Seventh Anniversary

Dave Verkaik, 1955 - 2005

It’s rainy, it’s gray and the heavens look like they’re about to open the flood gates and drench us all in a cool spring rain.  It was like that seven years ago today, the day I lost my Dad.

Each anniversary has been drastically different for me.  The earlier years were crushing and painful.  I typically spent them with close friends and we shared soup and pie, my two main comfort foods.  Each year has been different, but the common thread is one of healing.  Still, I always ache for him, not just on March 19 but always.  Some days it seems like he’s been gone forever but sometimes the thought of our seven year separation sounds ridiculous.

When I hear my friends use the phrase “my Dad said” or “I talked with my Dad” my heart and mind think this:  Oh, Your dad? I’m jealous that you have a Dad.  I remember what that was like, having a Dad.  I loved my Dad, he was awesome.  God I miss him, so bad.

When we buried my Mom my Uncle Rich said read this quote over her grave.  It is profoundly, perfectly true and it has permanently adhered itself to my perspective on loss.

Nothing can make up for the absence of someone we love and it would be wrong to try to find a substitute. We must simply hold out and see it through. That sounds very hard at first but at the same time it is a great consolation.  For the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bond between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap. God does not fill it but on the contrary keeps it empty and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other even at the cost of pain.  ~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer

As famous theologians tend to do, Bonhoeffer nailed it.  I walk this earth with an empty Dave shaped hole.  He was my one and only, and I am forever lacking him.  I would describe it as a constant dull ache, or a lost limb. Those who have lost an arm or a leg describe phantom pains that happen periodically, and sometimes my Dad-gap aches like that.  I’m constantly aware that he’s gone, but sometimes there is a sharp, acute pain, and in those moments his absence is almost intolerable.

I have grown to have a peace with my Dad gap, I couldn’t get rid of it so finding a peace with it was the next best thing.  I honor my connection with him by honoring the purpose God put on my life.  One of the last and best conversations we had was him reassuring me that once I had found my call, my “thing”, that I would soar.  I was floundering in those days, only on the cusp of giving him something to be proud of.   would be proud of me, and although I have a hefty amount of self-doubt, that is one thing I am pretty confident in.

No one really knows whether or not the dead bear witness to what is happening here on earth.  There are logical parts of me that are sure that they don’t, and then there are corners of my heart that are confident that they can.

I do still feel that painful connection Bonhoeffer refers to.  My Dad and I are still in communion and although I don’t understand the logistics of it, I know that he’s at peace.  He’s with God and he’s bursting with joy, his burdens are gone, and he’s fully the person God created him to be.  I can also feel how much he loves his grandkids, even though he’s never held them or pushed them on a swing.

Yes, I love being my Father’s daughter, yes I feel him, and oh yes… I miss him even seven years out it stings and it’s hard.  But we are intrepid, we carry on.

My Story Part two- The cold march, the loss of my Dad

No matter how much I grow in faith and trust in God I still don’t trust a ringing phone, it could be bring something as simple as “pick up milk” or something far more serious.  I have good reason for my disdain, my world has been rocked by ringing phones.  I shared about the phone call I received from my Dad that brought the news of my sister Laura’s car/train accident.  That one was bad, this one is worse, but first a little backstory.

I got a late start on growing up.  I wavered and quit, trying different colleges and majors before I found my place at a small bible college.  My transcripts were a mess of failed and dropped classes.  I spent my paychecks at TGI Fridays or the mall and I borrowed money from my parents, which I never paid back.  Even with the hopes of another new college on the horizon, my Dad was frustrated to his breaking point and in an effort not to enable me, he kicked me out of the house.  I was 22 and terrified, and really pissed at him so I left without anywhere to go.

For a while I lived in a make shift bedroom in my cousin’s basement, sleeping on the worst pull out couch imaginable.  When my best friend Becky got back from a semester in Spain we started apartment hunting together and decided on a 3rd floor, two bedroom apartment mostly because it was cheap.  We paid no attention to the fact that it was in a really ghetto and high crime neighborhood.  We ended being the only apartment on our floor whose tenants weren’t evicted at least twice during our lease.   Some lessons you have to learn the hard and dangerous way, like don’t live in a drug neighborhood even if it means more square feet.

We moved in the first week of January, the same week that I started a new job, a new college and turned 22.  I was so busy that my Dad and Mom set up the apartment for me and my Dad even painted us a couple of wine red accent walls.  We were so crazy proud of our new place.

