Chapter 4 Death Of A Great Ma

This entry is part of 16 in the series article 92

Chapter 4 Death Of A Great Ma



Shrugging into my winter coat, I fished my books from the locker, and kicked it shut with my foot. Kids were everywhere doing the same. Lockers banged, books dropped, good byes exchanged, and zippers hissed; sealing young bodies from the soon to be encountered winter chill. “See ya’ tamorra’ Scov,” a friendly voice called. I waved and jamming my back hard against the fire door, plunged into the windy afternoon.

November in Iowa was generally harsh, cold, gray, and windy. The sky, I noticed, was the grayish color of the concrete sidewalk beneath my feet as I crossed the school grounds heading for the street. The clouds tumbled through the sky like milk poured rapidly into a cup of hot tea; unfolding, spreading, expanding. The wind slapped at my ears like an angered school mom and I pulled my collar up further. Hugging my books closely and bowing my head to the wind, I quickened my steps to hasten the four block trek home.

I was in the sixth grade at Madison Elementary in Des Moines, Iowa. I was eleven years old. My grades ranged from average in those subjects in which I had but a mild interest to excellent in those I found fun. I was on the elementary track team and had won my first ribbon. I had lots of friends, good friends, and I liked most of my teachers; except for one. School was ok but summers were better because there wasn’t any homework.

Things had been stressful lately, although I didn’t show it, but it had been nonetheless. Dad had been in the hospital for three weeks. I had not seen him all that time. A few months earlier, he had felt the Lord calling him to go out as an evangelist holding revival meetings. He had been pastoring small country churches for years. Often we spent weekends in farming communities all around central Iowa. Dad pastored these small churches because many of them needed pastors but simply were too small to pay a full time man to shepherd them. Sometimes he took over such churches for months at a time until they grew large enough to take on the financial responsibility of a full time pastor, then moving on, he would repeat the process.

My mind wondered as I walked; crispy dry leaves swirling about my feet like swarming busy bees as I walked down the empty streets near my home. Dad and I had done a lot of things together over the years. Like the time we went to Arkansas to camp. The river seemed monstrous and the tour through the hydro electric dam was thrilling. Watching men fish at the mouth of the dam was even more exciting as they reeled in the long snake-like gar fish with the long shiny snouts, oily bodies, and violently flapping tails. The drift wood was pulled up on the river banks by the tons. I scavenged through the dried debris, wishing Danny had come along, as I picked up the more unusual shaped pieces and jammed them into my pockets to take home.

Of course there were always the frequent fishing trips down to the lake, too. Uncle Fred, my Dad’s oldest brother, would hook up the boat and all three of us would drive down to the lake, about thirty miles south, for a few hours of fishing. I especially recalled the time we left the boat home and decided just to fish from the bank. Getting out of the car at the top of the wooded hill, I trotted down the well worn path ahead, my tackle box rattling and my pole bobbing. “Be careful,” Dad called from the car far up the hill as he watched me disappear into the thick trees. “I’ll be right behind ya'” he assured.

I was flopped on the ground and bating my hook by the time Dad came into view. The tree line gave way several yards before the lake splashed up on the bank so I could see him clearly as he plodded into the open. Just as he reached the waters edge, suddenly his fishing pole jerked violently backward as though he had hooked a whopper. His head snapped around with an angry jerk and then he saw it. His expression immediately flashed astonishment. He stared back up the winding dirt path. His line had snagged in the trees as he walked the trail and he had not noticed it until the line ran out. He now had the privilege of trying to untangle a couple of hundred feet of nylon line strung in the trees. I’ll never forget the look on his face.

Smiling to myself as I walked, kicking an empty can from my path, I remembered another time when I had begged Dad to take me down one evening to what we called the “lagoon.” It was actually a tiny lake, really an inlet, from the Des Moines river. It was full of debris; logs, rusty cans, glass bottles, car tires, broken glasses, rusting nails, bicycle wheels, beer bottles, shoe horns, pocket knives, discarded sewer pipe, distributer caps, spark plugs, clothes hangers, bobby pins, ink pins, tennis shoes, broken headlights, scrap wire, paper, plastic lids, mermaids, sea monsters, and who knows what else lay under those murky waters. It was fun to fish, however. Big carp and catfish lay in those waters but people rarely caught them. Mostly we caught little tiny bullheads, blue gills, and chubs probably not more than a couple of inches long. It was fun though! Often we brought home the tiny shining trophies to put in the fish bowls for public display.

