He was alone. Last year, he might have predicted things would work out this way. Someone who had been given such a gift — entrusted with it, really — would never simply continue life as it had been before. He should have known.
And here it was again, this holiday time of year. The calendar told him it was 2012, and his life was different.
The change went much deeper than a season or being a year older. It went under his skin, as deep as his soul — if he permitted himself to believe in such a thing.
Life was like that, he thought. It could strip everything away from you in the blink of an eye. And then it could restore everything you had lost — give you even more, in fact, than you had ever had — with the same lightning speed.
He knew that, now. ..........
***Once again the memories began to flood his mind, taking him back to those nine days last year, when life changed.
Being alone was not something new for Stephen. When the report of cancer was first announced two years previous, he stood alone in his faith, refusing to be moved off that place no matter the diagnosis. Each appointment or treatment that followed was just an opportunity to dig his heels in deeper, knowing he stood on a sure foundation.
When the simple tasks became impossible, forcing him to step up and do the unimaginable, he brought lightness and laughter, making it an easier endeavor. And when the call came that Sunday night, Stephen stepped into a realm he still is trying to grasp.
Hearing the words “he’s in the chair, he’s not responding, we can’t wake him up, can you come over” replaying over and over, working to reinforce the levees of faith he built, as waves of fear tried to breech his mind, he drove over to the house.
Sitting by him, holding his hand, drawing on that force of strength, Stephen prayed with his father, encouraged by the smile and raise of the eyebrows, signaling the understanding and connection being made as he looked into those eyes he knew so well.
Eyes that would twinkle with mischief, indicating you were about to be tickled or teased. Eyes that could shoot daggers, telling you to stop in your tracks, without uttering a word. Eyes that expressed love, laughter, pride, and strength, now touched with a hint of fear and defeat.
The next two days became an emotional roller coaster for all those around. As his father’s breathing continued to grow shallower, everyone was certain that the end was drawing near. Stephen watched and listened as events played out, convinced that the situation was temporal, not terminal.
Early Wednesday morning, the breathing stopped, the pulse that was weak, ceased to be, and each one stood to kiss him good-bye. Stephen sat stiffly in the chair watching his brother and sisters, and when it was his turn, he refused to move. This was not the outcome he expected, and he would not be so quick to accept it and say good-bye.
He finally went over to the bedside and held his father’s head in his hand, touching his face, looking at him, as his mother’s head lay on her husband’s chest, as she had so often done these past few days. Her trembling shoulders confirming the deafening silence she now heard. Stephen was aware of everything around him, and yet even that couldn’t make it all seem real to him.
There was no question that he would sing for his father’s funeral, and no one else had better question that decision either. Stephen knew this was something that he had to do, for his father, and himself. Over the ensuing days, as his mother continued to lean on him for support and spiritual encouragement, he found himself walking in a strength he wasn’t sure was there, bringing him comfort as that day approached.
Standing in the balcony of the church he grew up in, in fact, the church his father grew up in, he watched his family and friends fill the pews. He had stood in this place hundreds of times since childhood, singing for services, weddings, and funerals, but today was not like any of those times. As he watched his nephews escort his father up the aisle, the first note struck on the organ, Stephen took a deep breath and opened his mouth, singing the words “Holy, Holy, Holy….Lord God Almighty”.
It was soon time for the last song to be sung. For him, the ‘good-bye’ he would not say on that Wednesday morning. The song he chose was a favorite of his father’s, and a song that declared a truth that sustained him, “How Great Thou Art”.
Each phrase rang with emotion and power, and using every bit of strength and each ounce of breath, he fought to hold that last note, knowing once the song ended, it would be good-bye.
As the last note faded and his voice went silent, to his surprise, a roar of applause filled the church. Stephen was met with emotion and marvel for what had just transpired, for those in attendance, a moment not heard before, a moment not soon forgotten, and for him, a moment still unfolding.
The man who was his father, daddy, and dad, was now gone. While his mind was still trying to sort that out, each day seemed to bring something out of left field that would strike a cord of emotion, making it all the more real. As the daily routine continued, now made busier with remodeling and preparations for moving, the holidays were suddenly upon him, and that was not an easy thing to face.
With Thanksgiving just days away, Stephen wondered what there was to be thankful for in all of this. He didn’t want to hear how he should be thankful that he had his father for 46 years, or that his father is no longer sick and suffering. Platitudes and looking for bright spots in the loss of his father was not going to cut it with him, and yet it was a time to be thankful.
Always being self-analytical, Stephen began to examine his handling of all that had occurred over the past month or so. He recognized the character and strength that he called on and displayed throughout those nine days, and recalling a comment by a friend, a spark was ignited.
The comment was made that he had honored both of his Fathers that day when he sang from the depths of his soul. All of this time, Stephen knew the part his Father God played in his life during this difficult time, but had not really considered the part his father played.
His father taught him to be responsible and do what he had to do, whether comfortable and convenient, or not. His father taught him how to joke and laugh, especially to lighten a tough situation, always saying “laugh, the whole world laughs with you, cry, and you cry alone”. His father taught him to do the right thing, stand tall and strong, even if it meant you were standing alone. And, everyone knew Stephen got his singing voice from his Dad.
So much of what his father taught him over the years, the character and values he instilled, the qualities he passed along to him, were the building blocks that made him who he was today. And, gave him the ability to walk through the challenges of life, especially those nine days.
As Stephen stood and looked in the mirror, though it was his face he saw looking back, for the first time in his life he looked beyond that, and saw how much of his father stood before him. Realizing at that moment, any time he missed his father, all he had to do was look in a mirror, he wrapped his arms around himself and whispered “I love you Dad”.
Stephen knew that day that his father was a precious gift from God that He designed for him to have. And though it seemed the gift was taken away that Wednesday morning, he knew now it resided inside him, and it was time to unwrap it and share it with the world around him. And so the journey began……
Here alone in the house he grew up in, Stephen sat contemplating the holidays once again. It had always been a time of great joy and love, a time for family and friends, a time of making memories that would last a lifetime and bring warmth on the coldest day. A time when his father beamed with excitement as he watched his kids open their gifts, reveling in their joy and delight.
At that thought, he rose from the bedside, and as tears welled up in his eyes, a big smile broke out on his face. Determined that his father would experience that joy again this year, Stephen bounded down the stairs. It was time to unwrap and share his gift, and bring joy and honor to his Fathers.
By Stephen Payne