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“A Father's Answer"

Diana L. Keathley
Award of Outstanding Merit - $1,000

Diana Keathley is a retired teacher of Spanish and English as a Second Language. She has a B.A. in Spanish and Latin American Studies from Oklahoma State University and a M.Ed. in TESL/Second Language Acquisition from University of Central Oklahoma. She also writes songs, poetry, editorials, and true inspirational stories from her life. Her work has been published in The Tulsa World and Arizona Literary Magazine, with entries pending for consideration in other publications.

It is a stark realization when we see that we are the ‘older generation.’ Unprepared and kiddish as we feel inside, the torch has been passed to us. How in the world will we carry it? I’m very sure our parents felt the same way. And we will do it in the same manner they did, with the help and by the grace of God. We will pass the wisdom we have gained from our mistakes on to our children and pray they listen so they won’t have to make the same ones themselves. We will look at the errors of our parents, knowing the consequences we suffered, and strive to do things a little better for our own children. Such is the nature of life in this world – decades of searching, sometimes by trial and error, for that which is good and right, for love, true joy, and peace of mind; searching for a way to live in this world, but not be of it. In the end, when we are less distracted by the world itself, and when we are better ready to learn it, we find the simple truth that all those good things we longed for are found in one place – in God himself, and that all along He has been expressing himself, revealing himself in the loving relationships of family and friends around us, drawing us step-by-step, year-by-year closer to Him. And it is ironic that He often uses death to teach us about life – real life, eternal life with Him.


One of my favorite scriptures is Romans 8:28, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” Those comforting words have served me well in many difficult times of hardship and loss. I’ve seen their truth borne out in countless circumstances in my own life. When I have been tempted to look back at some dark and painful periods and say,


“Why, Lord, did I have to go through that?” or “How could I not see the mistake I was making?”, the Spirit has brought to mind that verse and shown me, more clearly every time, that in spite of my limited knowledge, my misinformation, or lack of understanding, and no matter how devious and deadly the schemes of the evil one to throw me off track, derail my purpose, and render me useless, God has always been faithful to turn those things around which were meant for evil and work them for my good. So that I now stand with the apostle Paul, “Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ…” (Philippians 1:6) From the moment He prayed for me, and for all future believers, two thousand years ago, Jesus has always had my back. He’s always been my best friend, even long before I knew Him. The months surrounding my father’s death were no exception. In fact, in retrospect, God revealed Himself in marvelous ways to many in my family through and amid the painful circumstances of Dad’s passing, giving us peace and strength, and in those poignant, intimate moments with eternity, He has let us glimpse the height, and breadth and depth of His love for each one of his children.


I was a classic example of a “Daddy’s girl.” When my brother Kenny came along just eleven months behind me, I was still a baby myself. My Dad used to joke, when people would ask about us, that we were “twins – on the installment plan.” While Mom was busy with the newest addition, Dad was the one who took care of my immediate needs. He cut my food and fed me, smashing my baked potatoes to a perfect paste of half butter and half potato, and flying the airplane into the hanger, to get the green beans down me. He helped me with socks and patiently found the tiny holes in the ankle straps that buckled my white patent leather sandals. He brushed my hair, and on hair-washing days, he painstakingly combed the tangles out, always working from the bottom up. On a few occasions he tried his hand at making my pin curls, though they were never as secure as when Mom did them. He even trimmed my bangs once as an unsolicited ‘favor’ to my mother. However, they turned out so uneven, after whacking the whole handful of hair in one long sawing motion that he continued to trim, in a persevering effort to get the buggers straight. I ultimately had only about an inch of fringe hanging from my hairline, far above my eyebrows. Needless to say, he only did that little chore the one time! On weekdays, late in the afternoon I sensed when it was time to start listening for the sound of the Ford Fairlane pulling into the driveway. Sometimes Dad would stop at the grocery store to pick up a few things we needed before the weekend shopping. If he was much later than I thought he should be, I would fret and hound Mom every minute or two with my insistent question, “When is Daddy going to be home?!” Finally, I would hear the car in the driveway, and race to hide behind the front door, to jump out and scare him as he came in. Many a time, Dad stumbled through the living room with a grocery sack in each arm, and me hanging for dear life onto his leg, trying not to step on me and fumbling to keep his balance long enough to set the groceries on the dining room table before he scooped me up and gave me a bear hug. The best part of my day was just beginning. He used to  wrestle and play with us kids on the floor, and ham that he was, would feign injury, telling my older sisters, or Ken, “Oh, you broke my leg!” or “Whew! You’re too strong for me. Uncle! Uncle!” Well, being the daddy’s girl that I was, I thought it was my job to take care of him as much as it was his to take care of me. I would shout “Don’t you hurt my daddy!” and lay into the others with both arms flailing so fast, that Dad would get tickled at my ‘windmill treatment’ and have to fess up and call the game off so that no one would really get hurt. On Sundays, he would brush out the dried pin curls, fold my lace anklets down perfectly and tie the big bow just right in the back of my dress to go to Sunday school and church, even though he wasn’t going with us, which bothered me immensely at the time and which I didn’t understand until many years later. He was the epitome of love and strength, wisdom and safety for me. He knew everything, and could do no wrong, well, except the bangs. Those were blissfully happy early years.


