Father’s Day without Dad

It’s been a while since I wrote about my dad’s death, and there’s a reason.

At first, it all weighed heavily on my mind. The time at the hospital, the planning, the funeral, the memorial, the meals and family time – they were all undeniably real and present. There was no way to block Dad’s passing from my mind.

But once the immediacy of his death faded, I found that it was easier not to think about him at all – or at least to push away the thoughts when they came. That sounds terrible, like I could just forget at will the man who raised me. I don’t mean that at all. What I mean is that it hurts to remember him, even the good times, so I procrastinate. I’ll think about him later, tomorrow or next week, when the pain has faded a little more.

I can almost hear Scarlett O’Hara’s voice echoing in my head: “I shan’t think about that today!” Tomorrow it will be easier, and I can enjoy the memories rather than just fighting tears. What fun is that?

So I’ve done my best, for better or worse, not to think much about him. If someone shows me a photo, I smile and quickly turn away, pushing backs the thoughts and memories it stirs up. If someone asks how I am, I reply that I’m fine and quickly change the subject. After all, I am fine – if we don’t talk too long about Dad.

I haven’t done much grieving in my life. When my paternal grandparents died, I didn’t have a very close relationship with either one. Our next door neighbor died about 10 years ago, but she was strange and cranky, and while we interacted a lot with her I wouldn’t exactly say I was close to her.

My stillborn daughter Sarah was born and buried all in one day, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief then seemed to forget about her. With no photos, no memories, no time to meet her in this world, there was little I (or any of us) could do in the way of grieving.

The memories of Sarah are as still and quiet as her birth was, content to remain in the back of my mind, never pushing forward and demanding attention like Dad.

Father’s Day was strange: difficult but I didn’t realize it until the next day. Dad stayed in the back where he belongs now, but he didn’t like it. I felt sensitive and emotional and didn’t know why. The girls and I made a big breakfast and bacon roses for the father of my children, but I didn’t really feel like eating.

I felt self-absorbed. I took offense at the slightest criticism, no matter how well merited. The following day, I wanted to tell my husband, a father of 10 children, that Father’s Day should have been about me this year. I didn’t talk to Mom or any of my siblings. I didn’t call my father-in-law and tell him how glad I am that he is still with us. Father’s Day without an earthly father reminded me to be thankful for my Heavenly Father, but this didn’t soothe the ache.

Once again, I’m shocked at how it feels to lose my dad. He loved the Lord but he was crusty, cranky, deeply flawed. He was short-tempered and blustering. He loved to tease little ones to tears, yet they always came back for more. For the last year, he was so sick, so thin, so ready to go be with his Lord. We were ready for him to go. So how is it possible to feel his loss so much?

Like him, I was the oldest and we were both headstrong. We butted heads often, especially during my teen years. He made me cry then, and he’s still doing it.

There are no photos in this post. I hope you understand why.

Missing Dad

I loved my dad and lived very near him for the last year of his life, but I never considered our relationship to be especially close.  I don’t remember the last time l called him Daddy.  I married very young and spent the next 11 years halfway across the country.  We butted heads regularly both before and after I was married.  When I was around him I was constantly irritated by his omnipresent cloud of cigarette smoke, and until he was terminally ill I rarely kissed or hugged him goodbye.  I was sad that he was dying, but I thought it was for the sake of my very young siblings who will grow up without an earthly father.  I didn’t expect to really miss him in a personal, emotional way.

Hence, I found myself unprepared for the flood of emotions that overcame me at Dad’s memorial service on Wednesday.  My eyes were mostly dry when we buried him on Saturday, but 4 days later I could hardly hold myself together.  I was too choked to sing or speak, and any quiet moment alone with my thoughts brought me to tears again.

It wasn’t the service itself that triggered my tears.  It was the sight of a single photo, the photo of my dad on the handout my brother-in-law had prepared.  Somehow I made it through boxes of old photos with just a few misty moments, but the photo on the handout was too real for me.

