I had the privilege to speak at my father's funeral service. I was so fortunate to have so many friends and family there to honor the life of a man who had given so freely to others and who had served his God tirelessly. Here are the words that I shared.
If someone had told me once upon a time that I would have lost both of my parents within 21 months of each other, not long after they retired, all before I turned 40 years old, I would have never believed them. The last few years have been the most difficult years that I have ever had to face and while I know there are others who have experienced far worse and more nightmarish situations, this has been our experience to endure.
Months before Mom died, we thought we would lose Dad. After an incredibly difficult week with multiple trips to the hospital with emergencies for my son, I had come to a point where I was fearful to answer the phone. We had already known that Mom's cancer was inoperable and that her time on earth was short and one Thursday evening, the phone rang just as I had mustered enough strength to go to bed. Thinking that it would be Dad telling me something had happened to Mom, I listened to my wife on our end of the phone, realizing that she was actually talking to Mom. Dad had had a seizure and they were calling the family around because they did not think he would make it through the night.
As I drove the 50+ miles between Mechanicsville and Williamsburg, I pondered all that I had experienced. I simply felt numb. I arrived at the hospital and was greeted by my mom and my aunt and uncle. I was allowed to go back and see Dad. He was intubated and in critical care. Only time would tell what would happen. He made it through the night and pulled through, but little did we know that it would be the beginning of a roller coaster ride for the next nearly 2 years.
Two days after my mom's funeral, I was on a plane to St. Paul, Minnesota as I was completing my M.Div. at Bethel Seminary. In the middle of my week out there, I got a phone call that Dad was in the hospital. His heart rate was causing some problems and they admitted him. He reassured me that he was fine and that there was nothing to worry about. Easy words to say, harder words to do.
Among the most difficult times was when Dad was transferred to MCV in Richmond from Sentara here in Williamsburg in December of 2011 about a week before Christmas. The week or so that he spent there felt like an eternity as he experienced all kinds of problems and I had thought that he had literally lost his mind. It was hardly the place that Steve and I wanted to spend Christmas, but we were grateful to still have Dad around.
He transferred to Patriots Colony in January of 2012 and we were unsure of what the future would look like. While he was able to drive for a while after that, he eventually relinquished his keys and the loss of that freedom was just one more chink in his heavily beaten up armor. More and more chinks followed as his level of care rose and his ability to do things for himself diminished. Over the last few months, phone calls from the nurses telling me that Dad had fallen became routine for me at 7:30 in the morning. I struggled with what I needed to do.
But all of this turmoil was nothing new, Dad had experienced an incredible amount of turmoil all through his life. His father was an abusive alcoholic who left home when dad was young. Thankfully, his older brother, Bill, protected him and unfortunately took the brunt of the beatings that my grandfather gave out. He grew up having to constantly endure the prodding of peers and even adults who thought him nothing more than a juvenile delinquent and good for nothing because of his dad. Yet, both he and his brother rose above their circumstances to be successful.
Even in church ministry, a place where we have been known to shoot our wounded, Dad experienced pain, hurt, and rejection. When my mother experienced difficulty during her pregnancy with my brother, instead of coming alongside of them to support them, the church Dad pastored decided not to renew his call but asked him to seek other employment.
When he first arrived in Darien to serve Calvary Baptist Church, a group within the church led an exodus out of the church, hurling accusations at my father and taking a number of people away from an already small church. He quickly learned that he would need to change his approach towards ministry in order to simply survive in Darien.
So, that's what he did. He embraced the statement, "In the heart of Darien, with a heart for Darien" in the church. He jumped into his community headfirst, becoming a substitute teacher in the local school system, serving on various boards and councils, singing and praying at local events and parades, blessing the fleet at the local yacht club, and participating in a townwide clergy group in hopes of crossing denominational lines for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
Dad was never one to shy away from controversy. For years, he wrote letters to the editor, standing firm on his convictions, regardless of the opposition. And opposition there was. He endured incredible public criticism, but was never afraid to engage people in conversations, rather than debates. He never tried to argue or beat people down with his convictions, although he may have come on strong at times, he was always willing to talk.
