CASEY PENN: On the anniversary of a death, relish the memories of a life

This minute, I’m busy with several projects. I'm thankful for each and every opportunity that comes my way. What’s more, I’m actually enjoying it all, even when the schedule makes me a little crazy. And yet, in the midst of all the rush and work and joy, there is, today, a strong emotion, a diary of memories, an unsolicited sadness tugging on my heart. It has been there all month, maybe longer.

Last year, as the anniversary of his death approached for the first time, I experienced an odd emotion – a palatable sensation of knowing.

Those who have lost a dear friend or loved one to an accident can probably relate to my feeling. It’s back again this year, though it’s not as devastatingly ominous as it was that first year. It’s as if I can see the accident on the horizon, coming slowly – a forewarning – yet I have no power to stop it from happening. I guess this is what it would feel like if we were able to see the future. I’m grateful to the Lord that we cannot.

We lost Dad two years ago today, August 3. I wrote shortly after that – and I still believe it – that it’s okay and even healthy to take a moment now and again to honor that moment in time when the loss happened. It is acceptable just to feel the pain for a few moments or until it eases, and to experience the loss once again as tears flow freely without apology.

I’m in the mood to do just that now. I am visiting the pain. And, though I’m states away from it, I will also visit my father’s grave, in my mind, for a moment …

… As my moment of reflection happens and then passes – as it has many times since he died – I am learning that I can and will move on. I can look up, even with a few tears still falling. I can almost smell the fresh-cut grass growing new and green over Dad’s grave. I can look up now at the sun and the One who makes it shine.

I share these thoughts to encourage those of you for whom the sting of death is new and still cuts so deep. As a dear widow told me after I lost my dad –she certainly knew the grave pain of loss – the physical pain will ease. And though some of the hurt remains, you will eventually feel the warmth of the sun again and celebrate treasured memories when they cross your mind.

Such bountiful memories are making me smile instead of frown.

He called me “Casey Bug Sprout Pollock” Hanes – all of my lovely nicknames rolled into one.

He joked with me when I couldn’t do something, “It’s okay, you’re just a girl,” knowing that would get my dander up and I’d try harder.

I would ride with him in his smelly work truck, and we would laugh and sing together. I have a strong memory of us singing, quite recklessly I might add, the hymn “Showers of Blessing,” with him adding a silly bellow to the word blessing in each chorus. To this day, I can’t get through that song with a straight face.

Early in his life, my dad had few solid spiritual beliefs. I think, in fact, that he probably believed once he died, he would rot in the ground – that’s it and that’s all. He called believers “Bible Thumpers” until one day when the Lord changed his heart and he listened to the calling of the Lord.

During a family trip to Cody, Wyoming, Dad sat us down to tell us that he was surrendering to preach and we’d be moving from our home state to – gasp – the state of Arkansas, where he would study at the Missionary Baptist Seminary. I sat on his lap one night later, just him and me, and I told him, “I don’t want to go, Daddy.” He cried with me, and he held me close, but he still had the fortitude to pack us up and make a move that changed us all for the better.

Once us kids grew up and married, Dad and Mom moved back west to South Dakota. Dad grew content there, working, preaching, reconnecting with family, and adoring his wife. He and Mom explored art galleries and listened to bluegrass music. He loved his tractors and made a pastime of restoring them. People around his little town knew him well for his friendly waves and easy conversation.

Dad was a joy and a gift, and so is each day of this life he helped to give me. Life is a gift. He knew that. While taking in the sunsets he loved, he would often tell my mother, “Look, Ma. He gave us another one.” In spite of an occasional quick temper, he was at heart a smiling preacher who loved life and brought light to many who were in darkness.