Dad was in his old place at the head of the table.  He used to sit there not just for meals but for nearly all of his free hours, even before he was sick.  He always had his Bible, his books, his planner, his ashtray and drinks in perfect arrangement there at the table, and only the boldest among us dared to sit in his place even when he was gone.

In this photo, Dad looked hale and hearty as he leaned back and looked thoughtful.  I’ve seen him make that face a million times, but not in the last year.  Maybe that’s why the photo hit me so hard.  In the last year, I saw a different sort of Dad spend all of his time in that same chair.  He ate there, read there, slept there, lived there among his carefully arranged pill bottles.

I saw him grow thinner and weaker and smaller, a shadow of his former self.  His gruff voice grew softer, his head drooped toward his chest as his neck lost its strength.  I often visited to find him sleeping with his head nearly resting on his own knees.  When he died, the Big Intimidating Man that all the boys and young men remembered was less than a hundred pounds.

I say that I wasn’t particularly close to my dad, but now that he is gone I can’t stop thinking about him.  I am surprised at how many things make me think of him: the foods we eat, the music he and Mom listened to when I was little, the love of math that we shared.  The smell of cigarettes that plagued me while he lived brought me to tears when I kissed him goodbye on his deathbed.  That smell means something far different to me now.  I wish I had known it would be that way.

I realize now that we were much closer than I knew.  He played such a large part in making me what I am that he is truly a part of me.  He was not perfect, but his flaws taught me as much as his strengths and I am finally learning to be grateful for both.

Laughing with Dad

Dad didn’t take his impending departure too seriously.  He scoffed at our concerns about leaving him unattended.  “So what if I die while you’re gone?  It’s not like I’ll be there to complain about it.  I’ll be with my Lord.”

I don’t want to give the impression that we don’t mourn his death, but we haven’t been spending all of our time moping about and fighting tears either.  Tears come, of course, but they leave quickly – for me, at least.  I don’t think Dad would be offended to know that his loved ones shared plenty of smiles and laughter over the past week.  He made plenty of jokes at our expense while he was alive, and was the target of a few as well.

Last Wednesday when I arrived at the emergency room about 90 minutes after Dad, the first thing I heard was that my brother-in-law was on his way with pizza for all of us.  The next thing I heard was my own brother quipping, “This is the weirdest place ever for a potluck!”  It was a bright moment in a dark time, and we all needed the laugh.

A few hours later, we were assembling at another hospital where Dad had been moved. My new baby nephew had just arrived with his parents, and aunts who had never met him were smiling, laughing and cooing at his fat little cheeks.

Dad died that night, and the following day found his 4 sons hard at work digging Dad’s grave.  They had rented a bulldozer for the occasion and must have found the work went more quickly than expected because they decided to dig Mom’s grave too.  “No pressure,” they assured her, chuckling.  “It’s just there when you need it.”

At Dad’s graveside service, 2 family dogs lolled about under the minister’s feet.  They were very big but young and gangling and untrained. Before our eyes, they dug cool spots for themselves in the heap of dirt waiting to be shoveled over Dad’s casket and threatened to knock over the flowers or trip the minister when they flopped down next to him.  There were snickers from every quarter.

Tomorrow is Dad’s memorial service.  Our oldest brother will read his eulogy, a brief summary of a brief life.  Later, there will be a time of sharing in which those who knew Dad will be invited to speak.  I hope and expect that there will be a few more opportunities to laugh before we try to figure out what “normal life” looks like without Dad.

Dad was known for having “an abrasive personality,”  a charge which he met with such surprise and denied with such vehemence that we could only assume he was making a joke at his own expense.  I found myself wondering if anyone might show up at his memorial to settle old debts, so to speak.  Would somebody be so crass as to speak ill of the dead?  But this wouldn’t be such a bad way to remember Dad’s memorial service.  He never minced words and might be just a little impressed and amused at anyone who had the gall to speak their mind at a time like that.

