This last time my daddy spoke to me was on Sunday, May 21st at 5:38AM. I remember this so clearly because my husband, Jon, had just finished up a missions trip to Asia, and he’d texted me even earlier that morning while he was in Hong Kong before flying home the next day. Consequently, I hadn’t fully fallen back to sleep. So, when my mom called to tell me that Daddy had an episode and that the Hospice nurse had been there, I was wide awake and intently listening.
I asked her to hold the phone to his ear, and I told him that I loved him and for him to go to Jesus when he was ready. As I paused to fight back tears, he said very slowly, with hardly a verbal sound, but more like a hushed grovel that required much effort, “I…….Am…….Dying!” See, my daddy and I have always been straight-shooters with one another. And I believe with all of my heart that he knew I needed to know and that he wanted to be the one to tell me.
As well, it’s not lost on me that he passed in the month I was born, or that I’m now the age he was (43) when they adopted me as a baby. He always said that I kept him young. Growing up, I hadn’t a clue that he was considered to be an ‘older parent’. In fact, it never even occurred to me until one day a dear friend from college said, “Do you realize your dad is as old my grandfather?” Honestly, I had never really thought about it, because he never acted like he was older than my friends’ dads.
Most of his life, he worked multiple jobs at once, including serving in ministry as a bi-vocational pastor. And he always kept up with me and all of my shenanigans and activities; attending every piano recital, orchestra performance, awards ceremony, and sporting event. No matter if I was playing second-base on the softball field, running up and down the basketball court, or simply cheerleading on the sidelines, he was always there. After I went away to college, even after I moved out of state, he continued to be there for me. Would you believe that one time he surprised me and showed up to my final concert in Kansas City, KS? My parents drove through the night from Louisiana to be there because I was moving to WA State right after, and they wanted to see me while I was still “in the area”. Those few hours were precious!
Although I always knew my daddy was a hard worker, I didn’t realize the sacrifices he made for me until I got older and matured a whole heck of a lot. For my dad, a typical day began at 4AM. He’d get up when it was still dark, so he could feed all the animals and milk the cows before heading to his ‘day job,’ which until I started high school was at a sawmill. To earn additional income for our family and to make it possible to attend all of my activities and events, he worked overtime every single Saturday, making sure to get off by 12 noon.
From an early age, my daddy taught me the importance of hard work and honoring one’s commitments. He instilled in me a desire for lifelong learning and standing up for personal convictions. He encouraged me to dream big dreams. Then, he did all he could to help me see those dreams become realities. From the time I was a little girl, he always told me that I could do anything that I set my mind to do. To this day, I still believe it. He taught me to be strong and independent, as well as soft-hearted and others-focused.
But most importantly, he modeled to me a genuine faith, and welcomed all of my questions and doubts that came with working out my own personal faith in Christ. He always reminded me to trust God in all things. And he told me it was okay to have doubts and questions. Questions didn’t mean I had a weak faith. He assured me that they were an opportunity to grow and deepen my faith. And he encouraged me to make sure that I was searching for the answers in the right places!
Speaking of church and faith and God, my daddy lived the ways of Jesus. Now, he’d be the first to tell you that he’s not perfect and that he has a stubborn streak. Or that our family has experienced our share of hardships and difficulties. Some of which we are still navigating. Still, through everything, he has never doubted Jesus, or His love. A few years ago, he told me that even though he was a pastor, he thought God had used him the most whenever he was working at the sawmill or when he was driving a log truck. He counseled people after work, performed weddings, officiated funerals, and was “Jesus with skin on” for many folks.
And from the time I was a little girl, my daddy told me I could do and be anything that God called me to do or be. And ya know what? I believed him! I think he saw something in me from an early age that took me a little longer to figure out: I was called to vocational ministry.
And for the last twenty years, he has prayed for me, encouraged me, and supported me in a multitude of ways in the various ministry positions where I’ve served. Even when I left a “sure thing” job, teaching at a university, to take a leap of faith into the unknown world of church planting, he didn’t think I was crazy. And five years ago, he made the long trip from Louisiana to Washington to stand right beside me at the service when I was ordained an elder in the Free Methodist denomination. I think that was one of the most special memories for both of us. My daddy was my biggest encourager, my strongest advocate, and my most faithful supporter.
Daddy and I, we always “got” each other. And he understood me like nobody else did. All of my life, he has been my sounding board. I’ve only known he had Alzheimer’s for about four years, if that. And one of the ways, I discovered something was ary was because he began passing the phone off quickly whenever I would call. Now, neither one of us are what you would call “phone people,” but we would talk to one another. I would call him about everything. Not because I wanted him to solve my problems, or tell me what to do. I simply processed life with him. So, not being able to talk to him, and process things with him these last few years has been torture.
Everything that I have read states that people in the end-stages of Alzheimer’s aren’t able to recognize their family members, and they can’t communicate/speak. And as hard as that is to comprehend, I prepared myself for it. But the very last time I saw him, which was in April, Daddy did recognize me. Maybe he didn’t recognize my face, but, perhaps , he recognized my voice? As soon as we got to my folks’ home, I laid down beside him in his bed and sang songs to him, quoted Scripture to him, and prayed for him. But he was also able to communicate with me.
And right before we got on the plane at DFW in Dallas to fly home, I called my parents to speak to him. Truth be told, I wanted to hear his voice just one last time, but I wasn’t really expecting him to be able to say anything. The week we had spent with him, he really was only saying one or two words over the course of an entire day. But during that brief phone conversation, he said to me, “Dada, love!” Although he had a hard time pronouncing the ‘J’ in my name, he knew who he was talking to!
Then, a few weeks before he passed, I received another gift! I heard his voice again, even though the words I heard were not what I wanted to hear. In those brief seconds on May 21st, he very clearly communicated to me by telling me that he was dying. Even my doctor was dumbfounded by all of this whenever I told her about it at my last appointment. She said medically-speaking, it was unbelievable that he recognized me or takes to me. And me? Well, I choose to believe it was God’s gifts of grace to me.
Even though I know that dying is a part of living, I never really imagined life without my daddy. This is going to be hard. My parents adopted me when I was only 22 hours old. Along the way, there have been many questions. Some questions have been answered; others haven’t been. What do know is this: I may not have had Vincent Briley Bown’s DNA, but I am most certainly his daughter. And he’s gonna be deeply and dearly missed. I love you, Daddy!