. It is all about trusting our creator and allowing Him to be the author and finisher of our faith.
Nearly eighty years have passed like the proverbial water under the bridge and now she actually stands on that bridge. She looks back and realizes that much of her life was spent as a caregiver and now she wonders who will take care of her? She did what she had to do, no…she chose to do what was right. As she looks downstream she is perfectly aware that most of her life is gone and then turns and gazes upstream and has difficulty trying to see what is coming. Will she be able to take care of her own affairs and survive by herself or will she end up living in a nursing home? Did her life make a difference in the world? Did she accomplish her mission? Was she a good wife and mother and faithful soldier of Christ? She has heard of spouses that have dumped their mates because they were unhappy and did not want to be trapped and chained to a life of sacrifice, but these are the selfish ones that felt justified in breaking their covenant because they thought there was no reason why both partner’s lives would need to be ruined. They escaped so they could enjoy life and experience all the fun and pleasure of a normal existence. But did they really? Is there anywhere in this life where we can run and hide from the realities of what is right and wrong? Would anyone be able to stand before God and try to explain why they abandoned their mate just because it gave them freedom or denied them some type of fantasy? In fact, it was only a couple of weeks before he passed away that she had been thinking about her role in the marriage and had been feeling guilty for not helping him and contributing like maybe she could have. She recalled how hard he had worked in the heat and the cold and yet never complained. Maybe she should have ventured out into the world and worked a job instead of being a stay at home mom but at the same time, she realizes how important it is for a mother and wife to manage the home full-time. So, recently she just came right out and told him how much she appreciated him providing and taking care of her and then proceeded to ask if he had ever considered leaving her to find someone else. She wanted him to be honest and admit if he had ever considered that possibly he might have been happier with someone else. She said he turned to her with tears in his eyes and said, “I found the woman I was looking for and you are the only one I ever wanted.” She too confessed that she had never considered anyone else and as they tenderly held each other in a precious moment that is captured in time, it is so evident that neither one of them ever doubted the power of true love.
Her thoughts drift like a ship upon the sea as she tries to desperately hold on to things that are true, honest, just, pure and lovely. She has not really had to focus on how to live because he was the decision maker for most everything and she just followed. She was happy with this arrangement because it was easy but now in her twilight years she finds that learning is more difficult than she thought and much of it has to do with attitude. How can anyone prepare to lose a soul-mate and then automatically be mentally and emotionally equipped for a smooth transition to living alone? Even if we sat at our spouse’s bedside for years and held their hand, we would still be devastated with their death because as long as we can see them breathing and feel them squeezing our finger, we are holding on to a sense of safety and security in knowing they are still with us. It is when the heart stops and the breathing ceases that the cruel truth slaps us hard across the face and awakens our greatest fears and insecurities. Death delivers a sobering message that there is nowhere to run and hide and reminds us that we must step forward and face a piercing reality not only for our mate but also for ourselves. However, along with the concept of finality, there is a hope for those who believe that physical death is not the end of our existence. For the ones that place their faith in God’s perfect and unfailing Word, they read that the end of our natural life is actually the immediate beginning of our eternal life and that is the greatest news ever told. Yes, it has been promised by the creator of all things, that life does not consist of just eighty or ninety years and then we dissolve back to dirt. It is declared by the Almighty Lord of heaven, this is but a training experience where we have the choice to learn how to follow and obey His voice or live the way we desire. These choices will explain our legacy and give an account of who we really were on the inside in spite of what we seemed to be on the outside. This is a part of her daily meditation that gives her confidence and blessed assurance that all is well with his soul and reminds her that it is important to keep a close watch on her own heart.
At the end of a long day, she locks the apartment door and turns out the lights as she heads toward the bedroom. She walks into where he slept and looks at his picture that had been taken recently and framed. It is such a good picture of him and his eyes in the picture seem to follow her and when their eyes meet it is like he is staring into her soul. He seems so real that she almost waits for him to speak but then comes to her senses and turns off the light. She dreads the evenings because trying to drift off to sleep is not always a pleasant experience. Sometimes the night brings anxiety because it’s just so strange not having him there to at least say goodnight and I love you. In the wild, darkness arouses stealthy predators who chase and stalk their prey and likewise in the night hours we can sense the demons awakening and attempting to haunt the lonely with fears of the unknown. There are times when the silence is deafening and floods her mind and conscience with a jittery nervousness and panic without a cause or explanation. She is uncomfortable and reminded of this confusing snare trap she has suddenly and unexpectedly fallen into. She struggles to turn her thoughts to heaven, but when she finally forces her mind to focus on him, she is reminded how happy he must be and a Bible verse that talks about weeping that may last through the night, but joy will come in the morning. It is difficult to have joy when faced with a loss but we must remember that joy comes from a place that is far beyond our emotions. It is a spiritual characteristic of forgiveness and peace which explains why only the diligent seekers ever find it.
She had taken one of his shirts from the closet the other day and now as she slowly brings it to her face she closes her eyes and breathes in deeply. It is almost like he is there in the room with her and immediately a sense of strength and confidence generates a light into her spirit that chases the darkness away. She goes back to when she was standing in that living room and she can clearly hear those simple yet powerful wedding vows from so long ago that she spoke in faith while not knowing what the future would hold. She like everyone else who falls in love and marries willingly made the choice to enter into the holy covenant of matrimony that is based on faith as much as it is on love. She accepted her husband, to have and to hold from that day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part, according to God’s holy law as her solemn oath and promise. She is happy that she entered into the covenant with him and never considered leaving or starting again with someone else. Of course, she wishes he had remained healthy and strong but she would do it all over again even if she knew all the disappointing details of the future and this gives her the spiritual peace that passes all understanding.
Like the wind on a glowing ember, she begins to rejoice in knowing that she was faithful, she endured and fulfilled her promise until the very end and someday they will be together again. Suddenly a calming presence pours over her like warm honey and she recognizes the comforting presence of her Lord. The quiet eventually loses its hold on the stillness and a still small voice within her says, well done my good and faithful servant in whom I am well pleased and now suddenly the world does not seem all that scary after all. Turning out the light, she gets in bed, pulls up the covers and quietly listens to the bumps on the ceiling from the young lady upstairs who has a couple of young children. She smiles and acknowledges that it’s actually comforting to know someone is close. Have mercy on her tonight Lord, give her a holy contentment and a sense of gratitude for the good times they did have and the blessings you bestowed upon them. May your angels surround and stand guard over her as she once again closes her eyes and dreams of how their life could have been.