Burying Dad

Dad died very early on Thursday, March 24.  He left behind one brother, a wife of 35 years, 14 children ranging in age from 13 to 38, and 28 grandchildren.

I went back and forth in my choice of words just now: “left behind” or “is survived by”?  The first sounds just a little as though he is to blame for leaving us.  The second sounds as though he is dead and gone.  In one sense he is, of course, but he has not ceased to exist.  He has gone before us and lives on.  Yes, he left us behind.  We will follow in God’s good time.

I think most of us slept late on Thursday.  Nearly all of us were at the hospital until 2 AM and had a long drive home after that.  Perry and my 7 oldest daughters were en route to Georgia for Vision Forum’s Father and Daughter Retreat when all of this happened; they reached their destination and headed right back again, opting for Grandpa’s funeral over a weekend of family fun.  By the time they arrived home, they would cover 2,000 miles in 3 days.

That day, work and plans began in earnest.  I earnestly believe that there is something soothing and healing about making funeral preparations for those we love.  It is our last chance to directly serve our loved ones, and a good way to keep our hands and minds busy and focused while grief is fresh.

The 4 sons contacted a friend with a woodshop and made arrangements to use his shop to build a casket for Dad on the following day.  Their friend kindly contributed not only the use of his shop and tools but the materials and his own time as well.

Our family has a small private cemetery in a corner of Dad and Mom’s 10 acres.  My brother and I have each buried an infant daughter here; one sister has buried a husband here.  We buried our grandma here.  Now we were to bury our father who bought the land.  In a land of rock and caliche, digging a grave is no easy matter.  To finish in one day requires the use of heavy equipment.  The boys rented a backhoe to do the job, and the 4 of them spent the day digging, weedeating, and otherwise preparing the area.

Mom and my sisters and I provided food for the working men and assembled to plan the events of the upcoming days.  At my request, we gathered at my house because my little ones were sick and I had no babysitters.

We decided to have a graveside service on Saturday primarily for family and a few close friends.  This was just enough time for my sister from Tennessee to arrive with her husband and children, and Perry and the girls would be home by then as well.  The service would be followed by a meal of all Dad’s favorite dishes, provided by all of us.

A bigger memorial service was planned for Wednesday at my brother’s house for a wider circle of friends and acquaintances.

On Friday, the boys spent the day building the casket.  It was made of solid cedar, simple and tasteful with clean, graceful lines.  They did a good job.

About midday, Mom brought a huge dusty box of old photos to my house.  They had belonged to my grandmother, Dad’s mom.  We spent some time looking through them, laughing at some and thinking quietly over others.  We asked each other’s opinion when it came to telling Dad and his youngest brother apart.  There were many from Dad’s childhood that we had never seen.

My job for the day was to choose a good assortment to scan into the computer.  They were to be printed out for displays at the grave site, and we would also use them for a slideshow during the meal after the burial.

Mom soon left on other business but for me the next 24 hours were consumed with old photos and memories of Dad and his parents, Bopie and Grandma Arlene.  Perry and the girls arrived home very late, and while Perry bought funeral food the next morning, the girls and I continued to scan photos, sort photos, talk about photos, and arranged a large display of photos under the clear plastic tablecloth.  It was a work of love and a treasure trove of memories.

By Saturday afternoon, everything was ready.  The boys had brought Dad’s body from the funeral home and the site was prepared.  Flower arrangements had been donated by family friends.  The day was a mixture of rain and sunshine, often at the same time.  It struck me as peculiarly fitting for the task at hand, symbolic of the sorrow of death and the joy of life eternal.

The rest of the day went just as planned.  Dad was buried amid tears and smiles, and together we celebrated his great journey, enjoying the things that he had enjoyed while he was with us.