Amidst the pride however, I was terrified of my first round of bills.  Pay Rent? Utilities? Groceries?  I was anxious that I couldn’t cute it so I took the next logical step and got three jobs and stopped sleeping.  My brilliant plan was to work days in an office after my classes, overnight at a coffee shop and weekends delivering newspapers with my Dad.  I wouldn’t sleep from Tuesday morning until Saturday afternoon, but I got free espresso so I was determined to make it work.  I sustained that pace for two weeks, and after sleeping through all my classes and sobbing from lack of sleep I quit the coffee shop for a weekend waitressing job serving burritos and margaritas to mall shoppers.

February rolled around and I managed to pay all my bills, I had no money for food buy my end of the roommate agreement was fulfilled.  I decided that my parents would feed me so one night I headed to their place to watch My Dad try out his new George Foreman Rotisserie.  After dinner my Dad headed to the garage to work on one of our 4 mini vans, which were always breaking down from the start and stop of the paper route.   Immediately I put my head in my hands and sobbed apologies to my Father as he laid on a dolly underneath the blue Dodge Caravan.  I was ashamed of how irresponsible I’d been and how I had made my parent’s life harder with my debt.  I apologized up and down for my behavior and told him that I couldn’t pay him back just then, because I only had $37 left for two weeks of food and gas, but someday I would make things right.

He rolled the dolly out from under the car and beamed at me, clearly his strategy of kicking my butt out the nest had worked as planned.  He forgave me and I could see the pride in his eyes, it was something I hadn’t seen from him in a while, I hadn’t given him much to be proud of.  He stood up and started filling grocery bags with frozen hamburger meat and boxed potatoes au gratin and there in that moment our relationship changed.  He saw me as an adult, he took pride in me, he answered every phone call and he was my biggest fan.

One freezing cold morning in mid March, four years almost to the day after my sisters accident, I was working my job as a Driving School secretary when my cell phone rang, it was my mom.  I was on the work line with a customer arguing about a failed road test so I let my cell go to voicemail.  Immediately it rang again so I politely put the angry mother on hold and answered it asking my Mom to wait just a second.  She said she couldn’t wait: “Leanne, you have to come home, I think Daddy’s dead.”  

I hung up with numbly, she thought he was dead?  Thought leaves wiggle room, right?  But I had heard the terror in her voice and I knew.  I managed to pick up the line with the angry  road test mom and tell asks her to call back Monday because my Dad had just died.  I locked up the office and called my  then-boyfriend Kel to fill him in.  I had no information to give him other than my mom thought my Dad was dead and that I was headed home.  He begged me not to drive in my current state, so I found a friend to meet me halfway and deliver me home.

As we pulled up to my parents house I saw ambulances and police cars.  I was so confused, he wasn’t sick so I was guessing car accident on the paper route but after a quick inventory I realized that all the mini vans were accounted for, undamaged in the driveway.  I jumped out of the car and ran through the garage to find our neighbor Bob, sobbing on the front steps.  He hugged me and said “I’m so sorry Leanne, he was such a good man.”   Confirmation, my Dad is gone.

I walked in the house, my Mom grabbed me,  I learned that she’d gone downstairs to the office to file a few bills and found him in his chair, the life long gone from him.  He had died sometime around 2AM from a massive heart attack while playing a game of spider solitaire on the computer.  I wasn’t allowed to see his body but I from the way they laid him out at the bottom of the steps, I could see his hand.  He was wearing his yellow fleece jacket, the one we had gotten him that Christmas.  They sent use to a back bedroom while they carried him out to the ambulance to deliver him to the coroner. Everything after that is just blurs and flashes from that day.  Family and friends came in and out, we exchanged words and tears.  Becky forced me to eat a piece of pizza and followed me everywhere, even into the bathroom.  I couldn’t tell you where I slept that night or how I got there.

The next morning we all gathered again and descended the stairs at Cook Funeral Home to plan our formal goodbye.  I remember weighing in on so many surreal questions, which flowers?  which casket?  What photo for the obituary.  You don’t know until you’ve walked through it, but there are a lot of whats and whens in death.  Somehow we got it all arranged and in the middle of coffee and phone calls to Kel I realized that I had nothing appropriate to wear to the funeral.  So we headed to the mall and I let me friends dress me up like a paper doll.  They chose a flared black skirt and jacket, with a bright green lace camisole underneath for a pop of color.  I loved my Dad, he was energy incarnate, the least I could do was add a pop of color to his funeral.

