December is nearly finished, and I have yet to choose the most memorable events of the past year. Historically significant events such as the war in Iraq and Saddam Hussein’s capture, not to mention the drought that has lasted for four years, are on my list.

However, nothing can compare to the impact of Sept. 11, 2001, on the lives of all Americans-and for our family as well.

The challenge for me is to appreciate being among family and friends, minus a major crisis looming on the horizon, or emerging from one.

With this in mind, I reviewed the contents of a folder. In it was my much-neglected journal, written over a period of more than 20 years.

Reading the journal was like going on a geological excavation, with each page telling a story of the past. Some were about happy moments while others were reflections of sadness and pain.

In 1983, I wrote a poem about my father. As I read it for the first time in many years, that day came alive as if it were yesterday.

Dad had survived a serious heart attack three years earlier. Pain was his present companion as he fulfilled his duties as a pastor of a rural congregation. He would rest as much as possible during the early part of the week, oversee the work of the church and prepare the sermon on the later days.

Dad always seemed to have more than enough energy to preach and mingle with the parishioners, but when the service was over, his strength was gone.

Eleven days before my father’s life ended, my parents and I attended a family reunion. Dad’s usual task was to give a devotional. Fearing that the trip might be too much for him, mother and I urged him to stay home and rest. He insisted that we help him fulfill his commitment.

The trip to the western Oklahoma community of Balko sapped his strength; his ashen face betrayed his true condition. We checked into a motel in a nearby town and gained much-needed rest that night.

By the time the reunion began the next day, Dad was his usual, jovial self-exchanging greetings with relatives and giving the devotional. His strength waned by mid-afternoon, but he was determined to distribute the remaining copies of the Penner family book, which he had edited and published three years earlier.

I was grateful for the time we had together. On the journey home, we talked about our family, the kids and their activities. We talked about the family reunion. We were grateful for the chance to see the relatives one more time.

In a way, I was aware Dad and I might not see each other again, but my own sense of immortality refused to admit the obvious. Dad’s life was about to end, mine was still ahead of me. I had never experienced anything like a death in the family and the prospect of someone dying was frightening.

During the evening of Aug. 25, minutes after Mother left the hospital room, Dad breathed his last. Mom spoke of his determination to continue with his duties. His Bible and sermon notes were open on the hospital table.

I offer this glimpse into the past because there are people in this community who are going through a similar experience. One never forgets these special moments, even if one wishes to.

The holidays are a difficult time when a loved one has passed on. Each day becomes a “first” among many “firsts.” There is the first Thanksgiving and Christmas. There is the first birthday without the loved one’s presence. There is the first New Year.

Other firsts include anniversaries, marriage, the time of departure, spending the first night alone. There are special moments at the dinner table, or a walk in the park without that special person.

There are many “lasts” as well. The most important ones may be the last time we say, “I love you.” or, “I am sorry, please forgive me,” or, “I forgive you.”

Our awareness of these firsts and lasts continues as long as we are in mourning. The time for mourning will end. Healing comes and the pain and sorrow fades away, though it never seems to come quickly enough.

I can look back across the 20 years since his passing and fondly remember my father. I’m grateful he was a caring, loving dad to his children and a devoted husband to their mother.

This poem, though written at a time when the loss was still too painful to share it with anyone, is given as a memorial to my father- and as an encouragement to the people who are experiencing the first holidays without the one they love. May peace find you wherever you are.

* * *

Last Ride Together

I see your pain, your damaged heart falters.

Weakened hands cradle your face

As miles pass by,

Your life slowly fading.

Oh, please! Can’t you stay a while longer?

My heart aches.

Don’t go yet!

Rise up!

Cast off eternal sleep for another year!

I need you. I want you. I love you.

Dad, I’m scared.

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