We buried my dad on a peaceful hillside nestled among the river valleys of southwestern Pennsylvania on my twentieth birthday. His battle with cancer was finally over, as was my struggle with the pain of watching him suffer. The lonely valley of grief now stretched before me, and in order to heal, I had to traverse it alone.
How I’d searched for a tangible sign of his goodbye the night he died! A radio mysteriously turned on – anything. I had to know he was only on the other side of an invisible barrier, and all I needed to do was to tune in to some supernatural wavelength, and he’d hear me. I wanted the assurance he’d be there when I needed him, as he’d always been in the past.
All I have left of Dad are memories, I thought sadly. I remembered when I was six years old and had wanted a brand new tricycle, not my older sister’s dented castoff. Mom’s favorite answer always seemed to be “NO,” but Dad’s was “We’ll see.” Then one Saturday a shiny red and white tricycle awaited me on the backyard sidewalk, its matching streamers dancing in the wind, its chrome handlebars gleaming in the morning sun.
Dad always seemed to be able to look into my heart and understand my feelings. I spent hours with him in his carpentry shop, riding many a sawdust trail on wooden horses while the table saw spewed more sawdust for me to sweep up. I still love the smell of freshly cut lumber.
Our backyard became Sherwood Forest after Dad brought home a bow-and-arrow set. He never got angry when I accidentally shot my arrows through the garage window instead of the target tacked on a hay bale beside it. He just chuckled and patched up the window, cautioning me to be more careful. I practiced until my arms were sore just to make him proud of me. I lived for his praise.
Then came the day we had our first father-daughter battle. I was in fourth grade and wanted to wear nylons like all the other girls. I rarely saw him angry, but I did then.
“You’re going to wear bobby socks until you’re sixteen years old!” he stormed.
Wailing, I rushed upstairs to my room. Mom must have intervened, for I got to wear the nylons. He never said another word about it, but looking back that long, dark night he died, I suddenly understood: The shock of realizing his little girl was growing up had momentarily overwhelmed him.
Then there was the night he slapped me. It was really just a little tap on the cheek, but I felt it deep in my soul. I was late getting home from spending an evening with friends and had neglected to call. Maybe I thought a fifteen-year-old high school junior didn’t have to check in all the time or that my parents wouldn’t worry.
Whatever the reason, it was nearly midnight when I finally got home. Dad met me at the front door, fuming. When I tried to explain, he tapped me on the cheek, silencing me immediately. Once more I stormed up to my room. This was a breach of faith. He’d never raised a hand to me. Until now.
Later I learned that he’d gone out searching the bushes along the route I should have taken home, imagining the worst. It was I who had broken faith, not he. How rich I was to have such a father’s love!
When he took up golf, I followed suit, taking lessons in high school and college, dreaming of the day we’d stroll the links together.
But it was not to be. Dreams die hard when you’re twenty years old and have lost someone you’ve loved all your life.
Although I was relieved his ordeal was over, I couldn’t let him go yet. Surely he’d give me some final goodbye. But my search was in vain, my hopes crushed, when, after two long, grief-filled days and nights, nothing was amiss. Feeling forsaken, I went to bed the night before Dad’s funeral, wrapping myself in a blanket of memories, hoping somehow they’d warm the chilling emptiness in my heart.
Then came the morning – my twentieth birthday. What joy would there be for me in this day? Or in any birthday I’d celebrate after this?
But something was different: Grief was gone. In its place was peace, a peace so profound it was present in every molecule of the air around me and in every fiber of my being. Love and joy were almost tangible, as if I could reach out and touch a warm, compassionate being who charged the atmosphere with a velvet-like presence.
It was as if Dad were there, assuring me he was in a place so beautiful, so peaceful, I didn’t need to grieve. See where I am, Babe, I could almost hear him say, I’m free from pain, free from worry. It’s all right. Peace walked with me that day.
In the years that followed, when hope seemed but a whisper in the winds of trial, I’d remember Dad’s final gift – that glimpse of heaven – and I’d find the strength to go on.
I still often return, in my heart, to that quiet hillside where now both Dad and Mom are buried. And another memory stirs in my consciousness: Dad sitting on the side of his bed at night, head bowed, eyes closed, hands folded.
And I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that my earthly father is with my Heavenly One. Only with this Father, there is no invisible barrier separating us. All I have to do is tune in to my heart.
Special-Tea: John 11:1-44