We are now just over a month away from my next birthday. As the day draws closer, I can feel myself start to fill with sorrow. Not because I’ll be another year older, which, let’s be honest, is a problem for a lot more people than we realize, but because it is now, and forever, the anniversary of my dad’s passing. Actually, I could feel the sorrow start to creep in as soon as the weather changed. I felt it come on full blast when football season started, because it’s now just a blaring reminder that my dad didn’t get to see the Eagles win the Super Bowl.
Honestly, I am well aware that there are several people who will never understand my sadness at such a loss, for he was never really a big part of my life anyway. If you read my blog post entitled His Princess, it gives a short synopsis of why my dad abandoned me when I was a baby. To make a long story very short, he had suffered with a debilitating addiction to drugs and alcohol. However, there is so much more to the story- his story, and mine.
I moved to the mountains of Pennsylvania when I was twelve years old, and as I met new people and made new friends, I began to realize that I didn’t really know a lot about my past. As my friends and I continued to nurture our growing relationships and learn more about each other, I noticed that the memories I had of my “real dad” were few and far between.
I spent most of my childhood days at my maternal grandmother’s house, and one memory I have of my dad, that is still so prevalent today for some reason, is of the day he showed up to see me while eating a dog bone. Yes, my dad was eating a big, crunchy Milkbone. I remember worrying that he wasn’t getting enough food to eat. There was another time he showed up eating an apple, and I was shocked to see him down the whole thing in a matter of seconds- core and all!
I was always so excited to see him, because it didn’t happen often. My mother would tell me of times I would be playing in my grandmother’s yard and he would walk right by me. I would yell for him like a banshee, but he kept on walking as if he never even heard me. Once in a blue moon he would call me to tell me he was coming to see me. I would plant myself on the front steps of my grandmother’s porch and never move a muscle. I wouldn’t go in to use the bathroom, and I certainly wouldn’t go in for dinner. I wouldn’t budge for fear of missing him. Needless to say, just because he said he was coming, didn’t necessarily mean he was going to show up.
That’s how my relationship was back then with my dad… a long string of broken promises and missed birthdays. I never got angry with him, though. I was always so happy to see him on the rare occasions that he did come around; there was no way I was going to waste precious moments with him by being angry. I do remember that each time he showed up, he professed his undying love to me and promised that things would be different from there on out. Although, they never were.
What makes this story even more interesting is that when he wasn’t living on the streets, he was staying with his mom. My grandmothers’ houses were just around the corner from each other, so when I was old enough to realize that, I spent my afternoons wondering if he was there. One time I even escaped on my bicycle, hoping I would remember the way to Grandmom’s house and praying that my daddy would be there. They were both so elated when I knocked on the door that day! (But when he returned me later that afternoon, my mother and grandparents were NOT so elated that I had done that!)
Truth be told, I didn’t care that I scared the daylights out of them when I disappeared. I loved my dad; I had him on a pedestal, actually, and I wanted to see him every single chance I could. I eventually learned the truth about his addiction, but I accepted that things were the way they were back then because he was very sick.
When he got clean later in life, he even found a way to come see me up in the mountains when he could. He had lost his driver’s license long ago, and he had no car, anyway, so in my eyes, it was no small feat that he found his way to me. He was so remorseful and admitted there was no excuse for what he had done. He asked for my forgiveness, but I honestly didn’t think there was anything to forgive. His actions were dictated by his drug and alcohol abuse, not by a lack of love for me.
From that point forward, we were working hard to rebuild our relationship- to make up for the time we had lost. So, when I became an adult, Greg and I would hop in the car and take the three-hour drive to go see him in Philly. He had fought to get clean and stay that way, and he had been living with my grandmother again, helping to take care of her. She never gave up on him, and neither did I. And I wanted him to have a different relationship with my children than he had with me. I wanted him in their lives, so we did what we could to make that happen. As they grew older, we started to have my dad come and stay with us for a week over Christmas.
Things were finally going so well- too well. It wasn’t long before my dad’s poor life choices caught up with him. He had been diagnosed with Hepatitis C first, and later, with Cancer. I would spend the rest of my time with him just watching him wither away.
