“Your dad had the sweetest smile.” “He was always smiling.” “What I remember most about your dad was his smile.” “I am going to miss his grin.” “Every time I saw your dad he was smiling.” Though we were exhausted from the week’s events, we found the scores of people coming through our receiving line at Dad’s funeral to be unbelievably comforting.
Saturday, July 27th, at around 1pm, my mother called me and in a distressed voice declared, “I need to talk to Eric. Now!” I ran to him, woke him up, handed him the phone, walked across the hall, sat on the guest bed, and anxiously waited for my life to fall apart. I whispered, “No. No. Please God, No. No.” From the other room, I heard Eric ask, “Does she know?” As I sat helpless, I wondered, “Is this the day I have been dreading my entire adult life?”
Eric walked into the room and sat beside me. As he began to speak, I cut him off saying, “No, no, no, no, no,” my heart and mind not ready to process what he was about to tell me. My dad could not be gone. It simply could not be true. Anything else. Anything. But, not Daddy. Anything but my Daddy.
“He had a heart attack while he was out driving. He is currently alive, but they are not sure what is going to happen.”
For a second, I felt hopeful, but that hope was followed by a terrible gut feeling. We threw clothes in a bag and started the five-hour drive towards my hometown. As I drove, I gazed towards the heavens and wondered, “Is he still here? Is he on the other side? Will he be able to speak to me when I get there? Is he at Jesus’ feet?” The drive seemed endless and every time my phone made a noise, my heart jumped a mile. I knew Mom would not update me while I was driving – especially anything bad, so I just kept driving, wondering, and pleading in my heart. “Please, God, not my Daddy.”
I’m Not Ready
We drove directly to the hospital and finally arrived. Though the trip had seemed long, I did not want the last half hour to end. As long as I was still driving, I had hope. When we pulled into the parking lot, I saw Mom standing in front of the entrance with a man. “Dad!” my heart leapt for a second. Then I thought, “No, that cannot be him.” It was my cousin standing beside my mom who had her arms wrapped around herself with a look of grief and exhaustion on her face.
Part of me wanted to say, “Tell me what is going on?!?!?! Right now!!!” But, a bigger part of me could not even speak. Mom walked me to the front desk to get checked in which was a far more gut-wrenching experience than I would have ever imagined. There is something about handing a friendly lady your ID and getting your picture taken in that moment which feels almost cruel. While we were waiting, my sweet cousin, David, put his arm around me and asked, “How are you doing, Sweetie?” All I could respond is, “I don’t know.” I still had not found out if my world remained intact.
After we received our passes, Mom took my arm and walked me down the hall. The whole experience felt surreal. After a short walk, mom said, “We are going to stop in here before we go upstairs.” I turned the corner to see the word Chapel on the wall, and that is when I knew he was gone.
Mom held me and we sobbed. She told me how hard the doctors and EMTs worked. In the glow of the dim chapel light, I groaned in anguish. My worst earthly nightmare was a reality. How could this be happening? How could life ever return to normal?
How Can We Plan a Funeral When We Can Barely Breathe?
Years ago, I worked with a woman from Hawaii who expressed her disbelief for the way mainland Americans handle funeral arrangements. She said, “In Hawaii, the family waits a week or two weeks before burying their loved ones. I mean, families are grieving!” Her words came back to me as we rushed around making plans. Less then twenty-four hours after my Dad passed from this life to eternity, we were sitting in the funeral director’s office discussing his obituary and service plans. Two days later, we gathered at the funeral home again for a private family viewing. And then, less than twenty-four hours after that, we were at our home church in a receiving line hugging a room full of precious friends, family, former and current co-workers, neighbors, and church family. It was a veritable whirlwind.
The service was beautiful. The support was overwhelming. The words repeated to us were: “Your dad had the best smile.” “Jack was always smiling.” “He showed me how a person should live.” I used to think standing in line and receiving family and friends was exhausting to the grieving family; and, though it was in a way, it was also one of the greatest comforts we experienced.
A sweet woman with whom Dad used to work came through the line crying. She kept apologizing, but she did not need to. Anyone who wanted to cry over losing my daddy was welcome to cry. I know she was embarrassed showing strong emotions in front of us about our loved one, but it thoroughly blessed us to see what a clear impact he made on her life. You don’t need to feel embarrassed when you cry with a mourning family. It used to embarrass me, too, but my perspective has greatly changed.
What I Will Always Remember
After the graveside service, my cousin, Chuck, hugged my mom and me and said, “Uncle Jack made us all want to be better people.” He will never know how much that comment meant to us. My cousin, Brad, gave me a bear hug and he will never know how much that meant to me. Friends even came from neighboring cities and states (Goldsboro, Raleigh, Virginia, South Carolina) and my best friend, Lauran, flew as quick as she could from California to grieve with me. The blessings in the darkness were evident – proof of God’s favor, love, and faithfulness in the hardest of times.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. (Isaiah 43:2, ESV)
It is the LORD who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed. (Deuteronomy 31:8, ESV)
When we began this year with Creed as our family and PreEngaged theme, I had no idea it would be the year we would lose Dad. Reflecting on his life and the message he preached through his actions, I think the following are some of his dearest held beliefs:
Be Kind: Dad, though an introvert, was so friendly to people. He spoke to strangers in parking lots, complimented young moms on their adorable babies, and had something positive, funny, or uplifting to say to just about everyone. On a “sin scale,” hurting someone’s feelings registered somewhere just below blaspheming the Holy Spirit in his mind. He treated people well and I always respected that about him.
