The red light on our answering machine blinked. We had just returned home from an evening children’s Christmas program, joyful in the spirit of the holiday. But my mood suddenly changed when I pressed the button on the machine and heard my mother’s voice, “We had to take Dad to the hospital. It looks serious. Call me back—soon.” My next call informed me that my father had suffered an aortic aneurysm and medical personnel had already taken him to surgery.

My family and I prayed for Grandpa Roy, and my mother continued to give us updates on his condition. In the middle of the night, the news went from bad to worse. My father experienced a heart attack on the operating table, and it took 12 minutes to revive him. He was alive, but just barely.

Throughout the night, I had been calling my siblings in Florida, and this latest news induced them to book a flight to Chicago. At dawn, my family drove to O’Hare to pick up my brother and sister and continue the somber trek to Wisconsin where our parents lived.

When we arrived at the hospital, we found my father hooked up to a ventilator and a half-dozen other machines. The medical professionals were not optimistic. “Prepare for the worst,” they told us.

My father’s blood pressure continued to drop. We gathered around his bed and told him how much we loved him even though we weren’t sure he could hear or understand us. A few hours after we arrived, my father passed from earth to heaven.

My father—the person who was always there to cheer me on—was suddenly gone. His unexpected death left a huge hole in our lives. But his untimely passing also taught me a few lessons:

Keep people close. Even though I lived 250 miles away from my father, we had a close relationship. He always had a hug for his “sugarplum”—a term he gave me as a kid and continued to use even in my forties. We had no rift between us, no conflict to settle. As I held his hand in the hospital, I was especially grateful for this because his sudden illness left no time for repairing a relationship. It reminded me that I need to keep all of my relationships mended because we never know when someone we love will be taken away.

So I will resist the urge to hold grudges. I will be the one to reach out—even it’s “their turn.” I will carve out extended time for weekend visits and grab moments to send a thinking-of-you text or email. Building relationships and creating memories will take priority over hours spent in front of the computer.

Everyone can touch other lives. My father was not a famous person. He wasn’t a rich man. He lived in a small city and worked for years as a radio station manager. When he retired, he ran for city council and served his community as an alderman. But even though he wasn’t a renowned personality, hundreds of people came to the wake with stories of how my father had made a difference in their lives. I didn’t even know half of the tales I heard about my humble, unassuming parent. He had listened to his constituents, visited public schools, encouraged teachers, and volunteered with the Boy Scouts. His quiet life had touched many other people. This helped me see you don’t need your name in lights or a million-dollar bank account to make a difference in your corner of the world. All it takes is a heart for helping people.

Because of my father’s example, I will try not to wait for a “significant” or “important” place to serve. I won’t make excuses that I don’t have enough time or money to make a difference. Instead, I’ll work behind the scenes. Try to notice the hurting people who cross my path each day. Make it a habit to offer an encouraging word in every conversation.

Faith makes all the difference. Watching my father’s blood pressure slowly fade was one of the hardest things I ever did. My family gathered around his bed, holding his hands and holding each other. When the heart monitor flat-lined, our own hearts filled with grief and sorrow. But, as Scripture says, we did not “grieve like people who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). My father had a quiet, but firm trust in Jesus, his Savior. He may not have been very vocal about his faith and may have slept through a few sermons, but he told me he believed in Christ. He confessed faith in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So, though my family grieves our loss, we are confident we will be reunited with our loved one in heaven.

Realizing faith makes all the difference has sent me to my knees. Not all of the people in my life make their relationship to God a priority. So I’m learning to be more consistent in prayer—praying for soft hearts attuned to the Holy Spirit’s invitation to come closer.

The death of someone we love is never easy. But a loss taught me to keep my relationships close—to never allow rips and tears in friendships to stay in disrepair. It helped me see I don’t need a big platform to make a difference in my world. And it reminded me to share Christ with the people in my life, because in the end—faith in Jesus’ work on the cross makes all the difference.

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