A year ago tonight I got the phone call I dreaded for much of my adult life. We had just finished a show on the Michael W. Smith/Amy Grant Christmas tour in Everett, WA, and I had been selling my newly released album “Ad Alta” up in the concourse at the merchandise table. In fact, it was at this show that the album officially sold out. It was a great time for me, seeing the tangible results of a dream I had for many years. I remember my wife texting me to ask how the night was going, and I playfully flirted with her like I always do. Little did I know she was trying to figure out if I was available to take a phone call.
I made my way to the bus, where the band was enjoying some after-show food; fresh sushi this particular night. I grabbed a plate and sat down to eat. I had my phone sitting on my leg so I could see incoming texts from my wife. At 10:43 PM, it vibrated - but when I looked down I saw that it was my brother calling. All the blood drained from my head because I instantly knew there’s no good reason my brother would be calling me at 1:43 AM his time on the East coast. When I answered I could hear it in his voice. My brother, a pastor, has made countless phone calls like this, but this one was different. This was a call to his own brother, 2500 miles away, while he was surrounded by the rest of our family. His words were slow:
“Hey Jim… are you in a place where you can talk?”
I instantly jumped up and ran to the back of the bus where I could be alone, and heart pounding, I tried to brace myself for what I knew he was about to say:
“I have some very, very difficult news. Dad …passed away earlier tonight.”
He paused, likely because he knew he had to let me take it in. And in that few seconds of silence, a flood washed over me. I had imagined this moment for a long time, knowing I would likely be somewhere on the road, and he would have to make this call. I guessed it would happen this way, and I dreaded it. After I hung up, the flood gates opened. I lost it in the hallway of a tourbus. My boss and friend knew right away what had happened - he lost his own dad almost the same way just 2 years prior. He just hugged me while I cried.
Dad had spent the previous night in the ER and had been in excruciating pain; he had a large kidney stone, a broken foot, and extreme back pain. On the way home, he wanted to go to his favorite breakfast spot with my mom - Queen City Diner. Despite all his issues at the time, he managed to crack some rather saucy jokes with my mom. On their way into their house he doubled over and said he had never felt so much pain in his back, which is saying something given what he endured for years. Still, he spent that afternoon watching his favorite football team, Penn State. He happened to ask my mom for one of his favorite meals - oyster soup, which he hadn’t had in years. A little after dinner, he got up to use the bathroom. My mom was in another room and heard him call for her, and she could tell by his voice that something was wrong. When she found him, he mumbled that he “felt woozy.” She got him on the floor, started CPR while calling 911 along with my brother and sister, who got there in minutes, around the same time as paramedics.
Although I wasn’t there, I can see this scene so clearly - almost as if it were a memory of my own. My brother looked down at Dad’s feet while they tried to revive him; he was wearing his usual white sneakers and socks, which we always teased him about. My brother kept thinking “what I would give to see him stand up in those silly sneakers right now.” My mom was holding his hand, stroking his ring finger. Knowing that our sense of hearing is the last to go, my sister whispered in his ear that her daughter - his granddaughter Ashley - was pregnant with a little girl of her own. Hanging on the wall above him was a gold album plaque I had made for my parents to thank them for a lifetime of support as I finally finished my dream project - of which my dad was immensely proud. Embarrassingly so at times - my mom tells me that for the last 5 months, Dad would drive around with the windows down blasting my album for all to hear. That was our dad.
Hard as it was, I believe there were many divine providences around this week. I had always worried that when this time came, I’d be overseas or in the middle of a tour. However, we just had one more concert to do the next day, and then we were off for all of Thanksgiving week so I was able to be with my family and not miss any tour dates. When I showed up on stage the next day for rehearsal, I felt an immense outpouring of love and support from all my “tour family.” One moment I’ll never forget is Amy Grant - who happened to share her birthday with my dad - coming up behind me and just wrapping her arms around me, telling me how much she enjoyed meeting my dad. That would have made HIS day - he was just a bit of a fan! It was not an easy show to get through that night. There was one moment where Michael sang a new worship chorus called Miracles:
“The God who brings the dead to life… the God of miracles…”
It was extremely difficult. Yet in that moment, I knew it was true. I had a simultaneous sense of pain and hope - and assurance that my dad had the far better end of the deal. He was finally experiencing what he spent a lifetime preaching about, and I think in that moment, I started longing for heaven in a way I could only imagine before.
A week later, we laid my dad’s body to rest - the day before his 79th birthday. We put his birthday cards in the casket with him. I printed the cello score to his favorite song on my album, called “Prayer For Mercy” and put that in there with him, although I’m the one who needed it at the time. The line of people who came to the funeral wrapped around the church, and so many people told me that they came to faith because of my dad. What a legacy. When the moment came, leaving that cemetery was one of the most excruciating moments of my life.
Later that afternoon, I sat alone in this outdoor tabernacle in the woods where my parents met, and where they came full circle to live during the last 2 years of my dad’s life. It was under this roof that my dad heard God say “Bobby, this is your life’s work” when he was just a young boy. It was also under this roof where I played several concerts as a teenager with my band - and where just 5 months prior to losing my dad, I returned to debut my dream project “Ad Alta.” That was a sweltering, humid night in June, but hundreds of people showed up - and in the middle of them sat my dad - just beaming with pride. It was a defining moment for me. But now, here I sat on a cold, dark November afternoon, in tears, trying to comprehend that I no longer have my dad on this side of heaven.
The next day - Dad’s 79th birthday - I flew to Atlanta to resume the Christmas tour. I had asked my family if I could take Dad’s bible with me. It was one of his many, since he was a pastor for 50+ years. I randomly flipped it open to 2 Corinthians, where the margin was full of his handwritten notes. The passage he had highlighted reads:
“For the troubles we see will soon be over, but the joys to come will last forever. For we know that when this earthly tent we live in is taken down-when we die and leave these bodies-we will have a home in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God himself and not by human hands. We grow weary in our present bodies, and we long for the day when we will put on our heavenly bodies like new clothing.”
In the margin, he scribbled “what a great birthday promise.” Turns out he had read this passage and wrote that note exactly 2 years prior, on his 77th birthday. With that, I cried tears of joy. My dad was home. He was no longer in pain. And though the rest of my life won’t be the same without him, he left me everything I need to see him again someday. I hope and pray that your faith is in Christ too, so one day I can introduce you to the greatest man I’ve ever known. I love you, Dad.