We ventured into the Deep South on a much-needed holiday. My 88-year-old parents decided to drive up from Orlando, Fla. so we could spend some time together.
Since they live thousands of miles away in the Sunshine State and we reside in Northeast Iowa, our visits are rather few and far between, so it was especially nice when we could get together in the Peach State known as Georgia. At 88, one never knows how many more times we'll be able to see each other. But that's rather age-biased. No matter your age, tomorrows can never be taken for granted.
Nonetheless, it was a bright, sunny morning when we decided to "do breakfast" in a charming 1950s-era diner that had been remodeled to perfection. It was a wonderful choice. The menu was appealing, the prices extremely reasonable and the food delicious. It was a wonderful experience, and my wife, Sarah, and I will cherish it forever.
Since Easter Sunday was just a few days away, our conversation naturally gravitated toward religion, redemption and the promise of eternal life. Suddenly, from out of nowhere, my Dad dropped a bombshell that had me gagging on my grits. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I'm still unable to completely wrap my brain around it. Doubt I ever will.
"Do you know your mother doesn't believe in heaven or the after-life?" asked Dad.
"Say what?" I grunted, so shocked by his statement I couldn't respond more intelligently. "Is that right Mom? What do you think happens?"
"I just think when you die that's the end," she said. "There's nothing more."
Dumbfounded doesn't come close to describing my feelings following this startling revelation. I didn't know whether to be sad, angry or happy she had finally, after 61 years, shared her innermost thoughts with me. But I did have one big question for her.
"I respect how you feel, Mom. Everyone has the right to believe what they want. However, I'd like to ask if you don't believe in the basic concept of Jesus Christ and the fact He rose from the dead in order to show us there is indeed life after death, then why in God's name (sorry about that) did you insist on me going to church/Sunday School for 18-plus years?
"While I don't mind visiting the Lord's house and embracing His promise of redemption, there were plenty of mornings I would have preferred to sleep in or tee it up at the local golf course. But you felt it was important to go to church. Why? Especially in light of this news."
She couldn't really explain herself, but my Dad was laughing his butt off.
"That's a great question, Rick. Why did you take the kids to church when you knew all along you didn't believe?" he asked Mom.
She finally regained her senses and said she did it because it the proper thing for a mother to do -- to expose me to Christianity and then let me decide for myself as I got older. A solid explanation.
She then asked me whether or not I believe in eternal life, and I replied emphatically that I most certainly did. And I've got proof, I said.
It was at this point I told her the story of my dear, departed friend Jayme Neubauer and the gift he gave to me as his soul left his body. It's a story I've written about before, but it's been nearly 20 years since I revealed it to my readers (both of them). For my money, it's worth repeating.
It was Oct. 1, 1993, and Jayme was in the last hours of his life at Winneshiek Memorial Hospital. He'd been fighting lung cancer for the past year and a half, but despite his heroic efforts and courage, the time for him to depart had come.
When it became apparent his earthly life was over, I leaned over his comatose body, gave him a kiss on the cheek and whispered that I'd see him someday on the other side. I was crying as I left the room and turned to see him one last time.
I walked out of the hospital but didn't go directly to my vehicle. Instead I walked around the grounds and let it all out. I was sobbing uncontrollably as I held myself up by holding onto a young tree. I'd been with Jayme just about every day during those 18 months, and we'd become brothers. I missed him already. Still do.
It's important to note that Jayme was a fun-loving guy who had that unique combination of intelligence and an undeniable, charming free spirit. He was a gas to be around, and we had so much fun together it was ... well, heavenly.
A man who liked his rock 'n roll, Jayme's favorite was the legendary Jimi Hendrix. He listened to Jimi almost non-stop when he knew the days were growing short. I was also a Hendrix fan, but not like Jayme. He took his adulation to a different level.
As I finally gathered myself and returned to my car, what happened next still gives me goose bumps. As I turned the ignition, the radio ... which I had left on ... suddenly came to life and I heard the words " 'Scuse me while I kiss the sky," from none other than Mr. Hendrix. I had never heard the local station play Jimi Hendrix before that day, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. My forehead rested on the top of the steering wheel as the tears flowed.
There was no doubt in my mind what had just happened. Jayme's soul was ascending to heaven at that exact moment. He was kissing the sky, and his parting gift to me was a clear sign that there really is an after-life. Best gift I ever got. Easily.
I wish he could give the same gift to my Mom. Perhaps he will. The Lord works in mysterious ways.