“Papa’s gone to work for Jesus now.”
When my five-year-old nephew said it, with such bright, shining belief in his eyes, something clicked in my mind. I’d been struggling for days to find the words, the relevance of what I wanted to say, and finally, it all made sense.
A few months ago, I asked my husband, Danny whether I should talk to my daddy about faith. My mother is a strong Catholic woman who instilled her beliefs in all three of her daughters. We were blessed to know Christ the Lord from a young age. Daddy didn’t go to church with us much, if at all. Lately, as I’d been exploring my deeper faith and the calling God had put on my heart to share that faith in blogs, I’d suddenly thought about talking to Daddy about the Lord.
Still, although I spoke to him often on the phone, I never once brought up the subject. Then on March 30th, my mom called to tell me Daddy was gone.
My world crumbled, and in the midst of the loss, I had the gut-wrenching fear that I’d failed. Had God called on me to speak to Daddy? Had I missed some mission He’d laid on my heart? All opportunity was gone, irrevocably lost.
My family isn’t a stranger to loss. This November will be twenty years since my little sister, just eighteen at the time, died from an aneurysm. I thought watching my parents go through that would be the hardest thing I could ever experience. But losing my daddy was different. I was stricken in a way I hadn’t known before. And I couldn’t help but worry about all of the things Daddy and I hadn’t said.
Over the years, I’ve given a few eulogies. My sister’s, both my grandmothers’. But now, I was terrified, certain I couldn’t give Daddy’s eulogy. I didn’t think I could hold it together. I didn’t feel worthy. But when our cousin who would be conducting the service asked us if anyone would speak, Mom said she thought I would. How could I say no? I swallowed up my trepidation and worked to convince myself that I could do this last thing for the man who meant so much to me.
What I didn’t know was that I would be doing it for me, too. I spent the two nights before the funeral working on what I would say, looking at pictures, listening to music, getting lost in memories. Crying until I was sure there were no more tears, then crying some more. And gradually, slowly, something began to be painted in my heart.
Then finally, the night before the funeral, my nephew popped out with those words: “Papa’s gone to work for Jesus now.” And I knew that I’d been waiting to hear it so that I could put all of my jumbled thoughts together.
This was what I said about my daddy at his funeral:
When we were going through photographs the last several days, my baby sister remarked that she was surprised there were so many of Daddy. In some ways, it seemed like he was just in the background. But on the table before us, we had picture after picture of smiles, of dancing, of laughter, of joking and fooling around. Of swagger and handsome blue eyes.
A lot of those pictures, some of our favorite ones, were of him in his work clothes, grease on his hands and on his face. Mom said that’s what she remembers about the first day she met him, dirty face, and all she could see were those pretty blue eyes.
And that big, bold smile.
Mom always said Daddy was the provider. The girls and I knew he worked hard when we were growing up, doing any and all jobs he needed to do to take care of us. It wasn’t easy, and it seemed like he always thought it wasn’t enough. I remember when he would take us to school he always worried that we would be embarrassed to be seen in his dirty old truck. The girls and I never saw it that way. He took care of us. We were proud of that.
And he did it with a smile.
When I went to a retreat in high school, we were given letters written by our family. I have all of those in a box at home, but there’s only one of them that I could almost recite verbatim. Daddy wrote about the big test he was due to take for a promotion at work and how he had to put off taking it when I was born. And later he passed that test, but he said he was never as proud of that as he was of having me. He loved all his girls, especially Mom. After all, he picked her up off the street, fed and clothed her, bought her her first pair of shoes and gave her three beautiful daughters… or at least that the way he told it.
With that sly smile on his face.
In Mawmaw’s diaries, she wrote about how excited she was when her Cecil was born after she thought her baby days were over. All his sisters were so thrilled to have a new little baby. But then Uncle Calvin came along after and he had to share the spotlight, and maybe that’s why he had to work a little harder for attention. Mom said Aunt Winnie and Uncle Frank talked about how he would stand on their kitchen table and dance and put on a show. Probably that’s when he first started developing the swagger.
And always with that smile.
Daddy used to tell about how when they were in high school, Aunt Emily and especially Aunt Carol would constantly check the oil in their cars because the baseball team would be practicing across the street from the house. He would roll his eyes about them. But I when reminded him that apparently showing off and shaking your backside ran in his family…
Then he would give me that smile.
Mawmaw told me about one time Uncle Gary, Daddy’s best friend, came running up to the house screaming, “Cecil killed himself!” And here came her little boy, limping back home covered in blood and calm as could be after falling out of a tree. Daddy always told Mom that he never left home, his Mom and Pop did. Daddy refused to go to with them when they moved, instead staying behind in their house. He was headstrong, and I think because of that, Mawmaw always seemed to know he could take care of himself. And he took care of her. And he took care of us. And he took care of all of his people. That’s what he did. He was the provider.
And he did it with that smile.
I talked to Daddy often the last several years. Since he was retired, he would call regularly, usually to tell me about how he’d harassed the people at Deepwater Horizon. I think retirement was hard for him; he never could find his bearings. But he enjoyed spending a lot of his time with Uncle Mud, teasing about driving Miss Daisy when he would take him to the family reunions. At the end of every call, he’d ask if I needed anything, pressing to be sure my husband was taking care of me because if he wasn’t… I’d laugh and tell him of course he was, then Daddy would say, “Sorry ‘bout that, baby. You know how your daddy is. You know I love you.”
And I could practically see that smile through the phone.
I don’t know if I thought he’d always be there. The practical side of me knew that he wouldn’t be, but somehow, my heart didn’t really ever consider he would be gone.
A new family moved into the house next door to Mom and Daddy about a year ago. A few days before the funeral, those little kids were playing with my nephew, and one of the little girls came to me. She was about five, and she was asking me about what happened to my daddy. I told her that he had gone to be with Jesus in heaven. She nodded her head, somber and said, “He was a nice man. He was nice to me, and he helped my momma.”
From the mouths of babes, right? But maybe they have a better understanding of these things than we do. The night before the funeral, my nephew was trying to sort things out in his mind and he told us that Papa was gone to work for Jesus now.
Scripture says “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” We understand this was signaling Christ’s own death and the promise of his resurrection. We are told we are to be as Christ, with the same promise of eternity if we follow him. Daddy wasn’t a religious man. His life was of a provider but looking back now it is easy to see the Christ in his heart. And that means we have the promise of seeing him again in that place Jesus has prepared for us all.
When I became a writer, Daddy took to occasionally calling me “John Boy.” It became a joke when I went home sometimes, that when we would go to bed he’d say “Good night, John Boy” just like in the series The Waltons. That was one of Daddy’s favorite shows. I’ve been thinking a lot about John, Sr. in the series, and how he never went to church with the family, despite his wife Olivia’s strong beliefs.
But in The Waltons, John, Sr.’s life spoke for itself. His goodness to his family and others, how hard he worked. All of that was a testament to the heart of the man. And in the end, I know that’s Daddy, too. And maybe Papa hasn’t just gone to work for Jesus now. I think maybe he’s been promoted, that he’s received the promotion Christ promises us all if we believe in Him.