Then, somewhere at about five or six years old, I started having horrible episodes of fear. I think they began shortly after Uncle Oscar died. My Grandma Harney’s brother Oscar was scary enough when he was alive – old, and scraggly looking with long yellow fingernails, and false teeth that he would thrust out suddenly at us kids for the sole purpose of hearing us squeal. He would laugh gleefully at his success and then wiggle his long fingernails making the eerie “Whooooo” noise to get another rise out of us. Being only five years old, I didn’t understand his odd sense of humor, and those were not particularly good experiences with him. Then suddenly, there he was lying all stiff and waxy-looking in an open casket in Grandma’s living room. Everyone was sad and crying. I didn’t know what to think of it all, and it raised so many questions, questions I would struggle for years to find answers to. The fear came on unexpectedly after that, at the mere mention of illness, death, heaven, hell, eternity. My thoughts would spiral out of control and waves of sheer terror would wash over me. I never knew when it would hit me.


One such occasion was triggered by a turtle expiring in the science room at McKinley Elementary School. I believe I was in second grade. I cried through the whole class period, though the teacher tried to comfort me with thoughts of heaven, comparing its beauty with the rainbow-like colors on the inside of the turtle shell. Her words were prophetic, but it was not comforting at the time to think of living in a shell forever, no matter how pretty it was. I was upset all day at school and inconsolable by the time Dad got home from work. I climbed in his lap and asked him to tell me about heaven. What would it be like? How would it look? Would we be able to walk around? Would we all be together? Would there be room for everyone? That was a genuine concern for me, since I had a very large and loving extended family on both my mom’s and dad’s side. I had so many questions. That night was my first realization that my Daddy didn’t know everything. There were questions he could not answer. At least he was honest with me. I never thought until years later about how hard it must have been for him to look in his daughter’s adoring, searching eyes and say those words so void of comfort, “I don’t know, honey.” He didn’t try to make anything up. He was quiet for several minutes before he went on. “I don’t know what heaven will be like. But if God can make mountains and trees, I’m sure heaven will be beautiful.” His answer seemed inadequate at best, for me, and I suspect now, for him too.


The fear episodes recurred off and on until I was well into high school. How God finally delivered me from that is another whole story. But long after the episodes had stopped, and I had grown in faith, and was on with my life, old fears forgotten, God did not forget. And I am sure my Dad never forgot either, that nagging question about heaven that I had so desperately needed to know and that he had failed so miserably to answer.


After many healthy years, and then a decade of dealing with Parkinson’s disease, which had many challenges, Dad was diagnosed with lung cancer in the fall of 1999. He went through a series of radiation treatments, which at first he sustained fairly well for his eighty-one years. But late in the following spring his health began to decline rather quickly, so my next-older sister, Vernelle, and I would take turns at night staying with Mom and Dad in their home in Broken Arrow. Even though it was a sad premise – the ultimate demise of our beloved “Daddy” – those last few months of Dad’s life were, even at the time, a sweet and precious gift from God, riddled with heavenly encounters and glimpses of another life and realm, overflowing with God’s love and presence.


Like the times when Dad would get up at night to go to the bathroom and being always unsteady and off balance from the Parkinson’s disease, would almost lose his footing and fall but for the steadying hand that stabilized him, by his own account, more than once. He told my sister of one time in particular when he turned to thank Mom for her help – he had felt a strong, gentle hand on his elbow that had kept him from going to the floor when his feet wouldn’t move. Regaining his balance, he turned to express his appreciation only to find that she was sound asleep on the other side of the bed, facing the opposite direction! Then there was an evening, on Vernelle’s watch, when Dad lowered the newspaper he was reading to ask her in an oh-by-the-way sort of question, “Who was that young man at the table with us at lunch today?”  My sister was taken off guard, and didn’t know quite how to respond. She said she didn’t understand what he meant, and reminded him that there had only been mother and she at the table with him. He looked at my sister incredulously, and very exasperated, he insisted somewhat condescendingly, “Well, I know you and your mother! But who was the young man sitting next to me?” To that, she could only reply, truthfully, “I don’t know, Dad. I really don’t know who it was.” When my sister told me about the incident later, how matter-of-fact his question had been, and his exasperation at her noncomprehension of such a simple inquiry, we came to the same conclusion, that perhaps Dad had actually seen someone, someone very real, but that she couldn’t see.    


