“Be strong.” She said.
My mother’s words pierced every cell of my body that morning and they have continued to resonate with me to this day. Her tone was strong and yet somehow it still relayed the underlying heartbreak of what she was about to tell me. I knew in that moment of quick introspect, that a door had closed behind me.
Despite her command to muscle up, no amount of strength could ever open the door that I had closed.
Behind that door had been the simple, complete, and relatively sheltered life of the small Nebraska farming community where I grew up. It was a place where everyone knew each other, perhaps a little too well. This closeness and familiarity only led to caring in the long run.
Every evening in our small town, the six o’clock whistle blew, alerting the end of the day. Dad would arrive home, giving mom their traditional three kisses as she stood over the stove cooking dinner. My sister and I would then begin our ritual of grabbing his legs, and he’d give us a ride through the kitchen and into the bathroom where he would then up for the evening activities.
Dad was a gentle, kind, and loving man. He was a tall man with a physically fit frame.
His dark hair and big, green eyes radiated humility, honesty, and strength.
At the ages of three and four, my sister and I were only dimly aware of what Dad really did with his days. We were just glad he was home as we stomped from room to room, each wearing one of the work boots he had carefully left by the back door.
As I raced toward adulthood, I began to understand with great pride who my father really was. By the time I had grown, Dad had built half the homes in our small town — homes that only had their doors locked when the carnival came to town. He was respected everywhere, as both a businessman and a carpenter. People waited for months to entrust Kenny with building their most valuable possession.
“George called again. He’s wondering if the house plans are finished. He’s excited that you’re almost done with Campbell’s home,” Mom said.
“After that I’m hanging doors at Schmidt’s and then it’s George’s turn,” Dad chuckled. “I’ll give him a call.”
He was always busy with a smile on his face.
Despite his busy schedule, Dad found time to coach my softball team, take me to band lessons early in the morning, and attend all of my volleyball and cheerleading events.
One day, he announced that he had bought land next to the railroad tracks. He had a dream. “I’m going to build a trailer court. A safe, affordable place for 30 families to live,” he said. “Want to go to the trailer court with me?” he’d ask. “I need to turn the sprinklers on and mow the grass.”
I’d hop in the baby blue Dodge pickup that always smelled like vinyl. Peppermint candies and a pipe filled with cherry blend tobacco lay in the ashtray. He’d drive down the winding gravel road that led to rows of well-kept trailers, exchanging waves with each car that passed. People would be sitting on lawn chairs in front of their homes, enjoying the evening. Dad loved his “little community.”
In college, I felt inspired to start a Bible study in my sorority house. Dad was proud of me for that. I’d often ask him for advice on questions that came up. One girl asked me about her grandfather who had committed suicide. Could he be in Heaven?
“Only God knows that man’s heart,” Dad stated firmly and without judgment.
About this time, Dad developed a virus in his eye similar to shingles. His faith was strong, but the pain increased. This made it difficult for him to drive, go to church, or even walk outside in the sunlight. He traveled to see specialists, but nothing they gave him seemed to relieve the pain. He tried doing his daily work of carpentry and taking care of his rental properties and trailer court. I remember one night in my junior year that I received the news that my dad had been at the trailer court checking on a young boy and his family who had just become tenants. Shortly after visiting, my Dad drove down the familiar road and crossed the tracks on his way to visit another family.
“Susie, your dad has been in a car accident. He’s been hit by a train.”, I was told.
As I hurried to the hospital, there was one thing that kept me from losing it.
I simply prayed.
Once I arrive and took a look I was surprised to find that my father didn’t look as bad as I had expected. The next morning, Dad had a six-hour surgery that removed a small part of his brain.
“He is lucky to be alive,” the surgeon said.
My father chained to his hospital bed as he lay helpless and protected from touching the wounds on his head. It didn’t take long before my dad was up and tenaciously walking the halls of the hospital. Within a week he was back home with broken ribs and bandaged head, lying in a hospital-style bed in the basement family room. At forty-five years old, my dad still had a lot of life to live.
It would take time, but I was sure God had a plan.
After about a month, I was home for Christmas break and watched in dismay as he desperately tried to get out of bed on his own to read Christmas cards from people all over the state. Tears welled up in his eyes at the immense outpouring of love. The support was overwhelming.
