by Rebecca D. Higgins
(It was on April 17, 2000, that my father–Verdon D. Higgins–went home to be with the Lord. Not many days have gone by since then that I don’t miss him. Not many days have gone by that I don’t feel a little homesick.)
“Yuck! I can’t believe Miss Woodring is makin’ us do a poetry notebook. I hate poetry!” was the response of some of my third-grade classmates. I didn’t join in those complaints, however, because, you see, I loved poetry. It has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Perhaps that’s because I had a grandmother who used to quote and even write a few poems herself, and she kept a scrapbook of the poems her son wrote–her son who later became my father.
I still remember how my sister and I would sit side by side in the old red chair in my father’s office at our house and beg him to read or tell us a story. Oh, in the earliest years, I’m sure we heard the regular stories like “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” and the “Three Little Pigs” and “Little Red Riding Hood,” but those aren’t the ones that stand out in my memory. Around Mt. Carmel where he taught and served as principal, my father was famous for performing his imaginary tale about Herman, his pet lion. “Tell it again, Daddy!” my sister and I would beg at home and giggle in anticipation of his funny voices.
Daddy’s repertoire also dipped into the poetry genre as well. He didn’t dwell in Mother Goose rhymes. Instead we sat wide-eyed as he recited “Little Orphant Annie” or “The Bear Story” by James Whitcomb Riley. I learned Longfellow’s “The Children’s Hour” and “A Psalm of Life” and a number of my dad’s other favorites. His love for nature and the outdoors that he instilled in me came through when he quoted Joyce Kilmer’s lines, “I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree.” Sometimes he would tell us stories of growing up on the farm in Wisconsin and talk of the old farmhouse where he came into the world after a difficult birth and was not expected to live. And sometimes when he’d talk, he’d get a faraway reflective look in his blue eyes as he quoted Edgar Guest’s immortalized words:
“It takes a heap o’ livin’ in a house t’ make it home,
A heap o’ sun an’ shadder, an’ ye sometimes have t’ roam
Afore ye really ‘preciate the things ye lef’ behind,
An hunger fer ‘em somehow, with ‘em allus on yer mind.”
Funny, now that I think about it–Daddy never owned a house. A long time ago he followed Robert Frost’s advice and took “the less traveled road”–and that indeed “made all the difference.” When classmates were rushing down the road to pursue wealth and making a name for themselves, my father chose to follow God and honor His name. That decision led him to a life of faith–literally. He felt God’s call to serve in the Kentucky mountains, and in the fall of 1949 he arrived as a new teacher at a place he’d heard a lot about but never personally visited before–Mt. Carmel High School. Like the other workers, he didn’t receive a salary, but followed a pattern like that of George Mueller who went to God with his needs and trusted Him to supply–and He did.
Ten years later he married my mom, and my sister entered their hearts and home a year after that. I completed our family unit when I arrived with a bang on the Fourth of July four years later and almost immediately declared my determined and willful independence! But it was my dad who in love very early let me know that there were things about which I wasn’t quite ready to make my own decisions. I needed to eat some vegetables! I needed to be respectful to my parents and other elders. I needed discipline–not to break my will, but to train it. And did I ever get that discipline every time I loudly rebelled against my parents’ requests! (How hard is it really to eat some vegetables?!!) Some present-day psychologists would try to suggest that since my dad spanked me, I was an abused child. I know better. I can honestly say that never once do I remember my father’s spankings being done in anger–really! My father was firm but loving, and always, always told and showed that he loved me even when the spankings occurred.
In spite of the fact that my dad was the primary disciplinarian of our home, he was also very nurturing. I loved to be with him. Every summer he shed his suits and ties of the office and classroom for workpants and short-sleeved shirts and became the school’s gardener. I loved it–except for the sweating part. He sweat buckets! His clothes looked like he’d been hosed down! He started preparing for the garden weeks in advance by growing seeds in cups and trays along the windowsills of our house, but every spring also meant a trip to Keck. I always looked forward to riding along. Keck was really no more than a wide space in the road with a sign that proclaimed that it was Keck, Kentucky. But there were greenhouses there where Daddy would buy pepper plants and other things for the garden. To this day the tangy aroma of a vegetable greenhouse takes me back to those days when we would wind around the narrow mountain roads, the Kentucky mountains beginning to show the splash of color from the Divine Artist’s paintbrush–a touch of purplish pink here and there as the redbud trees began to bloom, a patch of white among the spring green leaves indicating the dogwood.
Spring and fall were times of wonderful walks together with my dad on Sunday afternoons. Oh, we had to observe “Quiet Hour” first, but then I’d come and say, “Daddy, let’s go for a walk,” and we’d head down the hill behind our house. Sometimes we’d sit on the large gray rock by the creek and marvel at how through the years the water had carved perfect circles in its base. As we sat in hushed silence, we listened to the music of the water as it rippled across the rocks on the creek bed. The birds sang sweetly in the trees, and Daddy would identify them by their song.