After finally convincing Dad to come along, we unpacked the gear near the edge of the water. The summer evening was cool, making fishing comfortable, although humid. I crawled to the edge of my favorite log, dropped my line, and immediately pulled in a tiny blue gill. Holding it up for Dad to see, I saw him winding up to cast. “He’s gonna’ go for those big catfish out there,” I figured. Reeling back on his line to take in the slack, he immediately snagged his hook on some of the subsurface junk. Removing my catch from the hook, I dropped it once again into the darkened waters watching Dad struggle to free his line. A moment later he deliberately snapped his line and reeled in the slack. I studied him as he sat down and once again attached hook, sinker, and bobber to his line.

Feeling the little tug on my line, I quickly pulled another small fish from the water. He flapped frantically against the fallen log until I was able to remove him. “I wonder if I’ll catch any more bullheads from this spot,” I mused. Rebating, I dropped my line into the chill water over the edge of the log once again and turned to look at Dad just as he wound up and let his line fly. It struck the water with a tiny thunder clap, the sinker plunging the hook instantly from sight. His bobber bounced erratically on the surface. I saw Dad reverse his reel handle once again to remove slack, and then stopped abruptly. He pulled gently and then more firmly. His hook had snagged something once again. With a firm look of determination, he again jerked his line to free his hook. The line broke.

As I removed another fish, still no bullhead, from my tiny hook especially employed for miniature catches, I watched my Dad as he repeated reattaching hook, sinker, and bobber to his line. “Surely he’ll have better luck this time,” I prayed. I watched him wind up, leaning backwards at the waist to gain leverage for his cast. His pole came forward, his armed line swinging in a wide arch. Suddenly he released his grip as his pole balked; nearly jerking from his grasp. I saw what had happened immediately. Dad spun around to see it for himself. His line at snagged in a tree directly behind him. His line was entangled high up in the branches. I looked closely at the tree, as though seeing it for the first time, and saw It was decorated as a Christmas tree with dozens of nylon lines and colorful bobbers. Dad hadn’t been the first to catch that tree.

Returning my attention to the task at hand, I continued pulling small fish from beneath the log. “There must be hundreds of ’em down there,” I thought to myself. Dad ought’a come down here with me and stop foolin’ around up there on the bank. After removing a couple of more fish from my hook, I turned to see what Dad was doing. His tackle box was closed, his pole disassembled, his armed were folded, and he sat cross legged on the bank watching me intently; His face expressionless. I chuckled to myself as I walked, side stepping a fluttering newspaper, Dad and I had many good times together and I could rarely think of any time that wasn’t fun when I was with my Dad.

The brusk wind slapped at my exposed face, my jacket edges flapping like a flag on a windy day. I kicked through piles of clustered leaves, my feet thudding firmly on the pavement. I rounded the long stretch, really two blocks in one because there was no through street, which passed directly in front of Danny Johnson’s house. I gazed at the familiar house as I drifted by but didn’t see anyone stirring. “Wonder where Dan is,” I thought. I hadn’t recalled seeing him in school today.

Crossing the street, I passed all the familiar houses on my block. Finally coming to Pat’s green house on the corner. His dad had just repainted last summer. “It looks nice,” I thought wading through more leaves bunched about the corner of his yard. An arctic blast of cold wind hammered me, nearly knocking me over, as I turned the corner to walk the remaining few yards to my house. I bent my head to ward off the cold and crossed the corner of Pat’s yard, stepping out on to my street. The wind died suddenly and I raised my head and froze, my feet as though instantly caught in gummy mud.

