On February 12, 2006, my husband Jack lost his battle with lung cancer and went home to be with our Lord. It was a whirlwind seven weeks from the day of his diagnosis, until I was able to take him home. That last week of his life was, and still is a blur to me. Every day was filled with taking care of his every need. Our living and dining room had been transformed into a hospital room. It now consisted of his hospital bed and table filled with a dozen bottles of medicine and more medical supplies than I care to count.
One thing I learned during the 5 years that we were together is that Jack was a very private person. He didn’t easily share his past with me, and I didn’t ask. But, on February 10, Jack started talking. He started to tell me all the things about him that he wanted me to know about his life, his separation from his family and his two children. During that conversation, he made me make two promises.
First, that I would find his family and let them know what happened to him and second, that I would find his children and tell them about him; he had deserted them 30 years earlier. After many many hours of conversation, Jack slipped into a coma. 48 hours later, he went home.
I had no idea of even where to start to find his only sister. All I knew is that she lived in Houston, and her former husband lived in Austin. I felt as if I was letting him down; unable to keep my final promises to him.
It was 2 months later while I was getting ready to go to Church one Sunday morning, that I heard the Lord say to me “Clean Your Closet”. What? “Clean Your Closet Now”. I opened the door to the closet in my bedroom and looked inside. Everything was in order. In my heart, I know what God was telling me was to clean the spare bedroom closet. After Jack died, I had put all of his clothes and personal papers in that closet and hadn’t opened that door since.
“Lord, I can’t do this, I can’t go through his things now.” “I’m not ready for this yet, it’s too soon.”
“Clean your closet NOW”. God was not telling me to think about cleaning it. He was telling me to clean it someday. I was to clean it now.
And so I began. Tears flowed as I began sorting his clothes. I could still smell his scent on his sweaters and suits. My heart was breaking – again.
Hours passed and I was still there cleaning that closet. It wasn’t until I had pulled out the final box from the back of that closet, that I knew why I had to clean that closet. There it was, lying on the closet floor. Jack’s personal address book!
My heart started pounding. God didn’t have me clean my closet for me to sort Jack’s clothes. He had heard my prayers. He knew that carrying the burden of not being able to keep my promise to Jack was weighing on me. He had lifted that burden from me; I just had to follow His words to get it done. He had me clean the closet so that I would find his address book and would now be able to keep one of the 2 final promises that I made to him.
I remembered his brother-in-law’s name was Patrick, but I didn’t know his last name. So I figured that I would find every Patrick in the book and contact every one of them. One of them had to be the right person. But I didn’t need to know his last name after all. When I opened the cover to the address book, there it was on the first page; Patrick’s full name, address and the telephone number to his office.
It was Sunday and I knew that I would have to wait until morning to contact him. But how do you start that conversation with someone you’ve never met or even had a conversation with? I decided that I would do a search on Patrick’s name in Austin to see what might show up. There it was, his company’s website with a link to contact him. In my heart, I thought that this would be a better way to contact him. I didn’t know how their relationship ended. I didn’t know if they were on speaking terms. I didn’t know if Patrick cared what happened to Jack. I decided that a simple email with my name and number simply stating that I had news about his brother in law would give him the option to call me if he chose. I hit the send button and prayed, Lord let this email begin some healing for this family.
At 9 AM Monday morning, my phone rang. I recognized the area code. Taking a deep breath I prayed, Lord give me the right words. It was Patrick. He asked me what the news was. I told him that Jack had died on February 12. There was a long silence on the phone. Finally with a quiet voice he said, “did he suffer”? I responded honestly and said yes for a bit, but he died a painless death. We talked for nearly an hour. I answered his questions as best I could and then relayed Jack’s message to him… his apology for turning his back on all of them so many years earlier. With his voice trembling, Patrick said that he forgave him.
Later that afternoon, my phone rang again. This time it was Jack’s sister, Sheila (Patrick’s former wife). I knew as soon as I said hello that this wasn’t going to be an easy conversation. I could sense her hostility and bitterness. She hammered me with one question after another, expecting me to know all the answers. I finally said “Sheila, I was only married to Jack for three years. The man you are telling me about is NOT that man”. “The man I knew and loved was a blessed man of God. He lived everyday in God’s service”. “Even when he was racked with pain, he was praising and thanking God for His blessings”, She hung up the phone.
Over the next few days, I received more than one call from Sheila. Sometimes she was in tears, other times she called and yelled at me. As much as I wanted to I didn’t lash back. I just listened. After another week, the calls stopped. Did she find peace in her brother’s words? I don’t know. Were her questions answered? I don’t know.
I still had one more promise to keep – to find his children. I need to let them know that he had died, but more importantly, I need to tell them his story.
