Today, May 7th, marks the 25th Anniversary of my father-in-law’s passing. I had the wonderful opportunity of meeting him just two weeks prior to his sudden departure from this life. I take pause today, reflecting on my very brief, but special visit with Mike’s dad, Bob. It is a memory I will cherish in my heart all the days of my life.
It was late April and the best college men’s gymnastics teams from across the nation were gathered in Lincoln, Nebraska for the NCAA Championships. Mike’s parents came to town to watch their son and his Husker team contend for another title. See, their program had been a dynasty in the late 70’s/early 80’s, winning five national crowns in a row (’79-’84). But it took another four years to recapture their dominance once again. It was now 1988. I was a freshman and Mike was a (redshirt) junior. The guys had steadily increased up the rankings all season. They were primed for a victory. In previous years, Nebraska had been picked to win, but had come up short by the slightest margin- tenths of a point some years. They were hungry and more focused this time. They had the talent, as they did every year, but their determination to win on their own turf was stronger.
Well, long story short, they won in dramatic fashion. And following the competition was the traditional ‘after meet party’ where gymnasts from all the schools, coaches, judges, families and friends all gathered to have a fun night together. Mike was half of the ‘Dude J’s’ DJ team with his fellow teammate, Neil. Mike ran the music for the event while Neil was the front guy entertaining the crowd. They were the perfect match! While Mike was busy at the soundboard, I was socializing with his parents. I don’t know what came over me, but I spontaneously asked his dad if he wanted to dance with me! He responded, “I’m not much of a dancer, but okay.” So, I took him by the hand and pulled him out onto the dance floor. He was a good sport! I didn’t make him suffer out there too long, I promise. We enjoyed the rest of their visit then they headed back to Oklahoma.
Two weeks later, we were celebrating the graduation of his friend, Neil. We were playing volleyball at the host family’s home when we received the sad news about Mike’s dad. His mom had called and said Bob had died of a sudden heart attack. We were shell-shocked. It was decision time for us. Of course, Mike was going to head home immediately. But school was out and I had planned to drive home to Minnesota the next day- just in time for my birthday on May 10th. But I just felt it was the right thing to do to accompany Mike home. It would’ve been a long car ride by himself. So, we both packed our bags and hit the road.
Mike’s two sisters and his extended family had all gathered at his mom’s house. One of his sisters, who is just 15 months older than Mike, seemed to take it the worst. I felt a bit awkward there. I wanted to be an encouragement to Mike, but it was strange meeting his whole family for the first time under these circumstances. I tried to help serve but stay out of the way.
It was now the day before the funeral, which happened to be my birthday. I had just gotten ready for the day and was planning on going with his family to the church to finish some service arrangements. As I came downstairs, I found the house empty. I thought they had all left without me! But then I turned my head and glanced out the window into the backyard. There they all were. Gathered around a table with a beautiful cake and a wrapped present. In an instant acapella chorus, they began singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to me! I was deeply touched by their thoughtfulness- especially at this sensitive time. As I later discovered, his sisters planned the whole thing. What an amazing example to me to see how God can work through pain and turn a sober moment into a celebration! I do believe that with the sorrow they felt in their hearts, a peace was also there. Bob knew the Lord and they could celebrate his life with joy, knowing that they would once again be reunited with him in heaven one day. He had only 51 years on this Earth, but his life with Christ and the impact he made on others’ lives for the sake of Christ will be celebrated for all eternity! May God be glorified above all!
It is a biblical custom to place a ‘rock of remembrance’ on the grave of a loved one. Today, I place a rock on Bob’s grave in my heart. I look forward to the day we will see him again at our Heavenly home. Maybe he’s been practicing his dance steps and will ask me to twirl around the dance floor with him!
Thank you, Lord, for giving me that precious opportunity to meet Bob and to see the love of Jesus that filled that family’s home. Thank you, that in the midst of our pain, you comfort us and give us hope and peace.
‘Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.’ (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)