Flanking the house from nearly every side were automobiles. Two or three sat parked in the street. Three or four more were pulled up into our double gravel driveway. The wind seemed to suddenly drop another twenty degrees but it wasn’t nearly as cold as my heart. I knew, somehow, what those cars meant. They were not unusual. We had company all the time. Visiting pastors from out of town, missionaries home for a few months, friends of my sisters home from college, visitors from church, families from the country churches Dad had pastored, Uncle Jimmy stopping in as he drove his big truck across country, or relatives come to visit all were welcome and there were always extra cars parked in our drive. Even during his illness and three week stay in the hospital, it wasn’t unusual for friends to drop by to try and encourage Mom. Something about those cars made them ominous – angry Iowa thunderheads, blackened and heavy with rain rolling in to surround the city – and for a moment I refused to move.

The cold stiff wind picked up once again and I again bent forward, leaning into the wind, clutching my books even tighter to my body as though they might save me from the horrible thing that was about to happen.

My feet crunched abnormally loud on the gravel of the driveway as I passed between to of the parked cars. No Corky, my little fox terrier, to greet me today? I recognized the cars and knew whom I would see sitting in the living room. The aluminum door creaked strangely as it opened. The enclosed porch was empty and as cold as a morgue. The porch swingm, which my sister Ruth and I loved to swing on so much during the summer, hung motionless in the quiet of the porch. It needed painting, I noticed. I did not want to open the front door to that living room. I stared at the door as though it were a black cave waiting to swallow me whole. As in slow motion I reached my hand toward the knob and twisted. Tiny fragments of conversation drifted through the crack and touched my cold ears. I pushed slightly, the door giving way, and walked in, standing momentarily framed in the doorway.

Pastor Nettleton sat directly across the room, my Dad’s friend and close Christian brother. There was the familiar face of Joe Wilkerson. He and Dad had been preaching buddies for years. Joe played the violin when he preached, I recalled, as I stood in the open door. There’s Aunt Mil, Mom’s sister. I sure liked Aunt Mil, she made the best cookies! Other faces loomed in the slightly darkened room. My eyes clouded, I couldn’t make them out.

Looking down to clear my vision, I saw Mom sitting in the rocking chair. I stood, leaving the door ajar, holding my books loosely, and waiting for her to speak. Her face turned upward and her voice was low when she spoke. “Philip, your Dad died today Son,” My books slipped from my fingers and clattered to the floor. I collapsed into her lap as though the strings of a puppet had just been clipped, writhing uncontrollably like a demented snake in her lap. “I know it,” I sobbed, “I know it.” “How do you know it Honey,” Mom questioned gently, worried

that perhaps someone had somehow gotten the message to me at school.

“I don’t know,” I finally said coughing, “I just know it.” It was actual years later I realized that I had known Dad had died the moment I rounded the corner of our neighbor’s yard and saw the large number of cars parked about our home. Somehow those cars spoke of death. Her words had only confirmed what my heart had already told me.

The weeks following Dad’s death seemed to rotate slowly. I played with friends just as I always had but somehow they seemed different. Finally Danny and his brother got up the courage to speak as we played together in the front yard one day. “I’m sorry about your dad, Phil,” Dan’s brother said softly. “Thanks,” I mumbled, not knowing what more to say. “It must be kinda’ hard to loose your dad.” “Yeah, it’s…” my voice trailed off. Dad had been led to Christ in his late twenties while living

in Denver, Colorado and working for a local news paper. Later he moved his family to Iowa and began working for another paper in the mailing department. He fell in love with the Word of God and studied it constantly. One of my most vivid memories is of stumbling downstairs in the early morning hours to crawl in bed with my folks. There he would be, seated behind the snackbar-like breakfast counter he had built for the kitchen. The table top would be covered with study books, his notebook opened and various colored ink pens scattered about. The Bible was always front and center. He would see me pass by, blinking rapidly from the harsh kitchen light but rarely said anything as I passed, heading for the bedroom. I saw the same picture so many times, it has been burned into my memory for ever. I knew, without my Dad ever saying so, that the Bible was the most important thing in his life.

I learned how to present the Gospel to the lost by watching my Dad. By age ten, I had led every kid in the neighborhood to the Lord a half a dozen times over. I always followed the same procedure Dad did. I even concluded my presentation by holding out my hand and saying, “Sir, take my hand and let me lead you in a simple prayer. Dear Lord…” Well, that’s how Dad always did it and he led a lot of people to Christ, I knew.

