Seated with my family a few feet from my dad’s flag-covered casket eight days ago, I thought about nothing and I thought about – everything.
I wondered how we’d gotten to this point when, just three weeks earlier, the cancer had been responding so well to the chemo. Now we were at his gravesite on a beautiful Wednesday morning – Sept. 16 – at Crestview Cemetery in Wichita Falls. Members of a white-gloved Air Force honor guard from nearby Sheppard Air Force Base, stood at solemn attention a few yards away.
My dad was a 21-year Air Force veteran, and after the Air Force, he carved a new career for himself – getting paid to fly other people’s planes. He flew a lot of planes, piston engine and turboprop, to a lot of places. The plane I remember best, and my favorite, was a Cessna 421, tail number 6868K.
It was the last place on earth I wanted to be, but I knew the casket contained what the Bible refers to as his earthly tent. Just a few days prior to his death at age 76, I had been uncertain as to his eternal destiny. But not this day.
“He has a mass in his chest.”
Those words came from my younger sister, Donna Underwood, in a phone conversation in early July, and they were among the most chilling words I’ve heard in my life.
We thought of the “if onlys.” If only he’d never touched a cigarette. If only he hadn’t waited so long to seek help. Woulda, shoulda, could…
Naturally we wanted my dad to
get well. But what if he didn’t – what would be his eternal destiny? He’d grown up in a Christian home and had “gone forward,” as we sometimes say in Baptist circles, and been baptized. Later, he disengaged from church. Had his apparent conversion been a mere religious exercise, or were his sins truly covered through faith in Christ?
One of my greatest fears was that something would happen to him suddenly and I’d never know the answer to that question. Now, as we knew we’d be dealing with a life-threatening illness, that same uncertainty roared through my mind.
Tom Rodgers, senior pastor at Grace Church in Wichita Falls, is a bear of a man who once played for the Dallas Cowboys. At 61, he’s a nice bear – friendly, compassionate, speaking with a booming, resonate and infectious assurance.
My sister said she’d already been talking to Tom about my dad, and he said he’d be glad to come and talk with him.
We knew the timing would be tricky. We didn’t want my dad to think we were ganging up on him and sending the preacher to pick on him; neither did we want him to think we were sending a preacher to do last rites.
When my dad was hospitalized the week before his death, he was unresponsive at times, and I wondered if we’d waited too late. Two days before his death, though, on a Friday morning – a good, good Friday – he was able to communicate, and Tom, who’d been on high alert, drove to the hospital.
Tom talked with him, prayed with him, asked him specific, probing questions about his relationship with Christ, talked about salvation. Tom left the room and told my sister he could bring us assurance of my dad’s salvation. It was crystal clear, Tom said – no ambiguity.
“I wouldn’t want to hurt these ladies,” Tom said, referring to my mom and my sister as we talked in the living room of my parent’s home. “But if I had any doubts – if I wasn’t sure – I’d tell you. I’d owe that to you as his son.”
I’d asked Tom repeatedly: Are you sure? He was sincere? He wasn’t just giving the answers he thought he was supposed to give?
No doubts, Tom said.
It wasn’t so much as a deathbed conversion as a deathbed affirmation.
Tom asked us if we wanted any poems or any other literature read at the funeral. I immediately thought of the John Gillespie Magee poem, “High Flight.” Magee wrote the poem in 1941, shortly before he was killed at age 19 while flying a Spitfire.
Tom knew what I was talking about. I told him my dad was certainly familiar with the poem and liked it, although he wasn’t particularly enamored with it. But he was a man of the skies, I told Tom, and I thought the poem would be appropriate.
At the funeral, Tom talked about my dad, recited the biographical information. Born Gobel Lawson Nash – named for an uncle, I think – Jan. 22, 1933, in Lexington, Ky.; died Sept. 13, 2009, at United Regional Health Care. Tom captured his personality and character remarkably well based on our descriptions, talked about his Air Force years, talked about his flying. Took care of his family. Didn’t reveal his innermost thoughts … didn’t really talk about spiritual matters … independent, disciplined.
The best story was about to come – the story of that Friday, that good, good Friday.
Tom spoke confidently, comfortingly, assuringly of heaven, where, he said, my dad was warm and safe, he’s not alone, his memory banks are at full throttle, he loves us, no more cancer …
Tom explained the background of “High Flight” and said it summed up my dad’s life. “He was a man of the skies,” Tom said, using my words.
“Will the family please rise for the rendering of military honors,” one of the honor guard members called out quietly after he and the others, achingly resplendent in blue Air Force uniforms, had taken their places on either side of the casket. They moved in silent, solemn precision as they removed the flag from the casket and folded it. One of the young men presented it to my mom, followed by a slow salute.
As we drove away from the gravesite, I glanced back at his casket, knowing it would soon be lowered beneath the ground. There was sorrow, of course, but it was made bearable by Tom’s story of that Friday – that good, good Friday.
Six-Eight Kilo, welcome home.
Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.
Sunward I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds– and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew.
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
– John Gillespie Magee
Steve Nash writes his column for the Brownwood Bulletin on Thursdays. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.