A Father’s Epitaph

It was 1:30am when the phone rang. “He’s gone. “ She said.
“Ok.” I replied. I did not know what else to say.
“At least he did not linger in pain for weeks.” She replied
“Praise God for that. I guess I will talk to you tomorrow about the arrangements.” I answered.
“Yes, “ she said. “Goodnight.”
I hung up the phone and went back to bed. Sleep evaded me as my mind traveled back over 50 years of memories with my dad.

Dad was born in upstate New York to a hard working German couple. The 5th of 15 children, family, fun and the farm were the most important things to him. He always considered himself a farm kid which in those days was not saying much. In 1947, he met and married a beautiful southern gal named Bettie Jane Reeves. Though military rules forbade them from fraternizing (she outranked him) that did not stop Dad. He wooed her with his charm and charisma and they married in June of 1947. A daughter was born in 1948, another daughter in 1950, and the first son in 1952. They moved around a lot then and Dad went from job to job. Mom said he always had a bit of wanderlust in him.

The promise of a better life and warm winters brought them to California in 1955. Dad took a good job for a chemical company in the San Fernando Valley and a set of twins were born, a boy and a girl, in 1956. Pneumonia took the life of their second son in 1959 which sent both Mom and Dad into a long period of mourning.

Dad continued to work at the chemical plant rising to a supervising position over a large crew of men. Mom stayed home to care for the kids which she loved. Joy crept back into their lives when a third son was born in 1961 and a fourth daughter in 1965. Their quiver was definitely full. It was a “Leave to Beaver” life for many years.

Dad’s job transferred him to a new city but rather than relocate the family he decided to commute. At first he came home every night, then every other night, then only on weekends, then finally not at all. The “Leave to Beaver” life was unraveling. Shortly after their 25th wedding anniversary, Mom announced that they were divorcing. Dad had begun a relationship with another woman.

Life changed dramatically for the three of us still at home. My youngest sister was only 7 at the time, my brother was 11. Mom went back to work and back to school and I became a surrogate mother to my younger siblings at the age of 16. Our childhood memories of dad were few and reduced to some weekend visits, or an occasional letter or phone call.

Meanwhile Dad decided to leave his suburban life for something different. He married his second wife and moved to Northern California to begin his own farming business. Perhaps he hoped to relive his carefree days as a farm kid. Unfortunately things did not go as planned. Soon he moved to Oregon to begin another business. When that did not succeed he gave up the dream of self-employment and got a job in the business world in Northern California. After ten years, the second marriage ended and he moved back to the San Fernando Valley and worked whatever jobs he could get. He was lost and un-tethered.

By this time all the “kids” were grown and married with kids of their own. Mom had gotten a college degree and was successful computer programmer for an engineering company. She attended a local Baptist church and had a great group of friends. She spent much of her free time enjoying the grandkids and traveling when she could.

Dad’s spiritual life was always a big question mark for us. At one time during his second marriage he told me he walked an aisle at a small church and prayed to receive Jesus. However his lifestyle never seemed to match that confession and he had no desire for church.

After 15 years of being apart my parents remarried in 1987. Mom had forgiven Dad years before and she said that Dad was the only man she had ever loved. She had high hopes that he would start attending church with her. He went a few times, but always got too antsy in church to stay committed to it for too long. However he saw Mom’s devotion to the Lord every day. She had a vibrant prayer life and kept her Bible next to her chair at all times. When they relocated to Lancaster, CA, she quickly found a new church and attended it regularly. She began a woman’s bible study in the mobile home park where she lived. They lived out their last years together pretty happily. Dad was a good grandfather and was proud of all his kids. He loved Mom immensely and preferred to not talk about the years they spent apart.

When Mom passed away suddenly in 2004, Dad was devastated. He talked about wanting to join her constantly. He said that he hoped that she would put in a good word for him. We reminded him that he had to turn to the Lord himself. It was only his own confession of sins and turning to Jesus for salvation that would get him to heaven. We were not sure how much he understood for at the point he was several years into Alzheimer’s disease. Dad health continued to decline and he eventually moved in with my brother and his wife. He talked often about reuniting with Mom and how wonderful that would be.

In early December Dad went into the hospital for what we thought was Alzheimer’s issues. A battery of tests discovered lung cancer which had spread throughout his body. Already frail and battling emphysema, we opted not to do any further treatment. He went into a nursing facility where Hospice treated him and kept him as pain free as possible. Doctors said he had a month or so left.

I went to visit Dad in mid-December for several days. Still uncertain as to his spiritual condition I was hoped to talk to him about Jesus. I had mixed emotions going into those visits. Knowing that he was in his last days, I had already begun to grieve for him. I grieved for the father I was about to lose but I also grieved for the father I never had.

I prayed that the Lord would allow me to know exactly where he was spiritually. I was surprised to find him relatively coherent even though he kept forgetting that he was in the hospital. We were able to have some good conversations during the two days I visited with him, although his attention wandered a lot. On my last visit with him I opened my Bible and read Psalm 23 to him, it was as if a light came on inside him. He began to talk about the Bible and how wonderful it was. He spoke about how much he loved Mom and how much they both love the Lord. He expressed regret over their divorce. This was the first time I had ever heard him talk about the divorce in over 20 years. I read John 14:1-4 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.” We talked about how
Jesus had a home for him in heaven. He made the comment, “Most people don’t understand how powerful that scripture is.” Then as suddenly as the light came on, if went off and the moment of clarity was gone.

Days later, my son told me that he had been praying that the double-edge Sword of God’s Word would penetrate the cloudiness of Dad’s Alzheimer’s. God gave me the answer to my son’s prayer.

When I said goodbye to Dad that day I knew it would be the last time I would see him this side of heaven. I got into my car and wept over my loss: the loss of my “Leave to Beaver” life those many years ago; the loss of my mom and the rapidly approaching loss of my dad. I was confident that Dad loved the Lord and trusted him as Savior but it bothered me that I did not know when that was.

“Lord, I prayed, I just wish I knew when Dad’s life with You began.” “It matters not when or how it began”, the Lord answered, “but how he finishes.” The apostle Paul said, “None of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy”, Acts 20:24.

Those brief hours with my dad were a gift to me from God. The Lord knew that I needed the opportunity to completely forgive my dad for past hurts and assurance of his salvation. He gave all that to me in what ended up being Dad’s last coherent hours on earth. He slipped into semi-consciousness the next day and then slipped away to heaven.

My sister called a few days later. “What should we put on Dad’s headstone?” She asked. The Lord gave me the right words. “He finished well.”

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