I had heard and seen Dad preach and teach the Word dozens of times. We built a club house in our backyard and, you guessed it, held Sunday services, except it was on Saturdays, every week. I taught the lesson, Jimmy Dutton always took offerings, and of course we always had an altar call.

“What you wanna’ be when you grow up, phil,” a friend of Dad’s whom he had led to Christ a couple of years earlier inquired. “A preacher,” I confessed without hesitation. “Like your dad?” “Sure!” I responded with enthusiasm. “What else?” Dad had felt strongly the call to preach. His weekends were

dedicated to preaching the Gospel and pastoring but he was not full time. Finally the day came when he felt the full time calling upon his life. “I think I’ll get some revival meetings scheduled,” he said to mom. “I’ll start with meetings just around Des Moines. Maybe some of the country churches would be interested in going for a week long meeting with preaching every night. I’ll try it for awhile that-a-way and see how it goes. Then if God opens doors farther away, I’ll give up my job and go full time.” And so he did.

“Mornin’ Willy,” Bob Mcferson called from his wound down window, “ready for work. Dad jumped in the passenger side, tossing his Bible in ahead of him.

“You bet, Brother,” he said slamming the door behind him. The car pulled away from the front of the house, heading for Euclid street and the plant where they worked.

“Willy,” Bob began, “I been thinkin’ about all we’ve discussed since you led me to Christ,” his southern accent forming his words distinctly. “What you reckon Heaven is gonna’ be like.” Later Bob told us they spent the entire drive into work speculating on what it would be like to some day be with the Lord in Heaven.

Less than two hours after clocking in, Dad became ill. “Willy,” his supervisor said, “you look terrible.

“I feel terrible,” he confessed. “I better see the nurse.” As he walked across the large plant, he felt faint and decided he better run and get to the infirmary before he passed out. Stumbling into the nursing facilities, he announced he needed help and promptly vomited blood. Within the hour he was on his way to a local Des Moines hospital. They lost his pulse three times during the trip.

“I feel great now,” Dad confessed. “I gotta’ get checked out of this place ‘cuz’ I got the revival meeting to start tonight.

“Willy,” Mom soothed, “you’re way to sick for that. The doctor can’t figure out what’s causing you to bleed internally. You’ve gotta’ have some tests run to find out what’s wrong. “No,” Dad insisted, “I feel good. I gotta’ get out of here.” “You feel good,” she instructed, “because they gave you lots

of whole blood when you came in. You can’t leave the hospital till they figure out what’s causing the internal bleeding. He lay quiet for awhile and then said,

“Noreen, I think you better call Brother Nettleton. I believe I need to talk with him.”

After Dad’s pastor and good friend had spent some time together, Mom learned Dad had planned his funeral. Somehow he felt he would never be leaving the hospital again and he said so. “I’m never leaving this place alive, Noreen.”

“Oh, stop talkin’ that way Honey,” Mom sniffed, “you’ll be out and soon.”

“No,” he confirmed. I’ll never leave this place alive. After three weeks of blood transfusions, more than twenty-one pints, and two surgeries, he died.

Riding with Mom to Wichita, Kansas to visit relatives perhaps three or four years later, I asked her to tell me in detail of the last day she spent with Dad in the hospital. “What happened that day Mom, you’ve never told me.” It was getting dark and she switched on the car lights, illuminating the darkened road ahead.

“I had prayed and asked the Lord,” she began slowly, her voice soft and barely audible above the rush of passing air, road noise, and engine noise, but growing stronger as she conversed. “Your dad had suffered a great deal during those three weeks. Bob Mcferson and Joe Wilkerson took turns sitting with him. Toward the end he was unable to talk. He grew violent at times and thrashed about in his bed and had to be restrained. Bob, you know well Bob’s a pretty large fella’ and he was about the only one who could keep him in bed when he became violent. Somehow Bob’s presence and voice seemed to calm Willy during those times. Your Dad was withering away, Philip. His skin had shrunken tightly around his bones. His color was gray. I’m pretty sure he was unable to see at all in the closing days before his death. “Why would that of been, Mom?” “Well, you remember all the eye surgery he had on his

retinas? There never seemed to be any eye contact after he went into a comma the first time. I’m pretty sure his last retina in his good eye detached from all the thrashing around he did for awhile.

