Fathom Mag

Did my Dad come to see the kindness of God?

These are the witnesses that I had always prayed for.

Published on:
August 1, 2023
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8 min.
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The night Dad died, a heavy wind blew in off Flathead Lake and beat the sliding glass door of his bedroom. We counted breaths and long pauses and minutes while he labored hard over each one, and I half expected sweat to bead up on his forehead. He was no quitter. He’d told me many times over the years: You know I’m strong. I’ll beat this cancer again.

But, ultimately, no one gets out alive, no matter the fight in them. I wanted to say that but never could because he didn’t want to hear it. “We’re praying for you,” I’d say. A simple sentence covertly carrying the truth that I begged for all the circumstances of his life to line up, the stars to align, the planets, the people, the thoughts, the sun off the lake, the storms off the lake, an article in the paper, a stray thought, a neighbor, something, anything, everything to make him reconsider God. 

Did he ever?

Years ago, Dad made it clear I was not welcome to speak the gospel to him any longer. He loved me but this was where we diverged, and if we were going to continue to have a relationship, Jesus would not be part of the conversation.

After my dad died, someone told us about a Native American legend that says when a particularly strong spirit passes, a storm will accompany them out. Flathead Lake is on a reservation, and the saying did seem fitting. The will to survive was strong in Dad, if a wind would whisk away his spirit it’d need to be a high and stormy gale. 

The next morning I took my coffee out on the porch and watched the sun come up, staring out over the lake to Canada, somewhere beyond the mountains. The lake was flat and still. You’d never have known there was a windstorm blowing the night before, carrying Dad away. 

We took the “OXYGEN IN USE” sign out of the window by the front door and the hospice nurse came to pick up the leftover tanks and meds. She was kind and gentle, quietly orbiting around us. She asked questions and recorded the time of death while we all sat around helpless, buoyed by her tenderness. I can’t imagine such a job, where death arrives so often.

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Earlier that summer, I traveled with my husband and two of our sons from Oregon to Montana to see my dad and stepmom’s home, built to capitalize on the views of Flathead Lake and the surrounding Mission Mountain Range. It was a dream location—the retirement spot they had worked toward for a long time. Dad was born and raised in Montana, fishing its rivers and lakes, hunting its mountains every chance he had, and the Flathead Valley offered everything to him. On our visit in June of 2020, we walked above the lake through wildflowers on grassy hills, dwarfed by rising mountains that seemed straight out of the Swiss Alps. Dad told us about the neighbor who mowed the walking path, about his own daily trek up the hills that made him stronger. He had battled this cancer for years but he was happy and hopeful here. 

I walked in awe of the land, and Dad and I laughed about how sad it was he had to live in such an ugly part of the world. Every day he had a view of God’s glory.

Dad took us around the lake in his new boat that summer, showing us each home and pointing to islands uninhabited. This was one giant cul-de-sac, it seemed, and every neighbor outside doing yard work or enjoying their lake view waved at us as we trolled by in Dad’s fishing boat. This was the life he’d always wanted, the place he longed to be, and it welcomed him home.

Later I would learn how the company that helped establish the yard and garden around their new home is owned and operated by believers. My stepmom told me they talked about Jesus when they came to the house, and how kind they were—good people who did good work. They had a policy: when a client passes away, the company continues to take care of the landscaping needs of the surviving spouse, free of charge. These are the witnesses that I had always prayed for, the beauty and kindness of a loving God. 

Years ago, Dad made it clear I was not welcome to speak the gospel to him any longer. He loved me but this was where we diverged, and if we were going to continue to have a relationship, Jesus would not be part of the conversation. All I had left was the life I would live, and I chose relationship over debate. But I prayed for all the circumstances of his daily life to be a witness to him. If he encountered Christians who were good and kind, that was one answer.

And if beauty and goodness could ever do the work of preaching, it was here on Flathead Lake.

God’s glory is on tour in the skies,
     God-craft on exhibit across the horizon.
Madame Day holds classes every morning.
     Professor Night lectures each evening.

Their words aren’t heard,
     their voices aren’t recorded,
But their silence fills the earth:
     unspoken truth is everywhere.[1]

Months after Dad’s passing, I was reading Winn Collier’s biography of Eugene Peterson, A Burning in My Bones. I read books cover to cover—all the endorsements and dedications and always the preface. A hand-drawn map fell open on the page after the preface, and I stopped to study it. 

Collier would mention many places in his book but one central landscape affected Peterson’s life above the others. “This place enveloped Eugene in the vibrant reality of a living, present God,” he wrote. It was the place of his childhood and his homecoming; the place his mother taught the Bible to loggers and miners on Sunday nights; where his dad ran a butcher shop; where he learned to work with his hands and his heart, and where he helped build the family cabin with his father. “This was the geography of my imagination,” Eugene said of it.

Flathead Valley.

