It was Benjamin Franklin who coined the phrase, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” And while it’s true that death is a certain and natural part of life, it doesn’t feel so natural when it’s a child who dies before a parent, or the victim of a violent crime, or a car accident, or cancer.
I was in tenth grade when death dealt me its first sting. I had just gotten a part in my high school musical, just got my braces off, and was enjoying my sophomore year. Life wasn’t perfect, my mom and dad were divorced and he lived in Colorado, but my brother and I would spend a good chunk of our summers with him out west, and he would come up to Minnesota a few times a year. It was what it was, it was all I knew.
The day was April 15, 1991 and school had just let out. I was walking toward the exits to catch my bus, looking forward to spending the rest of my afternoon listening to the radio and talking on the phone. Then I caught a glimpse of my mom and two aunts near the front doors. A rush of teenage embarrassment came over me. What are THEY doing here?!?!? But that was followed quickly by a terrifying feeling of, Oh my gosh, something bad must have happened! Someone died!
It’s amazing in those initial seconds how many thoughts and scenarios can go through a person’s mind. Did my brother die? No, if he did, my mom wouldn’t be able to stand, let alone meet me at school. Was it my uncle Jay? He was the only one I knew who was sick. Grandma or Grandpa? They were getting older.
“Someone died? Who died?” I asked in frenzy. “Let’s go outside,” my mom said.
“Did my dad die?” I asked. The question shocked me as it came out. “Let’s just go outside,” my mom said, as her voice broke up with tears.
We got to the car and then came the words no 15 year-old should ever hear.
“Your dad died. They don’t know any of the details yet. They found him this morning. I’m so sorry.”
First shock and silence. Then wailing and an unfamiliar, gut wrenching pain my body had never known. How? Why? This can’t be happening! Next we drove to the elementary school my brother attended. I remember seeing him walking up to the car, ecstatic to be taken out of school early… he just didn’t know why. Ricky has always had such a vibrant smile, just like our dad. I was horrified at what this news would do to his 12 year-old heart. I was the one who told him. He sat in heartbreaking silence as tears streamed down his sweet, freckled face. Even now, it’s hard to think about.
I grew up in a Christian home where a relationship with God (not just a religion) was taught. We weren’t the Cleaver’s, I was a latchkey kid and saw the struggles my mom had as a single parent, but Jesus was at the center. I also knew that Heaven and Hell were real places, and that each person had a decision to make that would affect them for eternity.
Those first hours after I found out, I recited John 3:16 over and over, out loud and in my head. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.”
But did my dad believe in God, in Jesus? He never spoke to me about God. Not once. My heart was so troubled, so full of despair. And then I began remembering something I hadn’t thought of. A handful of times, between the ages of 12 and 14, my mom would find me on the floor in my closet crying. She’d ask me what was wrong and I’d always say the same thing:
“If my dad dies, where will he go? We have to pray for him!”
And the two of us would pray. Twenty years later, and I still remember those instances as plain as day… the sense of urgency I felt for my dad’s salvation. It’s something I can’t fully explain, it just happened. When we got to Colorado for his funeral, the reality of what happened set in even more. It was really, really hard. The day of his funeral, my dad’s wife (my step-mom) came up to me and my mom to tell us something she felt compelled to share. She said in the weeks before his death, she would find my dad on his knees at the edge of the bed, her old Bible that she forgot she had would be beside him. She said in their ten years of marriage, she had never seen him do that, never seen the Bible out. One time after he’d come out of the room, she finally asked him what he was doing.
“I was praying.”
On April 15, 1991, dad was found in his garage, in the driver’s seat of his Bronco. His blood alcohol level was .40, which at the very least would have rendered him unconscious. The carbon monoxide that passed from the exhaust through the garage door finished his life off five days before his 34th birthday. My dad struggled on and off with alcohol his whole life. Sure, he went to work everyday, was a good provider and a great person, but he struggled with this vicious addiction until the very end.
One day when we were back in Minnesota just after the funeral, I was alone in my room. I don’t know if I would call what happened next a vision or dream, but in an instant, I saw my dad standing next to Jesus. My dad looked radiant, happy and so alive! Then I saw Jesus hold up a clear vial, and He said:
These are the tears your daughter cried out for your salvation. Our Father heard her prayers, and near the end of your life, I knocked harder on your heart, and you finally answered, Gary. You are home.
Jesus handed the vial to my dad, and he took it and began rejoicing. He rejoiced for God giving him me as a daughter, and he rejoiced that he was with Jesus. I cried, I shook, and I ran to tell my mom what had just happened. I knew she would believe me. She looked stunned and began to cry and ran for her Bible. She read aloud Psalm 56:8.
“You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.”
I have never doubted that my dad is in Heaven. He wasn’t religious; he could probably count on one hand how many times he was in a church. But at the end of his life, he answered the knock on his heart. In his despair, he reached out to a God who is loving and faithful and ready to forgive. My dad didn’t die a perfect man, but he did die in Christ. God is so good! When I was just a young girl, He put it on my heart to pray for my dad. I prayed with tears, I prayed with my whole heart, and I prayed in the name of Jesus. At the age of 12, those prayers were more powerful than any devil in hell or force on the earth. Heaven moved into action!
“The earnest, heartfelt prayer of a righteous man makes tremendous power available.” James 5:16
Don’t ever give up on someone! Whenever you feel the urgency to pray for them, do it! You have no idea the eternal impact it could have on their life. When someone dies, don’t make judgments about ‘where they went’. You have no idea if in the last days of their life, they answered the knock.
“Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hears my voice, and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will eat with him, and he with me.” Revelation 3:20