“Anyway,” she said, switching the turn signals on to change lanes for passing, “he steadily grew worse. They removed twothirds of his stomach to stop the internal bleeding but it didn’t help. He was receiving blood transfusions nearly every day and usually he would improve after each transfusion for a few hours but always seemed to get worse shortly thereafter.

I told the Lord,” she said dropping back into her lane after passing the growling truck, “I wanted to be with him the day he died. They called then… “Who, Mom?” “The hospital, and said I better come as quickly as I could.

I called Milly, my sister, and she met me there. Willy wasn’t able to talk but somehow I knew he was mentally alert. We, that is Milly and I, stood by his bed and talked to him. I sang songs to him and talked to him about going home to be with the Lord. He seemed to be disturbed and somehow I knew he was worried about leaving his family alone. I assured him all would be well and that the Lord would take care of us.

“Willy,” I said, “you said you wanted to die and they just wouldn’t let you here in this place.”

“After that Philip, I pulled the life support tubes and needles from his legs. His vanes had collapsed in his arms and they had inserted the IV’s in his legs. He lay quietly as I talked, prayed, and sang to him. Soon his breathing began to lengthen.” “What ya mean by that Mom?” I questioned. “Well, Milly and I began to notice that longer and longer

periods of time were between his inhaling and exhaling. Eventually, he just stopped breathing completely. During the time I stood by his bed, Philip, I saw Jesus appear in front of me. “Were ya’ afraid?” I interrupted. “No, no! I was at peace. The Lord said he would take him home now and I let him go. It was a wonderful experience. “Was Jesus kinda’ like a ghost or what,” I wondered out loud. “No, he looked as real as any person standing on the other

side of the bed. It was wonderful,” she repeated. We fell silent. The motor seemed hushed; the whistling wind sliding by muffled; we seem to be floating. Something holy had just been spoken and neither of us wished to disturb the tranquility.

This chapter serves a double purpose. It is extremely important how fathers lead their children. My Father taught me without ever really knowing he was doing so. Although we did not have family devotions on a daily bases, Mom and Dad always took turns reading to my sister and I each night before we went to bed from Bible story books. It was finding my Dad behind the kitchen table early mornings, however, that taught me the importance of the Bible. His natural love for the lost coming to know the Lord taught me by example – how to show compassion for those outside of Christ. Personal practice is perhaps the best teacher. Dad’s, be an example before your children.

I counsel with many who come from terrible family backgrounds. Moms who never cared, brothers and sisters who abused each other, and dads ignored, brutalized, and sometimes even molested their children. Many have nothing to look back on in their childhood relationships with their fathers, in particular, for which to be thankful. For the Christian, however, we do have a Heavenly Father. This is the other purpose of this chapter.

Laying in bed one night several years ago, I was meditating on something which I have since forgotten. I recall I was asking my Heavenly Father something specific and suddenly, without warning, as I mentally prayed, I heard myself calling my Heavenly Father “Dad.” I was horrified! I felt as though I had blasphemed. Then I remembered that Romans 8:15 confirms He is “Abba, Father,” or literally “Dad.”

If you are reading this chapter and have unpleasant memories of your relationship with your earthly father, or if in fact you never knew your father, confess God as your Heavenly Father and begin to walk with a personal relationship with Him through Christ. Learn to know God as Father through prayer, through praise, and through worship. Learn to talk with Him as though he were with you, since He is, and acknowledge His presence in your life consistently in everything you face. Allow the Heavenly Father to become personal. Jesus taught this when His disciples requested that He teach them how to pray. Jesus began His teaching by saying, “Our Father which art in Heaven.” Our Father? That’s personal. Your Father is waiting for such acknowledgement no matter what your relationship with your earthly father may or may not have been. Simply acknowledge, confess, Him as Lord God; not for salvation but for love’s sake because He loves you.


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