Through tears, I traced the landscape of Dad’s home and the location of Eugene’s cabin, dubbed the Selah House. Between the two homes, mirroring the big sky and spread like a table in the wilderness, was Flathead Lake, where Eugene took to daily morning dunks and Dad explored by boat and fishing pole. This lake, which lapped the shores of both their deathbeds, was also the joy of both their last days. 

If I did the research I’d find that it is not likely they inhabited the lake valley at the same time, but I don’t dig too deep. In my mind, there is a mystery of presence there, and I like to think that one morning Dad, from the seat of his new fishing boat, saw an old and kindly man jump into the lake for a spiritual cleansing while his coffee brewed in his cabin. I like to imagine them bumping into each other in the tackle shop, Dad eavesdropping to hear a fellow fisherman’s secrets of this particular water. I see Eugene’s kind smile and hear Dad’s amused chuckle.

Flathead Lake is the geography of my imagination too.

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In the mornings I sit in my living room with a view of a different mountain range. Our home is on a cul-de-sac of sorts, too, but it’s a dead-end road in a mountain valley, not a lake. Everything I love about the world is here. This morning while my husband and I had our coffee, I watched a herd of elk out the north window, saw several blacktail deer grazing our pasture out the west window, and found the first hummingbird of the season hovering on the back porch. I enjoy all of nature, like my father did, and though we talk a lot about moving somewhere else, to a smaller home for the next season of our lives, our roots sink deep into this place.

I prayed for years that Dad would not be able to escape the goodness of God, and these days I think a lot about how I might be that answer to someone else’s prayers.

In 2022, after nine months of remodeling the restaurant my in-laws had owned for decades, we opened a deli and market in our town. This is all new to us, and thank God my husband is still building houses for a living because times have been tough. 

But our tough times have been good times, too. We’ve been rewarded by the support of our small community—the loggers and truck drivers and teachers who stop in regularly, the employees who are in this with us, and the people who are just passing through our beautiful valley on their way to the Oregon Coast. It’s been a hard good, led by the Lord and fueled by our love of this place and its people.

I prayed for years that Dad would not be able to escape the goodness of God, and these days I think a lot about how I might be that answer to someone else’s prayers. In what ways is my life a witness to those who refuse to listen to a loved voice anymore, who love a place but don’t know the God who created it? 

The options left to us are to continue forcing truth on those who don’t want it, giving them fuel for their distrust and dislike, and holding debates—as if anyone was ever argued into the kingdom of God—or, to choose kindness. To trust in the work of the Spirit. A daily, repetitious dependence on the unspoken truth that is everywhere. 

Every person who walks into our deli deserves kindness, and that’s part of our vision for the business—to be a place and a people that make your day better. I want to partner with all the prayers prayed for stubborn loved ones, to live with congruence, as Peterson often wrote about—what I believe about God, manifesting in how I behave in the world. And I want my brothers and sisters to have a place to live compassionately with our neighbors who don’t share our faith. I want to say to everyone, We made this place for you, because we truly did. 

I made this place for you. 

I replay scenes from his life and see God’s kindness and goodness and truth and beauty, all combining in a perfect storm at the end.

At the end, when Dad no longer had language, I read scripture to him. He was unresponsive but I was as gentle and respectful as I knew how to be, while still holding out the hope of the gospel to him. I told him about God’s love for him and the way he made Flathead Lake and the majestic Mission Mountains for him. I reminisced aloud about all the hikes and fishing trips and visits to logging jobs he took me on as a kid, and how I could never keep up but always tried. I reassured him of what a good dad he was and how much I loved him. I wanted peace for him. I wanted an end to his suffering. I wanted more than anything to see Dad’s heart moved by the irrefutable kindness of God.

I don’t know what happened in the silent ending of Dad’s life, so I use my best imaginations. God is able to do abundantly beyond what I ask or imagine, so I go big. I replay scenes from his life and see God’s kindness and goodness and truth and beauty, all combining in a perfect storm at the end. I read scripture differently, without twisting any truth I know, but with room for stories and interpretations that may be different from what I’ve always been taught. Jesus is Lord, and I keep his character front and center as I imagine better endings. My heart aches sometimes—to imagine eternity without even the memory of Dad, to wonder how God endures forever with all that’s lost—but I try to mourn as one with hope. 

On my best days of grieving Dad, the storm passes and the lake is still. All the secrets we tried to find out about it are revealed and they blow our minds—all the ways God was good to us, and all the answers to prayers we never knew. Jesus is the way, and he makes a way, and we are as much a part of it as the places we love are a part of us. Kindness leads us to the shore, and we are washed in mysteries revealed.

Tresta Payne
Tresta Payne lives in the beautiful Pacific Northwest with her husband and four kids. She writes at trestapayne.com and obsesses over fir trees, her dog, and her family on Instagram.

Cover image by Ales Krivec.

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