As he was nearing the end, I prayed and prayed that he would not pass away on my birthday. My birthday was on a Saturday that year. I remember it, because we would have gone down to see him at the nursing home that day had we not already had a college visit with our daughter previously scheduled. We planned to drive down on Sunday instead… but that Sunday drive never happened.
I clearly remember being in the car on our way to Slippery Rock when I got the call. My husband got the call, actually. We both thought it was odd that my aunt would call Greg’s phone instead of mine, but I’m the one that picked up anyway since Greg was driving. In hindsight, I guess I should have known right away why she would call my husband instead of me. When I answered Greg’s phone, she sounded shocked at first, like she had dialed the wrong number by mistake. She clearly said she was trying to reach Greg, but after I explained that he was driving, she said the four words that I will hear every November 21st until I’m gone from this earth. “Daddy died this morning.”
Um, come again? That can’t be right. We were going to go down to see him the very next day. I had been discussing this moment with God on a daily basis, and He knew full well that I did NOT want Him to take my dad on my birthday.
I spent the rest of the drive in shock, I think. I don’t really remember much after the phone call. I tried my best to pay attention to what we were being told at the various sessions we attended during the college visit, but the thing I remember the most is when my aunt called back later to ask me if I wanted my dad cremated or if I wanted to have a viewing.
Everything after that is like a blur. When I think about that time in my life, I am plagued with the memories of things that happened right before his passing. When we had gone down to see him the previous week at the nursing home, he wanted to walk us to the door when we left, but I said no. I could clearly see he was already so tired from the visit, and I didn’t want to wear him out any more than he already was.
That was the last time I saw him. I am now consumed with the thought of, “If I had said yes, I would’ve had just a few more minutes with him.” I try to replay the last words I ever spoke to him, and I wonder if there was anything I left out. Is there anything more I could have said to give him, and well, myself, more peace?
When we went down to see him the weekend before that, I had found that he’d been hiding pain medication in his socks. I took them away from him because of his past drug history. I was so afraid he would become addicted again, but who did I think I was? I had no right to do that to him. I had no idea what kind of pain with which he had been suffering every day. I made his fight against cancer that much worse. Could I have contributed to his death by not only increasing his pain, but also agitating him when I took his pain medication away?
I started writing this blog six days ago. Usually I can get something written in an hour or so, but this one… this one was giving me trouble. You see, the purpose of my blog is to educate, edify, and encourage. I was trying so desperately to figure out how I was going to be encouraging, when I was in such a bad place myself. Originally, I had planned on simply reminding you all that we’re doing this together- learning life together- and I don’t have all the answers. But then something happened.
Until now, I had tried to comfort myself by believing that it wasn’t God “taking” my dad away on my birthday, but rather, it was my dad hanging on with every ounce of strength he had left, so he could make it to see one more of my birthdays. Until now, I was plagued with the sorrow that came with the thought of him dying alone in an unfamiliar place. I hated that he died alone in that nursing home, knowing I was just one day away from seeing him again.
I know for a fact that Jesus came and took my dad to paradise, because my father gave his heart to Christ years prior. I know it was a tremendous struggle for a very long time, though. Whenever my grandmother or I would try to talk to him about salvation, he would just hang his head and say, “Jesus doesn’t want me.” I couldn’t imagine anyone feeling so badly about themselves or about their past mistakes that they would believe Jesus wouldn’t want them. How tragic to know there are still people in the world today who truly believe that- who live with so much shame that they believe they are beyond redemption. People who don’t understand God’s nature and His unconditional love and faithfulness. People who don’t understand the whole reason behind God’s plan to send us Jesus!
I realized later that it wasn’t a matter of God not being able to forgive my dad, but it was a matter of my dad not being able to forgive himself. He had asked the Lord to forgive him, but he just wasn’t able to accept the forgiveness that God so freely gives.
Finally, FINALLY, after years of prayer and prodding, he was able to forgive himself and accept God’s grace and mercy and sacrifice! As if that weren’t enough to cause us all to rejoice, my dad was later baptized. He was baptized at my home church, in fact, just one short month before his death. He had been up to stay with us for a week, because we had been trying to extend his visits to more than just once yearly at Christmastime. I was glad he was here, too, because he wasn’t doing well at all, and I truthfully didn’t think he’d be able to make it back up for Christmas that year… and I was right.