Dad also hated change. In fact, I am not sure that I have ever met someone who was as averse to change as he was. I think it was a combination of his own struggle to learn new things coupled with all of his past experiences that caused him to seek solace and safety in the familiar. He liked routine, he liked a schedule, and asking him to break from that was a sure fire way of introducing chaos into his neat, little world. Both my brother and I experienced this countless times when we were kids and Dad would have our road trip down south all planned out. God forbid anything should stand in the way of us making "good time."
One time in particular, we were heading down to South Carolina, driving into the night. Dad was determined to get to his destination for the night but the car had other ideas. The alternator on the car went and we were forced to empty the car of our belongings, seek solace at a truck mechanic, and find a ride to a nearby hotel. Never one to spend a lot of money on lodging, we stopped at what Dad probably thought was a fine establishment since it was AAA rated. Mom, Steve, and I were fearful of being carried away by cockroaches as we slept. But we endured. Since Steve and I refused to sleep in the same bed, my parents ordered a cot and it was Steve's turn to sleep on it. While setting it up, he laid down on it and it closed in half on him. We were all hysterically laughing as Steve picked up the mattress from the cot and started attacking me with it. This was the life of our road trips, lots of time, lots of games, and lots of laughs.
When we would take trips up to Camp of the Woods in Speculator, NY, the five hour drive seemed eternal for my brother and I, so we would inevitably start peppering my dad with the question, "How much further?" or "Are we there yet?" My dad would constantly tell us that it was "just around the bend."
While he made the best of his aversion to change in his earlier years, that same aversion made his last years so difficult. Things did not end well in Connecticut when the church that he had served for more than 36 years wanted change and Dad felt the pain of his comfortable world being threatened. Both he and Mom struggled in their last few years in Darien because of the way that they were treated, but Dad, always one to think the best of everyone, endured the pain of rejection despite Mom's constant urging to speak up. In the end, it felt more like a forced retirement than a choice and they made the most of it.
That was really the beginning of the end for them. By the time that they left Connecticut in November of 2010, rather than an excitement and anticipation for things to come, there was a sense of recovery that was necessary for both of them, especially Dad, as he licked his wounds and sought healing from the hurts that he had faced. Dad fell into a deep depression.
Mom was excited about Williamsburg, and Dad was moderately excited, although with a significant amount of anxiety. He was leaving behind all that he knew, all his friends, the congregation that he had invested in, and the familiarity of his surroundings to try to embrace something new. He had connected with a counseling center here and was hoping to minister to military in Norfolk and the surrounding area. God had given him a heart for counseling and a heart for the military and he wanted to use those passions to help those who had served, especially the ones returning from combat situations in the Middle East who were experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Mom and Dad were excited that they would be near their grandchildren. They would be able to be part of so many things with their grandchildren that they knew their own sons had not been able to experience because of the young age at which they lost their grandparents. Birthday parties, graduations, school programs, church programs, there was excitement at all that they would get to experience. But that changed so dramatically on January 31, 2011 when Mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, just 2 months after their move from Connecticut.
After all of the changes that Dad had experienced, here was yet another gut shot that doubled him over and sent him reeling from the pain. So many people were frustrated with him for what seemed to be a lack of strength and endurance, and yet I could see that this man had weathered so many storms by this point and depression had set itself so deep that it almost seemed unrecoverable. I began to realize the importance for myself and so many others of being aware of depression and all of the effects and impact that it can have upon a person.
We were all grateful for my aunt and uncle, Audrey and Roy Jester, during this time. They were able to hold Mom and Dad up just like Aaron and Hur, holding up the arms of Moses to allow for the success of the Israelites. I'm not sure what we all would have done had they not been by our side in the midst of the chaos and storms that we experienced.
Dad had a pacemaker/defibrillator installed for his heart shortly before they left Connecticut. Although the doctor said it wasn't essential, he recommended it should my dad's heart weaken, which it eventually did, but not due to normal circumstances. Dad had stayed fairly active, swimming at the YMCA on a regular basis and eating the healthy meals that my mom prepared for them, but it was more than just a physical thing that Dad was dealing with. Depression digs down deep and impacts all of who we are, and that's just what it did with Dad.
