Tonight marks four years that our dad left us for a more perfect world. I like to think that for him it is a world of Minnesota Twins, fresh corn on the cob, cabins, and bicycle rides. A world of gardens without weeds, autumns without winters, life without death.
And certainly a world without car repairs.
It is much easier for me to write about my dad's death than it was in the beginning. I will always miss my dad, but time, if nothing else, has the gracious power of healing wounds. Of taking away the sting. Of showing us the beauty that was there, even in the midst of the suffering.
I couldn't see the silver linings then, not when it happened. I could only focus on the sorrow, the injustice, the pain. Now, four years later I look back on the days surrounding his death and funeral and can finally see some of that beauty.
Beauty: My dad died the night of November 18. His obituary and his death certificate say November 19 because that is when his body was found. He went on a bike ride the evening of the 18th, like he frequently did. My mom went to a young women's activity. When she came home she noticed my dad wasn't home, but figured he had stopped to say hi to a neighbor, give a jug of apple juice, or do any of the countless things that would distract him from being home on a Wednesday night. She fell asleep on the rocking chair waiting for him, and when she woke up at 11 with my dad still not home, the panic set in. She called my brother who lived in Price and called a few neighbors. They went out searching for him. It was cold and it was dark. They searched and searched and searched. Besides my brother in Price, none of the other kids knew any of this was going on. My dad's body was found in a little ditch in the early hours of the morning of the 19th. His hands were still on the handlebars. He had a gash in his forehead, but there was not bleeding which would indicate that his blood had stopped circulating and he had died before the bike ever hit the ground. Cardiac arrest is the doctor's best explanation. He most likely died at the very beginning of his bike ride as he was only quarter of a mile or so from our home, probably around 5 or 6 in the evening. We know he didn't suffer through the cold night and that he was dead before anyone ever thought to wonder where he was.
That night I was playing poker. A friend at BYU had invited me over for a Texas Hold Em tournament with just the guys. It was me and five boys. The buy in was $3. I'm not terrible at poker, but I certainly don't ever play the game planning on making money. That night I won. Easily, too. I got good hands, I bluffed like a pro, I fooled all those BYU frat boys. Five dudes and me and I took their money and beat them to pieces at their own game.
My dad would sometimes tell us kids about his poker playing days. He'd tell us with a sly, mischievous grin, how he'd sit in the back of the bus and clean out all of his buddies. He was a good poker player in his day, one of the best, but shhhh don't tell mom. Mom would smile, she knew the man she had married, but feigned disapproval. Now that the pain has dulled I can think back to that night playing poker and feel my dad there with me. Helping me win those silly hands, perhaps? He had already passed on by the time I was enjoying a my poker night, and I like to think he lingered that night to watch, and maybe even help, his Bopper play a few hands.
Beauty #2: I received the phone call around 7:30 am the morning of the 19th. I was already at school, doing my student teaching. When I heard the news I went in to tell my cooperating teacher that I would be going home, that I wouldn't be teaching that day- I had to leave right away. My cooperating teacher had lost his own dad at a young age and I will never forget that look of complete understanding and empathy he gave me when I told him. He knew the pain exactly, and he was so tender and sweet with me that morning and throughout the entirety of my student teaching.
Another one: My home in Price was an hour and a half away from where I was going to school in Provo. I didn't have to make that drive alone. Two of my sisters and one brother lived in Provo. We made the drive down together. I sat in the backseat in the middle on the hump. The only time in my life where that crowded, squishy spot was the most wanted seat in the car, and I got it.
Beauty #4: I remember so vividly approaching the front door to our house and seeing the sign "Give Thanks" on the door. It was a week before Thanksgiving, after all, and my mom had decorated the house with Thanksgiving gear. I remember feeling like that sign was mocking my pain, telling me to give thanks for the single most difficult experience of my life. Now I can look back tenderly at that sign. Thanksgiving had always been my dad's favorite holiday, and he had long taught his children about the holiday. I know all about how Lincoln first declared it a national holiday and how FDR later changed it from the last Thursday of the month to the fourth Thursday. I know all the history of that day because my dad absolutely loved the idea of a day to surround yourself with people and food and just be grateful. The sign wasn't mocking me, it was a sweet reminder of everything that my dad encompassed. A tender mercy, in fact.
Beauty #5: The first person I saw when I entered the house was Chris Heiner, our neighbor down the street. She was sweeping the front entrance. She gave me a big hug and I don't remember if any words were spoken, but somehow I needed her to be there. She had long been friends with our family, both of my parents loved and respected her immensely. She was calm and collected, the perfect woman to be in my home.
Beauty #6: Most of that day is a complete blur to me. I remember my mom huddled up in the rocking chair with a blanket over her. I remember so many people coming and going. I remember endless amounts of food that nobody wanted to eat. I remember a flower truck making constant deliveries. One of my favorite things I remember, though is my my mom's best friend's son. He had to be in his late 20s or 30s at the time. He was a grown man presumably with a grown job and grown responsibilities. I don't know that I had ever said two words to him in my whole life. Yet he was there all day long. Through the tearful morning, through the long afternoon hours. He was always nearby, but never saying anything at all. I remember sitting at the table and watching him play cards with my nephew. For hours, just he and my nephew playing with a deck of cards. What a weird thing to bring comfort to someone, I think, but it unmistakably helped me in those most difficult hours. Life is busy, people had excuses to not be there, but not this man. He was there all day long. A beautiful silver lining on that day.
One last one: There are eight kids in my family. Six were living in Utah at the time. My sister flew in the next day from Virginia. My brother and his family, however, were living in India, and I remember how anxious I felt for him to get there, to make our family complete- or at least as complete as it could be now. It wasn't until more than 48 hours later that he walked in the door with his pregnant wife and two boys, weary and travel ridden. I remember how we all cried when we saw my brother, the new oldest male in our family. I will never forget his lanky body walking through that front door and how my mom hugged him and the rest of the family crowded him, united in our pain. With him there it finally felt like we had permission to mourn.
I have said that I can see my dad in the shadows in my life. That I hear him in the quiet evenings when I'm writing, or when I see the red fall leaves in all their splendor. I feel him when I'm at his cabin, early in the morning making french toast or late at night looking at the stars. Sometimes I hear his quiet laugh when I'm teaching. I can almost always hear him expressing appreciation for good food and good people when I'm seated at the table with my mom and siblings.
What I didn't realize until recently was that my dad didn't wait to come to me, to be a part of my life after his death. I had thought I needed to wait to have him close to me again, that I couldn't feel his presence with me until months after his passing, but that wasn't true at all. He was in the shadows of my life immediately after he died- instantaneously, in fact. He was there that actual night helping me play poker, that next morning through a sign on our door and a neighbor sweeping our floor, two days later when my last family member made it home safely to be with us and we embraced in the hallway. As soon as my dad left this earth he was with me.
I guess the most beautiful beauty of them all, then, is that he never left at all.