I stopped the story of my experience of Dad’s death in the middle. I felt it important to publish it on Good Friday, to coincide with the celebrated remembrance of the death of Jesus. For me to receive the assurance of God’s faithfulness in the midst of my grief during Dad’s death, there had to be a precursor story, or previous case history, that opened the way for me to understand that death isn’t the end of the story. The story of Easter is just that story.
While I wasn’t there in the early morning hours to watch my dad die, as were Jesus’ followers and his mother while he was crucified, I later heard the stories surrounding the event of Dad’s accident. A little background will probably be helpful…
Dad and Mom were living in Ukiah, California at the time of his death. He was driving a tractor-trailer rig hauling products from a Masonite plant in Ukiah, to the docks in San Francisco and Oakland. He would often haul two loads per day, and liked to drive when there was less traffic, which usually meant at night. On this particular evening, Mom remembered that he was “so tired”. He was 62 years-of-age, and was working hard, but the pay was really good. They were doing the best financially that they ever had. I used to joke that Dad was “semi-retired” from the ministry…get it…semi…driving a semi….OK…pretty lame… He stayed at it, though because they needed money to pay off bills. His employer was Gene Armstrong, and Gene owned property on the side of a hill with a mobile home on it in which Mom and Dad were living. The property was beautiful! They had a little dachshund…Toby…that I played with when I visited from college. In the morning and evening, they often had deer grazing on the side of the hill next to their house. The deer would look up smugly as Toby barked wildly. Gene, and his wife Ruth, previously lived in Elkhart and attended the church in which Dad was pastor, so we knew them well. Also Ruth’s family and my dad’s family lived in the same community during the depression, so there was a lengthy history there.
Earlier in the evening of Dad’s accident, Dad and Gene met at a diner for a cup of coffee together. They ate…pie, or something…and as they were leaving, heading in opposite directions, Gene said Dad’s words of departure to him were, “Good night, Gene, I’ll see you in the morning…” Those were my father’s final words to anybody of which I am aware. After that farewell, Dad climbed into the cab of the truck, and began his final trip. The accident occurred outside of Santa Rosa, California. There was a cattle auction yard on the outskirts of town, and a trucker had pulled in to unload his cargo of Black Angus cattle. The report I heard was that there was nobody at the yard to help him unload, so he tried to do it himself. As the cattle were unloading, some of them got excited, broke through a gate to the holding pens, and scattered along the highway. The trucker then had to call to find help in rounding up the cattle and putting them back in the pens.
Black Angus cattle wandering along a major state highway in a dark night…
Before the cattle could be put back, or a policeman was on the scene to warn traffic, Dad arrived. The auction yard, and the scattered cattle were just over the rise of a hill. I saw the police report of the accident, and it states that the driver behind Dad never noticed his brake lights come on before the crash. So…Dad was driving up a hill, and just as he topped the hill he ran into at least two black cows, killing both of them, which caused the rig to go over the side of the hill, throwing Dad out of the cab, and the truck landed on top of him. Dad never knew what hit him…..
I was able to get copies of the official accident report as well as the autopsy that was done on my father afterwards. I wanted to try and piece together his final moments on this earth, and know the scope of his injuries. The autopsy stated that he sustained several broken vertebrae in his neck, and massive internal injuries. His death was basically immediate. I was glad to know that… What also is interesting is that, while I no longer have those documents, I still remember some of the contents. Knowing he didn’t suffer has been helpful.
Also helpful is the memory of a conversation and prayer he and I had before they moved to California, when he was driving a truck over-the-road, travelling across the nation often by himself, while my mother was living near Elkhart and having emotional issues related to her Bi-Polar disorder. Those were particularly hard days for Dad, and he had stopped in Olathe, Kansas, where I attended college, to see me between stops. We attended church together, and as he was getting ready to leave, we talked a little bit about his next stop. Then I asked if I could pray for him. I remember asking Jesus to sit in the seat next to him and help Dad imagine His presence there through the lonely miles. After his death, Mom told me that he really appreciated that image, and lived with that reality close to his heart and mind. I now imagine Dad coming over the crest of the hill with Jesus in the seat next to him, and Jesus saying, “Ok Ivan….this is our stop!”
The resurrected Christ…lovingly present…guiding Dad into his own resurrection.
“See you in the morning…” indeed!
By Billy Collins