After the break, I quickly jumped back into my studies. I had a two week Cheerleading “boot camp” and tryouts in March that required going in front of a panel of judges. I wanted to be prepared and had called home for my saddle shoes to get ready. My father answered the phone.
“Hi, Dad. How are you feeling?” I asked.
“Oh, I’m doing OK. How are you?”, he said.
“I need my saddle shoes for tryouts. Can you send them?”, I asked inquisitively.
“Yes, we can,” he said.
It was a short and sweet conversation that I will always remember.
A couple days after this little interaction with my father, I was awoken by a call from my mother. I immediately wondered why she would be calling me at such an early hour of the morning and to my dismay I heard:
“Susie, I need you to BE STRONG. Your dad has shot himself.”, she said.
Her words punctured me deeply and my mind escaped me.
I was told a piercing wail came out of me.
“Was I dreaming? What had just happened?”, I asked myself.
My brother and I were about fifty miles from getting to our house when we noticed and ambulance pass by. We quickly wondered if it was our father and called home. Was he the one in that ambulance?
It wasn’t. He had died before we could make it home.
Over the course of the next week, shock is the only emotion that I can recognize.
I was in complete abandon. Shock took over who I was in the moments prior to learning of my father’s death.
Once my brother and I arrived, we quickly noticed the house was swarming with people. Friends and relatives had come from across the country to be present with and support us. At the funeral, several days later, even more people had arrived. The church was so full of friends, family and acquaintances that all of the seats were taken and the basement was being used to provide more space to those that mourned alongside us. There were speakers and seats set up to accommodate the overflow. All of these people had come to honor the carpenter, a humble man who had impacted so many in just the simple way he lived his life.
The day of the funeral was a cold and rainy one. I perceived this as a message that God was crying. The rain was His tears flowing from Heaven.
I questioned: “Why would my all-powerful God be crying? How could He let my father die?”.
These moments made me challenge my faith and I was confused with the immense pain that I was feeling.
After the funeral, I went back to school not knowing how I would go on.
Somehow, I found myself wandering from class to class. I remember reflecting that life was beautiful. In my awareness of dad’s life-and-death battle, I discovered how precious and delicate life was. It seemed so strange that life was just… somehow… continuing.
How could Dad really be gone when he had done so much to help others realize their dreams?
It was then that two thoughts hit me, one right after the other. One was that Dad wasn’t really gone — not completely. He was in the laughter of the children he cared about in the trailer court. He was in the families’ homes that he built. He was here in the glistening drops of rain as I walked across campus. He was everywhere.
The other thought was that fact that I, his daughter, was standing in the middle of one of his dreams. Dad’s dream had been to raise a family, to contribute to his community, and to leave something of value behind. He had contributed; my sister, brother, and I, who were people with loving hearts and good strong values. It was clear that Dad had accomplished his dream. And in fact, I was a part of his legacy in the world; I was part of him that was still alive.
Once back at school, I started to live with a new sense of purpose. I began to open up to my friends about my faith. I wrote Bible verses and positive quotes, and placed them throughout the sorority house. I allowed God to be in control.
I knew I would never fully know the reason Dad committed suicide, and that was OK.
That was faith.
As time passed on, I began to lead the cheerleading squad in prayer before the games and continued to lead the Bible study in the sorority house. I was also teaching small children in Sunday school while mentoring others in their faith.
I have been fortunate to witness that many of the people, who were in my life at that time, went on and have lived in Christian leadership roles and have led amazing lives of charity.
One woman, who committed her life to Christ at the sorority Bible study, to this day, helps her husband in one of the largest charity organization of the world. Another friend became a Pastor and passionately ministers to people through his counseling. I even have a friend that manages a Christian camp for youth. The list goes on and on.
Through faith, I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and kept going while giving thanks for the JOY during a very tragic time in my life.
I got through this tough time in my life knowing there is a plan far greater than I will ever understand. I am empowered not by my own doing, but by God.
The saying, “actions speak louder than words” is so true. I didn’t set out to change people’s idea of how to cope with loss; it was faith that led my actions.
I learned that life is about the journey.
It’s about rejoicing in the good times, staying thankful in the bad times, and knowing life is about experiencing both. The joy comes from knowing that I got through it by the grace of God.
Thank God I have Faith.