When you lose someone the moment usually arrives when you go to view their embalmed body for the first time.  Many people will tell that their soul is in heaven and that its just a shell.  They are correct, but for me there is a lot of sentimental attachment to a human body.  If its okay to be attached to a house, a car or a piece of jewelry then surely you are allowed to have a fond attachment for the body that housed the soul you loved.  I loved his face, his blue eyes always hidden behind paint speckled glasses, his tight and tired muscles that body was how I saw my father’s soul come to life.

Approaching his lifeless body in the casket was a cold cold march through the funeral home doors.  There he was, and there he wasn’t anymore. There he would never be again.  Dead skin is so  jarringly cold, it’s lifeless flesh a shock to the touch.  That cold touch confirms every fear, there is no escape when death is laid out in front of you.

The funeral process was exhausting and as I took my place in the parlor, greeting and receiving those who came to grieve alongside us I gazed across the room at my Mother.  There she stood in her black dress pants and Merrill hiking shoes.  If I had seen her drift away with mental illness before that moment, then it seemed as though she was totally gone on that day.  Her eyes looked hollow and empty, as if her soul had left and laid down in the casket with my father longing to join him in his peaceful end.

Kel flew in from Oklahoma for the funeral and one of my brightest memories during that week is of him, walking around the funeral home and handing out water bottles to my family.  If they were on the fence about him before, his supportive and loving presence there solidified things.  As I followed the casket out the church, scattered in easter lilies, I saw his face and my world felt a bit brighter, a bit safer.  I knew he was “my guy” now.  The one who had my back, would kill my spiders and talk to the mechanics on my behalf.  I breathed a silent prayer as I marched, for my Oklahoma boy.

We gathered at the cemetery to return his body to the earth, it was the coldest moment of my life.  I’d stepped in a puddle and my black ballet flats were saturated with melted snow.  The funeral home had set up a walled tent around the grave, but even those thick strips of canvas couldn’t keep out the bitter wind of that March. My uncle prayed and I wept bitter and long.  My little brother played his trumpet for our Father, the man who never missed a band concert or a booster meeting.  The casket lowered, we threw our flowers and it was over.  There were no more formal events, just lives tattered with loss.

That night I tried to sleep at my aunts house, just two blocks from the cemetery.  I couldn’t stop thinking that his body was out there, growing colder and farther away.  I was restless, desperate and terrified.  God provided my friend Melissa a milk shake, and the energy to drive to my small ghetto apartment and sleep long and hard.  I had lost but I was never alone.  God sustained me with constant blasts of warmth.  Tn the midst of the cold there was soup, warm embraces, comfort and even laughter.  I was bathed in prayer, swimming in support and I never marched alone.

When a week passed I had to take Kel to the airport and head home without him.  It was the first time I’d been alone since the phone call.  The void felt infinite and terrifying, I was all by myself, alone with all that loss.  That’s when I realized that even in that dark, frozen cold moments there were always beams of hope and spots of light all around me.  There were so many break downs and get-back-ups on my journey through grieving my Dad.  There was anger and depression, and an ocean of tears but always, always hope.

I grieved the only way I knew how, fiercely and with hope.  I’d gotten half a dozen lilies that were making my apartment smell like a funeral home, so one night Becky and I threw them off the balcony  and watched them slowly die in the snow.  I did what I needed to do to survive and survival meant an apartment that smell normal, not like death. As I reflect back on what I wrote just days after Dad’s death I breathe deep thanks to God for helping preserve my hope:

March 25- 2005: “I am broken and I am barely breathing. But I promise you that somehow, someday I will go on. I am forever altered. I will need to be built up again. I don’t know how, I know it’s God, I was just given another breath, and for now that will sustain me.”

April 5- 2005: I really am trusting in God, taking steps in that direction. I can either let this destroy me or change me for his work and his world. Lots of people tell me that God is preparing me for something, and right now I don’t think about that. Mostly I just keep breathing. And try to sleep at nights, which is a new sucky problem that I have been having…Life is not good right now, but I live in faith that it will be again and I shall emerge better, somehow… and of course never the same but, a different me, I guess every day brings a different you, and if you’re not changing then… stop staying the same, there is too much life for stagnancy.” 

I am forever thankful to God that through my journey, he has always sustained and fed me, allowing my hope to stay alive even when it was tiny bud fighting up through mud and pain.  There is no guarantee against the inevitable sting of death, it has come and it will come again.  The more of your hope and life you transfer into the unfailing hands of God, the more peace and hope you gain.  This is just one painful piece of my journey.  Thank you sharing it with me.