After the phone call from my mom letting me know my dad had passed away, I had a couple of days to pack, make arrangements with my job at the coffee house, contact my professors at school and coordinate travel to Iowa where he was to be buried. It had been less than a week since I left New Hampshire and before I knew it I found myself back on the plane and headed to the Midwest for the funeral.
I don’t really recall which airport I flew in to or who picked me up but what I do remember clear as day is walking up my grandparents cracked and well worn sidewalk to their two story house in the little town of New Albin. I knew this visit would be unlike any visit I had done before. As I swung open the door to my grandma’s familiar kitchen my grandpa shuffled toward me crying. I had never seen him cry so this was a new and uncomfortable thing. He just kept saying how sorry he was. I knew he was sorry for himself. I knew he was sorry for me. I knew now for sure that this was for real.
The first order of business was the wake. I had never been to a funeral before so I just kind of went along and did what I was told. It felt so surreal and I kept wishing it hadn’t happened; only to be reminded by people, by flowers and finally by my dad’s casket arriving that yes indeed this time in my life had really happened. I hated the reminders.
I felt awkward and strange as people I knew and didn’t know told me over and over again how sorry they were as we stood by my dad’s closed casket. Me too. I was sorry too. The sorries were like a constant, slow and winding river. I couldn’t see around the bend to know when they would ever stop. After an hour of “I’m sorry” and “How are you doing?” I looked a lady straight in the eye and told her I was doing great. She stared back at me in confusion and I dare say disapproval. She finally moved on shaking her head. I just shook my head back and I moved on to. I moved on to the basement where everyone was eating lunch and plopped myself down in a chair. It was sort of like a reunion but it was a very odd one. A mixture of a ray of gladness to see the living with a constant shadow of sadness for the one gone. It was a delicate balance and I gladly admit the people handled it well.
The next day was gloriously bright and beautiful for the funeral. We arrived at the church and were part of the processional down the aisle to be seated up front close to where my dad would lay. My mother read my dad’s favorite passage of scripture, the love chapter. My brother played the piano while I led the congregation in song. He provided the harmony as the music soared on the chorus of “You are Awesome in This Place”. The most comforting thing happened next as we sang that song. A strong beam of light pierced down upon us through the windows and warmth enveloped both of our bodies. I have no other way to explain it except that I felt the physical presence of God rest upon us and the whole congregation. The music sounded louder. The music sounded cleared. The music sounded right.
The pastor shared, people shared and I read a story about my dad that I had written called “The Warrior”. The funeral seemed to swiftly rush by and as we exited out of the church my heart was touched as I looked out over the packed pews and saw it was standing room only. There were people that had flown as far as Alaska to pay their respects and the impact of their presence was not lost on me. We wandered out into the yard and the somber mood had visibly and physically lightened. People were chatting and catching up and waiting to follow the processional to the graveyard for burial. It was like a giant sigh of relief had escaped now that the service was finally over. I began to see the importance of closure and saying goodbye. It was hard. It was exhausting. It was relieving.
We rode in the procession to the little graveyard just outside of the town of 300. As we stood on the grass by the freshly dug grave I began to sing the verse “Praise God, Praise God” from “Amazing Grace”. Everybody joined in and after the pastor shared a few more parting thoughts. As the service ended and people began to mill around someone said, “Look! Over there! Can you believe it? Only at Steve’s funeral!” There above the grave site flew a bald eagle and a moment later another one swooped in to join him. On that sunny April day two bald eagles graced us with their presence. God had given us another gift. People began to clap and as I looked around everyone had their necks craned to the sky and their hands shading their eyes watching the majestic birds circle. Wide smiles of disbelief graced many faces showing an intermingling of joy and grief. I recalled a verse in the Bible, “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” Isaiah 40:31
Although many were pondering the end of my dad’s life that day I knew he was simply at the beginning. A new beginning. His eternal beginning. Because he believed in Jesus Christ he was now in paradise. I stared at the eagles and reminded myself that now my dad was simply on a long vacation. A very, very long one. But at the end of that vacation I knew I would see him again. Not lying on a bed almost unrecognizable with sickness but running and strong. He would not be weary anymore. He would not be faint anymore. When I finally get to heaven there would be no more separation. That was my hope. Because of the power of the cross I would not only see my dad again but I would be with him forever. Eventually. With that I turned my back on the place where my dad’s body lay fully aware that his spirit was gone and headed back to the car to my new beginning. Life without my dad.