As I was getting ready the other day, I came across a song by Brian Doerksen called, "Will You Love Me in the Winter." The words for the song struck me so hard because they seemed as if they could have been penned by Dad.
Changes bring a chill, as the last leaves fall, and the winter closes in.
I try to stay warm, but it's hard alone, in the dark night of my soul.
My heart aches, I feel numb, I struggle to go on.
When my body breaks, when my thoughts have failed, will you love me still,
Will you love me still, in the winter, in the winter?
I remember spring, the thrill of budding life, now just a faded memory.
I gave what I could, did my best to serve, now there's nothing left to give.
My flesh fails, my thoughts collide, this question lingers.
When my body breaks, when my thoughts have failed, will you love me still,
Will you love me still, in the winter, in the winter?
Dad had come into the Winter of his life, he was beaten and battered, and he was questioning so much of what had happened all along the way. While he still kept his faith, he struggled. He was deep in depression and every attempt to rescue him seemed to fall flat. I did my best to lead him in directions that might be useful, a grief recovery group, a private counselor, invitations to our senior hymn sing at the church. Others made efforts, but Dad continued to struggle.
I would come over to Williamsburg from Richmond as often as I could and spend time with him. We would go out to lunch, run errands, go to the doctor's office, and do various things that he needed done. Although he was away from his townhouse, it brought him comfort to go back there. Mom's fingerprints were all over it, even the smell, so it was probably a bittersweet experience for him. I would also drive him over to the cemetery once he was unable to drive himself. We spent many painful moments at Mom's grave as I tried to convince him how much God had used him throughout his lifetime. I named so many people whose lives had been forever touched and changed because of my dad's willingness and obedience. Relationships were restored, addictions were cast aside, marriages were repaired, Christ was found, all because of the obedience of my father and my mother.
I call them trophies of grace, those people that God uses us to touch in our lives. As I look out today and as I have read the comments from people on Facebook, I am only catching a small glimpse of the lives that have been touched by my parents. While things in Connecticut did not turn out the way that Dad had planned, he made the most of them and eventually trained so many people to send them out. They went all over the place, to California, Missouri, Washington, North Carolina, Florida, Virginia, Cambodia, New York, and so many other places. As ineffective as Dad felt at the end of his life and as much as I was unable to convince him of this, I knew that God had used him in a mighty way.
Everywhere Dad went, he would meet someone that he knew, it didn't matter where. Even when he moved to Patriots Colony, he soon found out that he knew the father of the chaplain, Janna Roche, as they had served in Conservative Baptist churches in the New England area. Hours after Dad had died, I saw Janna as we were walking out of Patriots Colony for the last time. She told me what I had already confirmed in my head, that she thought Dad had died of a broken heart. Not only was that literally, but figuratively as well.
The day that Dad died, I was prepared to stay by his side until the end. Thankfully, everyone at my church had been incredibly supportive, in fact, my two fellow pastors drove down here with me and spent the morning with Dad and me. After they left and after my wife and daughter left, I was all alone with Dad. Having seen the signs of decline with Mom, I knew that he did not have long. I read Scripture to him and I began to sing some of his favorite hymns to him, all the while reassuring him in his ear that my brother, our families, and I loved him and knew that he loved us. I told him that he had fought hard enough and that he didn't have to fight anymore. Mom was waiting, and more importantly, so was Jesus. An hour after a visit with Camper, I was singing Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling when Dad breathed his last and entered into the presence of Jesus.
I hurt. I grieve. I mourn, but not as one who has no hope. My father gave his life for the sake of the Gospel and while I wish it had ended better, I know that Paul's words to Timothy are true. I read them at my mom's funeral just 21 months ago, and they are appropriate today as well. 2 Timothy 4:6-8 says, "6 For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing."
Dad, there is no doubt in my mind that you have been welcomed into the presence of Jesus with the words, "Well done, good and faithful servant." You are no longer in pain, you have no more doubts, you have been made whole, and you see things, not in part, but in full. I will miss you tremendously, but I long for the day when we will see each other again, face to face in the presence of our Savior. I love you, Dad.