I had finally gotten my dad back, and then, in the blink of an eye, I had to let him go again. I had spent my childhood crying after his sporadic visits because I never knew when I would see him again. After his death, I cried because I knew I never would.
I mentioned above that “something happened.” Something happened to change my perspective about this whole situation. That something was my daughter and son-in-law who came over one night to watch the 2018 film I Can Only Imagine. My daughters and I saw it in the theaters when it first came out, and I bought the DVD as soon as it was released. It was still in its packaging when Brittany and Will came over that night.
If you haven’t heard of it, it’s the film adaptation of the story behind Bart Millard, of the band MercyMe, and how he came to write the most-played song in the history of Christian radio. According to, not only Wikipedia, but also the information given to us in writing at the end of the film, the song I Can Only Imagine has been certified quadruple platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America, and as of April, 2018, has sold over 2.5 million copies.
Bart wrote that song for his father, Arthur, an alcoholic who had physically and mentally abused him all his life, but who later found redemption in Christ and became a new man. Arthur was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and according to the storyline in the movie, had refused treatment. The film depicts the journey that Bart and Arthur took together as they worked to repair their relationship. In one of Bart’s journal entries, he wrote, “I finally have the dad I always wanted, and now he’s being taken away. How is that fair?” Oh my, how I could relate to that! And I was tortured by the reality that my dad had overcome a horrific drug addiction just to later be taken by cancer.
When Bart’s “Memaw”, referring to her son, asked Bart, “Can you imagine what he’s seeing right now?” the seed was planted, and I Can Only Imagine was born. Until now, whenever I listened to that powerful worship song, I would try to envision what it would be like for me to see Jesus. What would my heart feel? Would I dance for Jesus, or would I be still in awe of Him? Would I sing hallelujah? Would I be able to speak at all?
Since re-watching the film and reflecting on how closely Bart’s story resembled my own, I began to think of the song differently. I began to think of my dad’s final moments differently. Instead of dwelling on the belief that my dad died alone, I started to wonder… what was it like for my dad to see Jesus? After such a hard life and even harder death, what did his heart feel when Jesus came for him?
I can only imagine… what was it like when Jesus walked by my dad’s side? What did his eyes see when the face of Jesus was before him? My dad didn’t die alone; he was surrounded by God’s glory. Did my dad stand in the presence of Jesus, or did he fall to his knees? Either way, I can now envision Jesus picking my dad up and wrapping him in His loving arms, taking away his pain, once and for all. I can envision my dad’s body being whole again- a smile on his face. I can envision his soul being whole- a smile in his heart. For the first time since my dad’s passing almost four years ago, I can imagine him, arm in arm with Jesus, smiling at me as if to say, “I’m okay. I made it, and I’m OK. It’s time for you to be okay, too.”
It’s time for YOU to be OK, too. Whether you’re someone who mostly resembles Arthur Millard or my own father- bound by guilt and shame, or you’re someone who mostly resembles Bart and me- suffering with pain and loss, Jesus wants to set you free. There is no greater joy than the joy that comes when you give your heart to Christ.
When you let Jesus come into those broken places that only He can soothe, a divine healing takes place. Even writing this blog post was cathartic for me, and it was no accident that the unwrapping of that DVD was carefully planned and calculated by our Father in Heaven.
He knows me better than I know myself, and He knew what I needed when I began to write this post as an outlet for my pain. The earth is God’s footstool, yet He is El Roi, the God who sees me. He also sees you. He loves you, and as the Author of your own redemption story, He wants to take you into His arms and heal those broken places like only He can. Let Him in, won’t you? And if you have already given Him your heart, give Him your pain, too. Just imagine being surrounded by His glory.
To hear the life-changing chart topper, I Can Only Imagine, click here. To purchase your own copy of this movie that I believe everyone should own, click here. To learn more about how to give your life to Jesus and let Him heal your heart, please visit my Jesus and You page. For the first time since my Dad died four years ago, I can truly and wholeheartedly smile with joy and gratitude when I think of my dad’s final moments, and I thank you for taking this journey with me. God bless.