As summer rolled around all of us on the Mt. Carmel campus worked hard; but if I could have had my preference, I would have rather been out in the garden with my dad rather than in a stuffy house cooking or cleaning. The hot Kentucky sun would bronze Daddy’s face and arms, leaving him with the proverbial “farmer’s tan.” At night I would climb into bed with the windows open and be lulled to sleep by the symphony of the night– frogs, crickets, katydids, cicadas. I heard them last night. I almost missed it because of the hum of the window air conditioners trying to keep the temperature in my upstairs apartment tolerable, but when I went into the back room to rummage through my memories stored in boxes, the sound beckoned me to listen. I turned off the motorized noise, stepped outside onto the porch into the blackness of midnight and listened as the sounds took me home again.
But when was it that I had learned that “home” for me wasn’t so much a place but a person? I had moved away, but my carefully laid plans hit some detours within the first few months at college. Now what? I called home–I called to talk to Daddy and to hear him pray for me over the phone.
During those college years, anytime I drove back to Kentucky for a visit, my father would be watching out his home office windows for the car to pull into the yard, and then he would come to greet me with a warm welcome as I pushed open the car door.
After graduation, I worked at my church’s international headquarters for several years until one day I heard about an open door of ministry in the former Soviet Union and felt God’s call to go. On one of my visits with my parents, while sitting at their kitchen table, I shared with Mom and Dad that I felt God wanted me to go to Russia as a volunteer with CoMission. My dad’s response was what I expected. His chin began to quiver, his voice broke, and tears gathered in his eyes. “Becky, if God wants you in Russia, there’s no place I would rather have you be. It’s far away, but I would never stand in your way for anything.”
As I went through training in Kankakee, Illinois just prior to my departure for my first year with CoMission, I received the call from home that the doctors had discovered that Daddy had an abdominal aortic aneurysm. I was frightened and anxious. My dad knew that and did everything he could to reassure me. On their way to my Commissioning Service, he experienced chest pains which forced him to the emergency room in Lexington, Kentucky. Daddy announced to the doctor, however, that he had to be released because his daughter was being commissioned to go to Russia. He needed to be at my commissioning. He was! He and I both knew that our limited time together was precious. Early one morning before I had to go to my required training sessions, we walked the campus of Olivet Nazarene University, ultimately finding our way to the prayer chapel. There we shared our love for each other and had a beautiful time of prayer together. Always concerned about how his problems would affect others, he told me about his prayers to God about his situation. “Now, Lord, my daughter’s going to Russia. She doesn’t need to be worrying about her old dad back home. She’s just had to say goodbye to my brother, her uncle that she loves who’s dying of pancreatic cancer. And now the doctors tell me I have an aortic aneurysm. My family doesn’t need this right now. I’ve got to have victory here!” He then confidently shared with me, “Becky, God has given me the assurance that I’ll be here when you get home.”
He and I both clung to that promise when a month after I arrived in Russia, I received the news that my dad’s brother had passed away. We clung to that promise five months later when my sister called me to inform me that my dad’s aneurysm had grown requiring immediate surgery. We clung to that promise a few weeks later when he underwent another emergency surgery to remove a gangrenous gall bladder that had almost killed him. Then when my year was over, we realized the fulfillment of the promise. As I drove up on the campus in a borrowed car and into my parents’ yard, my dad was watching from his office window. Before I could get the car door open and make it to the house, he had come to meet me. Tears glistened in our eyes. The embrace was what we both had been waiting and longing for throughout our year of separation.
God led me back to Russia two more years as a volunteer with CoMission, and my father became my most devoted and faithful supporter. He wanted to know everything. No detail was too small for him. He wanted to know the names of the people in the photos, what their stories were, and if they had come to faith in Christ. His prayers seemed to have a direct link to the Father’s throne and with me in Russia, bridging the distance between us.
When God directed me to return to Russia as a missionary with my denomination, my father never once questioned that decision or stood in my way. I knew it was hard for him to think of my being so far away in his years of deteriorating health, but all he ever wanted was for me to do God’s will.
On January 19, 1999, I was scheduled to depart from the Indianapolis airport. My parents had come to see me off.