Be Encouraging: Years ago, while eating together at a steakhouse, Dad overheard a male customer giving his server (who was also our server) a hard time. Well, this did not sit well with Dad. The next time she came by, he took her aside and said, “I just want you to know, you are doing a great job.” You could see her body start to relax as she told my dad, “That customer just told me I ruined his son’s birthday.” She looked as though she might cry. Dad kept talking to her, trying to undo the damage this “gentleman” had done to her tender heart. Dad never knew how proud I was to be his daughter in that moment. I would rather have the dad who is sensitive to others’ hearts than the “successful” dad who ignores people or causes them pain.
Love Children: Daddy loved babies. Oh. My. Goodness. Mom tried to have normal conversations with him in restaurants; but, if he spotted a baby, the conversation was already over (or at least paused). ~smile~ He had baby radar and he did not mind acting silly to get a giggle. It seemed odd to me that a man who loved babies so much seemed content with just one child of his own; and, though I was not able to give him a grandchild, he found joy in the babies and children at his church. He also asked about my friends’ children frequently. The last two years of his life, he adored our friends’ son, Jeremiah, constantly asking, “Did you see the little man today?” Now, whenever I gaze on Jeremiah’s sweet face, I think of Dad. My heart hopes that at this very moment he is worshipping Jesus and holding babies. Maybe he is even giving a piggyback ride. Oh, how I wonder.
Help: Is your neighbor sick? Mow his grass. Is your co-worker struggling to pay medical bills? Give her money and encourage others to do the same. Is your brother building a room onto his house? Go give him a hand. Does a friend need a ride to the high school football game? Go get him. Dad never felt right seeing a need and ignoring it. My granddaddy used to say, “No one who comes to our house will leave hungry,” and Dad had that philosophy engrained in him. If someone needed assistance, Dad was there. Be a good neighbor.
Love Your Family: A former co-worker of mine once told me, “Heather, you love your family more than any other white girl I’ve ever met!” What a compliment! Yes, I do adore my family and that is due to growing up in a supportive one. My cousins and I grew up together, seeing each other frequently at church and Grandma’s house. My aunts and uncles lived relatively close by and we saw them regularly. As a young girl, it used to amaze me that our big Jones clan could be the last ones to leave church together, go to a restaurant and wait for a table together, eat together, and still stand in the parking lot and talk for what seemed like forever. (I just wanted to get out of those itchy tights!) How were we not sick of each other? What more was there to discuss?!
Dad loved his parents dearly. He adored his big sister. He admired his big brother (in fact, they looked, walked, and talked so much alike, people often thought they were twins). He joked around with my cousins and went to their ballgames. He was very good to my mom. He worried so deeply about her when she was sick. He always kept her vehicles in working order. As they aged, he became more and more tender towards her. The morning he passed away, he left for work the same as always – hugging her goodbye and telling her he loved her. And, for me… he was a big teddy bear. The sound of his voice always calmed my heart.
Stay in the Word: In the last several years of his life, I noticed Dad taking time to read his Bible and pray every morning before work. It blessed my heart to see his discipline – something with which I have always struggled. Though he suffered some emotional setbacks over the last decade, I saw God use those trials to grow him and draw him closer. His gentleness grew. His tolerance of inappropriate jokes weakened. He prayed more. Mom said the Sunday before his death, he was at the altar praying with people (that was not typical of Dad). What a blessing to see evidence of the Holy Spirit working in my Dad’s life and heart. I am forever grateful for that.
Smile: Dad had the best smile (though, for some reason, he was often not comfortable smiling in photographs). It is hard to look at his pictures and feel sadness because his countenance says, “Smile.” Dad was the kind of man who left you feeling better. Which brings me back to the beginning of this post. As we received friends for days, and especially during the visitation, we heard countless comments about Dad’s smile. “He was always smiling.” What a testimony. What a life. Ironically, Dad never felt like he contributed much to this world, but he was so very wrong. He brought joy, comfort, encouragement, and laughter to so many people. Like my cousin, Chuck, said, “He made us all want to be better people.” I will miss your laugh. I will miss your smile. I will miss hearing you say, “Hey Punkin.” Only someone so amazingly adored could leave such a void in our hearts.
God is Faithful
The morning of Dad’s service, Mom opened her Bible to the next Psalm and read, “God in His holy dwelling is a father of the fatherless and a champion of widows.” (Psalm 68:5, Holman Christian Standard Bible) God knew when she would need to read that. It was just another example of His faithfulness and Him going before us. Dad’s death did not catch God off guard, and looking back, I see how God was preparing us. In processing my grief thus far, the thought keeps returning to my mind, “I will never wake up tomorrow and get a phone call saying, ‘God is dead.’ God is alive forever. He will never leave or forsake His children.”
Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. (Psalm 90:2, ESV)
Rest in eternal peace, Daddy. We cannot wait to see you again and worship our Lord with you forever. May God give me the strength to live out your legacy well.
If you still have your Dad, or other family you hold dear, consider calling or visiting while you can.