Friday, February 7, 2014

Precious Memories and Letting Go

As I sit down to write this post, my head is swimming with memories.  I feel compelled to write, to honor this man whom I had the privilege to call my father-in-law.  He passed away just days ago.  And I'm beginning to realize that whether I'm ready or not, I have to start letting go. 

Sitting by his hospital bed and later his Hospice bed at home over the last several weeks, waves of memories flooded my mind.  My time with him was so brief - just under 7 years - that I don't want to forget a thing...and yet I know that I will forget some things.  And so, I wanted to share a few of my favorite memories of Dave Willis, a man who fought the good fight and finished it well.


I remember visiting Shawn after we were engaged and getting very sick during our visit.  I came close to passing out and knew that I couldn't drive home.  Shawn insisted on driving me and Dave was kind enough to follow behind with Shawn's car to bring him back home.  I was mortified that my father-in-law had to see me sick, which was silly because his only concern was for me.

I remember Dave's excitement the night of our wedding rehearsal and dinner.  He gave a speech that was both funny and wise, sharing with his son and soon to be daughter-in-law the blessings of marriage.  I remember that after our wedding, the pictures took forever, partly because Dave was having so much fun that he was making everyone laugh.  I have one precious picture that features me and Shawn with Dave's head popping out from behind my shoulder just as the camera snapped.

I remember calling Dave on the way to our honeymoon to tell him that we had almost arrived.  When he picked up the phone, he asked who it was. I said, "Melissa," and he asked, "Melissa who?"  He was, of course, waiting to hear me say, "Melissa Willis".  *smile*

He bought me blueberry syrup and chocolate peanut butter goodies just months after Shawn and I were married.  Why?  Because he quickly learned that I was addicted to both blueberries and peanut butter.  I remember opening a box at Christmas from the Chocolate Factory filled with peanut butter chocolates...and I remember his look of pure pleasure as he watched me enjoy one, and then another, and then another.  I remember his laugh when I told him that this was a really bad gift because I couldn't put them down.  He just said, "Well, you do LIKE peanut butter, don't you?" and then he laughed some more.

Putting up the Christmas tree at Dave and Linda's house was always fun, but there were rules.  The first ornament to go on the tree had to be the "Jesus" ornament.  Dave was always the one to put it on the tree and it always went near the top.  As he put it on, he would always say something like, "If this isn't the focus of Christmas, then you can't really have a Christmas."  He would put up a St. Louis Cardinals ornament and maybe another Christmas ornament and then sit down to watch the merry decorating from Linda, Shawn, and he smiled on.

Dave's smile on the night of Shawn's graduation from Covenant Seminary is something I will never forget.  He was so proud of his only son and so incredibly proud that he was going to be a minister of God's people.  But he was always the first one to say that Shawn was a devoted follower of Christ despite his upbringing, not because of it.  Humility at it's absolute best...

I remember the moment we visited Dave and Linda just before Christmas in 2010 to tell them that I was pregnant.  Since this baby would be their first grandchild, we decided to have a bit of fun and wrapped up a few baby bibs in a Christmas gift for them.  When Linda opened the gift, he paused and then shouted out, "Really?"  He was so excited.  Yet minutes after finding out that he would be a grandpa, he reminded us all that he loved me for who I was and I didn't need to give him a grandchild to make him love me more.  He said, "This baby does not sum up the reasons why Linda and I love you."  On Christmas Eve, just days after that statement, we found out we were going to lose the baby and I've always remembered what he said.  We celebrated Christmas at their house the next day, and I remember his hug and his reminder that the baby was not the reason he loved me.  And this happened not just with one baby, but with two.  Precious memories....especially now with the realization that I will never make him a grandpa on this earth...a pain so real that I can actually touch it.

I remember stopping at their house before moving to Iowa.  They wanted to come help us move so badly but Dave was sick and Linda had just finished her chemo/radiation so they both needed rest.  I remember the pain in his eyes as he told his only son goodbye and apologized that they couldn't help.

He and Linda came for Shawn's ordination service the next month.  I sat beside he and Linda at the service, and I'm so glad I did.  When Shawn "took the knee" and the elders laid their hands on him and prayed for him, I looked at Dave to see how he was doing.  He was so proud and so emotionally bound by love, that he just reached over and grabbed my hand to hold.  Afterwards he said, "Well, there you go.  My son's a pastor."  He had tears in his eyes and he didn't even try to hide them.