In the drug-induced fog of all of the narcotics that Jack was taking, the only information that I could get about his children was that his daughter’s name was Michelle and she lived in Houston and his son, Scott lived in Utah. Assuming that his daughter had most likely married and would therefore have a new last name, I decided to concentrate my search for his son. A search for Scott A. in Utah gave me back hundreds of results. Knowing is approximate age, I opted for a paid search that narrowed it down to less than 20.
And so it began, one telephone call after another with no results. I had nowhere else to look.
Many months went by until one day I strange call came into my cell phone. The message said, “Hello my name is Michelle P., and I think you were married to my father!!” She left her contact information. I knew this was not going to be an easy call. After all, Jack had deserted her and her brother 30 years earlier.
My hands were shaking when I dialed the number. Praying Lord give me Your words to heal this child’s heart. I pressed Send. She answered on the first ring.
I told her that yes I was Jack’s wife. She told me how she came to find me. She was flying back home (to Washington State, not Houston), and thoughts of her father came to her mind. She contacted her mother – a genealogist, and asked her to run a search for him. The search produced a Death Certificate. The death certificate listed the funeral home. The funeral home directed her to the local newspaper, which had his obituary; the obituary listed my name and the name of our business. A search on that resulted in our business website, with my contact information.
We talked for nearly an hour. I spared her the gory details of his illness and death and answered her questions as best I could.
She never said the words, “my dad”. She always referred to Jack as her father. Even as I told her about our last conversation, I could hear the coldness in her voice. I let her talked and vent about how angry she was with him. He deserted her when she was just a young teen.
After an hour or more she said she had to go but asked if she could call again. Yes, of course, anytime.
An hour or so later, the phone rang again. It was Scott. We talked for quite some time. He was very young when Jack them. He had only a few memories of him. Again, I answered his questions as best I could, I didn’t sense any anger or resentment. He was rather emotionless. He thanked me for my time. I never heard from him again.
About a week had passed since my first conversation with Michelle. We talked briefly over that week. On this day though, she was calling me to tell me that she was going to be in my area on business and could we get together. My heart was racing, but of course I said yes.
It was set. I was going to meet Michelle on Wednesday at Shoney’s. I don’t think I slept at all the night before. When I pulled into the parking lot, I spotted her. She was just a bit of a thing. She looked like a child, not a grown woman with children of her own.
We sat down at a booth in Shoney’s. She was not in a terribly good mood. Though my heart was racing, I remained calm… not knowing if I was going to get a tongue-lashing or not.
She decided that I needed to know what kind of man Jack was. What he had done over the years. How he had deserted them. I let her talk and get it all out. I saw tears filled her eyes. Were they tears of anger or pain?
She finished her rant. Without responding, I opened a tote I had with me and pulled out three pictures. The first was a picture of her as a child. She looked at it for a long time and then said, “I remember that dress”. The second picture was of Scott as a child. The third was a picture of the two of them. I handed her the pictures and said, “These pictures have hung in the living room of every place we have ever lived. He has carried them with him for all these 30 years. At that she began to weep. Next I gave her a tattered photo album. It was filled with hundreds of photographs of all of them in much happier times. She looked through the album and smiled, just a bit, at some of them.
Next I handed her a binder filled with all of Jack’s poetry and stories. She ran her fingers of the handwritten pages, slowly turning each page as she paused to read them. The last thing that I gave her was her father’s bible with its worn edges and dog-eared pages.
She asked about him. What he was like during the years I knew him. I told her many stories about our life, his job and his walk with the Lord. We chatted about this and that for some time, all the while she was still referring to him as “her father”.
Then came the biggest surprise of all. She asked me if I would take her to the cemetery! It was about a 30-mile ride, and I prayed the entire way. “Lord help me. Give me Your words. Help me to help her heal her broken heart.”
We parked and walked to his gravesite. We stood side by side. She didn’t say anything for quite some time. I kept silent and let her be in her thoughts. I heard a tiny sniffle and when I turned and looked at her, she began to sob. There she was, this brassy bold little thing – crying for her daddy. I put my arm around her and pulled her close as she cried and cried.
After a while, she sat down on the grass on his grave. Just looking at his name on the headstone, slowly shaking her head back and forth. She looked up at me. “Why couldn’t I know him now?” I didn’t have that answer.
After a while, she got up from the grass. She leaned over and touched the top of his headstone. With her hands on that stone she said very quietly, “I love you dad”.
I never heard from Michelle or Scott after that. Had they had made peace with their dad and closed that chapter in their lives? I don’t know. Though I pray they did. Thank you Lord for making me “clean my closet”.