Another time I sat down beside Dad after breakfast, thinking how I would broach the subject that he should drink more water. The nurse said the toxins were building up in his system and needed to be flushed out. We had to find a way to get more water down him. We would leave a glass of water on the table by his chair, but often hours went by with no more than a few sips taken. I didn’t want to nag. Dad was always such a thinking man, surely I could appeal to his reasoning and get him to understand how critically important it was to keep his body well hydrated. I patted his leg and began, “Dad, there’s something really important I need to talk to you about…” As I paused to form the next words, only for a split second, he covered my hand with his, patting it, and with the sweetest, most celestial smile, he nodded his head and said, “I know – Jesus Christ.” I was flabbergasted! Much as I love the Lord, He was far from the subject of my thoughts in that particular moment, but apparently very near to Dad, and very much on his mind.


The most amazing incident, however, at least from my perspective, happened near the end, just a day or two before he died. Mom and Dad had moved in with Vernelle and her husband Oman early in July. Oman had remodeled part of their house into a suite for our parents where they could still have some privacy and their own space, yet be close to immediate help when needed. For a month or so Dad held his own, with a mix of good days and bad days. The first week in August, however, he took a turn for the worse. We were all pretty vigilant about being there, wanting to spend as much time as we could with Dad in those brief moments of consciousness. But as his pain grew worse and the morphine level was increased, he slipped into longer and longer periods of comatose sleep, only rousing occasionally with a moan of pain. The family was all around, and while Dad was ‘resting’ we would visit, or several of us would sit down to pray together. Sometimes we would each be lost in our own silent thoughts and prayers, but we all knew we were just waiting for the inevitable. One afternoon Mom, Vernelle, Karen, our oldest sister, and I were all in Dad’s room together. They were talking quietly in the sitting area at one end of the large room. I was seated about halfway up the adjacent wall, closer to the side of the room where Dad’s bed was. I was silently reading my Bible, soaking in all the passages that have been especially helpful, uplifting and comforting to me. Dad had not been awake to speak or move on his own for a couple of days.


Suddenly, he stretched his arm out, and calling me by name, he said, “Diana, come here.” I was startled and excited that he was awake. I dragged my chair quickly to his bedside to hear what he was going to say, praying that I wouldn’t miss a word of it. With a broad sweeping gesture of his left arm he described, in a clearer voice than I had heard in many days, what he saw. “It’s like a paintbrush – a rainbow of colors -- beautiful, brilliant colors…” The stroking motion of his arm stopped and he brought it back to his side. Still staring, as if through the wall at something else, he added in a quiet but very distinct voice, “I see five angels.” I wanted to hear more. I may have even asked him what else he saw. But when I looked at him, his eyes were closed again. He had resumed the shallow, irregular breathing of his coma-like state. Those were the last intelligible words he spoke, to my knowledge. I was euphoric as I repeated the message to the others in the room, who had witnessed the exchange but hadn’t heard as clearly as I had. We knew that Dad had described to us a heavenly scene that he was experiencing as God prepared to take him home. And we knew what a rare and sacred privilege it was for us to have the eye-witness account of someone who was on the threshold of stepping into the heavenly life. We were enthralled and basking in the love and comfort that God had so miraculously shed upon us. As we marveled at the encounter and repeated the events for those who were not present in the room, the question occurred to me “Why me?” Why had Dad called my name? I knew it wasn’t that he loved me any more than my sisters. Mom had been his sweetheart and helpmate for fifty-seven years. Why had God chosen me to receive and relate that heavenly message? My sisters and mother were no less spiritual, no less women of faith than I. Why me? It was a mystery I couldn’t explain. It was one more demonstration of God’s inexplicable grace – unmerited, undeserved, and unearned favor.


It was only in the weeks and months after Dad’s passing, when I was meditating on the things that had transpired, that the Spirit very matter-of-factly, in one of those eye-opening ‘duh’ moments, reminded me that it was I who, as a young child, had asked my Daddy so earnestly about heaven. He hadn’t had an answer then. But it was only logical and fitting that when Dad finally had an answer to that forty-something-year-old question, he would direct that response, in his last hours here on earth, to me.


It still overwhelms me and brings tears of joy when I think of those events and the marvelous way in which God works all things for good, even the dark and scary periods, to answer questions, to teach us things, and ultimately to draw us to a deeper understanding and a more glorious experience of Him. He is with us, each one individually, when we come face to face with our demons, and when we finally reach the end of ourselves and realize how completely unable and utterly helpless we are to overcome them on our own, there is Jesus, with loving arms wide open, saying “I know you can’t. But I can. Trust me. Lean on me. Rest in me. I’ve already done it for you.”


Glory to God, I now have an answer when my grandchildren ask me to tell them about heaven, not based on supposition, but based on an eye-witness report that both my heavenly Father and my earthly father loved me enough to bring me.    


Printed in the 2012 Edition of The Arizona Literary Magazine;  Published in the Fall of 2011.

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