The next time they came to Iowa for a visit, he brought his camera.  He was so eager to know and understand our lives here that he was constantly asking questions and taking pictures.  Just a few days ago, I went through all of his pictures that he downloaded to his computer from his camera, looking for pictures to put in a video presentation for the visitation and funeral.  It wasn't long before I saw the folder labeled "Visit to Shawn and Mel".  When I looked inside, I was blown away with the number of pictures he had taken....of everything!  He took pictures of the house, the churches, the cemetery, the fields, the gravel roads, the garage, the garden, us.  He was no stranger to country roads or fields but these were the fields and roads that his son lived around and he WANTED to know them.  Such love...

Fast forward a few years to 2013.  Dave was diagnosed with incurable Stage 4 cancer just a few days before Christmas.  Shawn and I went home as soon as we were able.  The nights spent in the hospital by his bedside were absolutely priceless.  You see, my one-on-one time with Dave was very limited because Shawn and Linda were always there.  I believe on those hospital nights, that Dave and I went a little deeper in our relationship and truly began to understand each other.

We spoke of his illness and how much he loved Linda and Shawn and me.  He kept apologizing for being sick and only stopped when I told him that he wasn't allowed to say that again.  I remember leaving his room at about 3:30 a.m. to go tell the nurses that they could shut off his oxygen because my strong-willed father-in-law hated the tubing and wouldn't wear it.  We had a long conversation about that dreaded oxygen and eventually he agreed to wear it...."for just a while".  *smile*  He ended up wearing it through the night, and even smiled a few times!

I remember how much he loved us.  I always told him before I walked down the hall to stretch my legs or use the restroom...but he was always happy to see me when I came back to the room, even if I was only gone for 2 minutes.  Towards morning, he would anxiously watch the clock and keep asking, "When did you say Linda and Shawn would be here?"  Oh how much he loved his family...

I remember going to their house alone just before he was discharged to come home for Hospice care and preparing his bedroom for his arrival.  As I moved things around, cleaned, and re-cleaned, I remember thinking to myself that the time I had to care for him was growing very limited....and suddenly, it was all I could do to keep myself in the house rather than drive to the hospital to be with him.

I remember telling him goodbye just days before he passed away because Shawn and I had to go back to Iowa.  Shawn and I hugged him and told him that we loved him, and he said, "I love you guys."  Simple words but those were the last words he actually ever said to me.

We came home just 24 hours before he passed away.  When we went into his room that Wednesday morning, Linda told him that we were back home.  He looked right at Shawn and said, "Happy".  This man lay dying in his bed and all he cared about was his family - Linda, Shawn, and myself.

Later that afternoon, his pastor came to visit and we sang hymns in his room.  Now, you have to know how much Dave loved music to completely understand this.  He was no longer able to sing but he made sure to tap out the beat of each song with his hand on the bed.  He LOVED music!

Without a doubt, the greatest legacy that this man left behind was his awesome faith.  He was the first to admit what a wretched sinner, saved by grace, he was.  He knew his sins and knew them well, as we all know our own sins, and he strove to overcome them daily.  He found forgiveness and grace and extended the same to those around him.  He loved the Lord, loved reading his Word, loved singing his praise, loved worshiping with God's people.  He reminded me, during those last few days of living in his cancer-ridden body, the ultimate joy that a person can have in Christ, despite the pain of this life.

There are many more memories of Dave that I'll always cherish.  He loved his Lord first and foremost.  Second to that, he loved his sweet wife more than his own life.  Third, he loved his one and only son, Shawn - and adopted me into that same love.  I learned so much from this man.

And now I know that he is with Jesus in glory, knowing that perfect rest that I can only dream of.  And I know that he has met his 2 beautiful grandbabies.  Regardless of the emptiness he left behind, I am SO glad he is now a grandpa and I'm SO glad that he is finally with his Jesus.

Thank you, Dave, for loving me as strongly as you did.  You will be missed.  I wish we'd had more time but I'm so incredibly happy that you're with our Lord in perfect peace!  Enjoy your rest.  And give hugs and kisses to my babies for me...

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