I had probably had less than three hours of sleep in the preceding three days as I packed up and moved out of my temporary apartment, packed for going overseas, and took care of final logistics and business. I had literally moved the last of my things out of my apartment into storage that very morning, wading through crusted snow to carry things for storage to the garages of friends, then rushing back to shower and dress for my long trip. My parents’ car was piled with items they were taking back to Kentucky for me. My trunks packed for Russia were loaded into a minivan owned by Global Partners. Daddy rode along with me to headquarters, and then he got into the car with Mom to head to the airport. A mission administrator drove the van with my luggage and me to the airport, making one final stop at the bank on the way. We had sent my parents on ahead with Mom driving (Daddy no longer drove because of his Parkinson’s), telling them to meet us at the airline check-in. Unfortunately, when I arrived at the airport, there was no sign of Mom and Dad, and we had no cell phones back then with which to communicate with them. Mom had missed her exit and gotten a bit lost. They finally showed up, but by the time we were able to sit down at my departure gate (pre 9-11 security rules), I had only about 45 minutes before the boarding call for my flight.
Anyone who knew my dad knows that the first priority when we sat down was to have prayer together. The minutes flew by all too quickly. My flight was announced, and it was time to say goodbye. A final lingering hug . . . tears . . . “I love you!” I then was walking down the retractable hallway to find my window seat in the Northwest airplane.
For some reason, my flight stayed at the gate for a while. Exhaustion brought from my hectic schedule of the preceding days took over and I fell asleep. When the plane finally began to back away from the gate, I woke up. As the plane backed around so that my window seat was parallel with the terminal, I could see my dad’s backlit silhouette in the window with my mom patting his shoulder. I did not have to see his face distinctly to know that his emotions were doubtless causing his chin to quiver and his blue eyes to glisten with moisture. I looked and waved until that cherished silhouette was no longer visible.
A few days after I returned to Russia in January 1999 for my 3-year term with Global Partners, my father sent a card in which he wrote in a shaky Parkinson’s-affected script: “Well, you are back in Russia again, and three years seems like a long time. However, as long as Russia is God’s will, then it is mine, too. I’m so glad I can say that from the depths of my heart. I am so glad you are our daughter. You have brought joy and God isn’t finished. I love you very much, Becky. A part of me is there in Russia with you. Let us hear from you. God bless you. I’ll be praying often. Lots of love, Dad”
Every time I talked to him on the phone, he would pray for me about the struggles, the burdens, the responsibilities that I carried at the Bible college and the Russian students that I taught. The last time was on Sunday, April 9, 2000. He and my mom had been in an accident a month before–an accident that had totaled their car and had left my mom with seven broken ribs and my dad bruised and sore. My sister had taken them to recuperate at her home in North Carolina.
Eight days after that April 9 phone call, I was awakened in the middle of the night the Monday after Palm Sunday to the shrill ringing of the telephone. When I picked up the receiver and heard my sister’s voice on the other end, I was immediately wide awake preparing myself for the bad news I didn’t want to hear. As she shared with me that Daddy had gone to heaven after suffering an apparent heart attack, I selfishly wished that I could have seen him just one more time, could have felt his embrace one more time, could have heard his matter-of-fact prayers one more time. But I knew how happy he was that he was finally home. As I knew that night was descending on my family in North Carolina, I watched as the first rays of dawn broke the horizon in Russia. I was reminded that what seems the darkest night for us here is daylight “over there.” And just as we were in the midst of commemorating Passion Week, the power of Easter brought with it the hope of the resurrection. I remembered how my father–who was not a world traveler (he’d only crossed the border into Canada)–had said that if he could travel anywhere in the world he’d love to visit the Holy Land. He once told me, “Oh, what a thrill it would be to see the empty tomb!” As we began that Easter week, I rejoiced for my father through my own tears and personal sense of loss that he was finally seeing– not the empty tomb– but the Risen Christ himself! He was experiencing the greatest thrill of all!
God answered prayer and got me on a flight a little over 24 hours after my sister called. On that long, lonely flight, I remembered my father’s promise the first year I went to Russia: “Becky, I’ll be here when you get home.” I turned my face to the window as tears welled in my eyes and rolled down my cheeks. He wouldn’t be at the gate as the airplane landed in Cincinnati. Instead, my cousin who lived in Indianapolis would be picking me up to drive me down through the eastern Kentucky mountains that were coming alive with the colors of spring–splashes of green, the white of the dogwood, and purplish pink of the redbud trees. He wouldn’t be there to push open the screen door of his office and come to embrace me as the car drove into the yard. He wouldn’t be there to welcome me home. But then I heard it–the words whispered gently again in my heart: “Becky, Becky! I’ll be here when you get HOME!” And then I realized what it was Daddy had been teaching me all along: This isn’t home! We’re not home yet. This life of serving is just a journey to where we really belong. No, this isn’t really home, because home is where the Father is! And that’s what my earthly Daddy taught me.
In memory and celebration of my father, my teacher, my friend,
Verdon D. Higgins (June 29, 1922 – April 17, 2000)