Graveside hymns: Come Thou Fount; From All That Dwell; It Is Well With My Soul

Dinner Menu: Linquine; caesar salad; pizza with Canadian bacon, pineapple and anchovies; mashed potatoes; beans with bacon; bbq chicken; asparagus; all-beef hot dogs; lasagne

Dessert Menu: banana cream pie; strawberry pie; watermelon; almond joy candy bars

Music: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Greatest Hits

I’ll see you over there, Dad

That’s what I said to Dad as they were preparing to transfer him from the local emergency room to a farther, better equipped hospital on Wednesday evening.  As I whispered the words to him, they felt ominous.  It occurred to me that those could easily be my last words to him, and I had no idea if he was even aware of us around him.  It also occurred to me that if those were my last words to him and I didn’t see him at the other hospital, the words would still be true.

As it turns out, he did live a few hours longer though he never fully regained consciousness.  I strongly suspect that he was at least dimly aware of his surroundings and our presence.  He didn’t respond to commands, but he usually stirred when we stood near him and held his hand.

My dad passed out of pain and into glory just after midnight, March 24 at the age of 58.  He slipped away quietly with Mom by his side and 11 of his 14 children either in the room or just down the hall.

We gathered ’round with a song and a prayer, said our goodbyes as a group and then privately, and went home to begin making plans.

Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
Sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it,
Mount of Thy redeeming love.

Here I raise my Ebenezer;
Here by Thy great help I’ve come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger,
Wandering from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger,
Interposed His precious blood;

O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Michael Billings: a Redeemer of Time

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Michael Billings

1988-2007

When God sends hard providences to us we should first repent and seek God’s face, then we should ask the Lord of Heaven what would He have us learn from His will for us. We know that not every difficult thing God sends our way is divine judgment for some transgression however God does judge sin even today. He tells us that He allows difficult things to occur to teach us patience and to sanctify us.

I have spent this week pondering the death of my dear friend and sword brother Michael Billings, wondering what lesson the Lord would have me learn and pass on to my children during this time of grief and reflection. I am firmly convinced that one lesson He is teaching us is to redeem the time.

Scott Brown said it well on Doug Phillip’s blog

“… In this sense, Michael was a true son of Jonathan Edwards who ‘Resolved, never to lose one moment of time but improve it the most profitable way I can, and Resolved to live with all my might while I do live.’

My prayer is that as a result of his death, that many young and old can learn from this one who was cut down so young. We who are left have not been given the same intellect as Michael, but we have been given the same time…”

We have been given the same time. How do you use yours? Time is an irreplaceable asset. Michael’s example cries out to all of us to use our time unto the Lord.

There have been many men and women who have written about the sturdy virtue Michael exhibited during his short life. His commitment to truth, his thirst for knowledge and precision of thought. I’ll leave you with links to them at the bottom of this post but I will not try and copy them. Many of them knew Michael better than I and all are more gifted at writing – I urge you to read all of them and I promise you none are exaggerated. Such was Michael’s character.

What I want to leave you with is a sense of urgency about how you prioritize your day; seek wisdom now while there is time. Leave off that movie, or video game or piece of fiction and spend more time in God’s word.

Life is short. It is but a vapor. How will you use yours?

I will pray that you purpose tonight to be more diligent to seek God’s will by reading His word and prayer. In our modern world there are many voices calling out for our attention but it is God’s eternal word that give us life. The choices that you make for spending time are inescapably religious and communicate volumes to our children, our spouses, and our friends.

Michael knew this and it was this example that he left to me, and it was this lesson I will be teaching my children.

Fortis in Arduis

Pc3

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Please pray for Michael’s family tonight, his parents especially. They buried their only son today at one pm. Pray for peace that passes understanding.

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Nathaniel Darnell shares his recollections of Michael’s last day on this earth.

Crystal ponders the brevity of life.

Mrs. Elliot reflects on the fellowhip of the saints during tests and trials.

Caleb Hayden remembers a young man with a heart for God.

Doug Phillips posts the tributes of many godly men who knew Michael.

Read Jamie Billings sweet words about her relationship with her brother.

Take time to listen to Michael’s sermon on the vapor of life here.

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