I awoke from the sound of a slight bump in the darkness. It was well after 3:00 a.m., and not a normal time for one to be hearing noises in a home. I lay there listening for a couple of minutes, and I again heard the sound which seemed to be coming from the living room or kitchen. Sliding quietly out of bed, I slipped on my robe and began to ease gently and vigilantly toward the source of the bump. My wife was sleeping soundly, and as I passed our daughter’s room, all seems normal there, also. Although the lights were off throughout the house, the bright, nearly full moon outside cast a dim pale into the rooms, and I was able to ease along comfortably. I slipped through the living room, peeked into my den as I passed by, and walked into the kitchen. Nothing. For a few seconds I stood there just listening, and while doing so, I noticed a shadow move across the kitchen window overlooking the back yard. I walked to the back door, opened it carefully, and walked out onto my deck.
There I observed a man sitting quietly in one of our deck chairs. He seemed to be looking over the back yard, as if inspecting the premises. Our back yard is spacious, with large cottonwood, pine, and fruit trees and foliage. The moon bathed the area with light, and a slight breeze was blowing. It was a beautiful spring, May, 2008, night with the temperature on the cool side, but very refreshing. The man sitting in the chair was my father. Dad looked as I remembered him: short sleeve sport shirt, casual pants, and a baseball cap of some sort. Strangely, although it had been seventeen years since he passed away, I wasn’t alarmed or surprised when I recognized who he was; I just sat down in a chair next to him and said, “Hi, Dad.”
“Hi, Bob,” Dad said, and then after a few more words of greeting, he finished with “I just wanted to come by and see how things were going.”
In May of 2008 I was still recovering from heart surgery two months previously. I was becoming stronger, but still had a long way to go to full strength. I had been away from school nearly 10 weeks, and, with the school year ending in June, I wanted to get back to my classroom to wrap up the year. At the same time my recovery was not proceeding as smoothly as scheduled, and I continued to recover my strength at a very slow pace. I did not know at that moment that in just four more months I would be diagnosed with leukemia and undergo months of chemotherapy. Shirley and I had begun to contemplate retirement, yet we were unsure how my illness would affect our plans for the future. Additionally, Shirley and Kimberly both wanted to move away from Baytown upon our retirements, and I was having difficulty envisioning our leaving a home which had housed a Downing family for fifty-five years. I described all these concerns to Dad in probably greater detail that I am describing here, and once I had finished, he said simply, “It will all work out, Bob. By the way, how are the kids?”
I proudly described to him how Kimberly was living with us while she continued her college education but was now working for Memorial Hermann Hospital System and being very successful. I added that Bobby had been very successful with Hewlett-Packard, and he and Shanna had by then been married nineteen years and had two beautiful children, our prized grandson and granddaughter. “I wish you could meet your great grandchildren…you would be so proud,” I told him. We continued for almost an hour discussing events that had occurred in our family over the last few years. I even described all the remodeling I had done to the inside of the old Downing home, and yet it never occurred to me to invite him inside to see the improvements. Later, I realized we had never mentioned Mother, who died in 2004, and I never asked him where he had been or how he found himself on my backyard deck at 3:00 in the morning. Eventually, he observed that it would be getting light soon, and he had better be going, and I agreed that I should be getting back inside. It was all strangely very calm, as if I visited with him every day. “Remember, Bob,” he said, “everything will be all right.” He was still sitting in the deck chair as I stood up, stepped back into the house, and made my way quietly back to the bedroom. I slipped under the covers….and woke up.
I lay there for a couple of minutes wondering what had just happened. Did I have a dream? I had just had a conversation with my father, but Dad had passed away on December 31, 1990. Yet the experience seemed so incredibly real that I got out of bed, threw on my robe, went back into the kitchen and through the back door onto the deck, half expecting to see Dad still sitting there. There was nothing but the moonlight, trees, and the cool breeze exactly as I had seen it before. I stood there, listening for a sound and earnestly wishing he would reappear. I had so many questions to ask him that had not occurred to me earlier. Finally, after waiting several minutes, I went back to bed, still confused and pondering what I had experienced.
I told Shirley about my “dream” the next morning but did not go into great detail, and we didn’t spend much time discussing it. I still think about it from time to time and especially now that we are enjoying retirement. In the summer of 2008 I was diagnosed with leukemia and went through a series of chemotherapy treatments at M.D. Anderson Cancer Clinic. In March of 2009 I had surgery to remove a cancerous melanoma. In April we put the old Downing home up for sale, and it sold in a week for full price. We moved to a new area close to the kids and grandkids and are thoroughly enjoying our free time. We have discovered a fantastic church with amazing new friends. Since my health problems and our transition period have settled down, our lives have been just as good as those earlier traumatic days were bad.
The Bible discusses our lives after our natural death, and I have heard many opinions about what happens to us after we take our final breath. I have firm beliefs concerning the eventual return of Jesus Christ to Earth and the Judgment Day, but what happens from the moment of our last breath until those particular events is a little cloudy. Biblical terms for the hereafter, such as “paradise,” “Abraham’s bosom,” “third heaven,” and “sleep,” are bandied about by biblical scholars without too much real clarity on the subject. Neither do I claim any express authority concerning what happens when we pass on or where we go at the moment of death. But this I am certain, whether it was a dream, an apparition, or an actuality, when I approached the most traumatic period I have ever experienced in my life here on earth, the person who exercised the greatest influence on my life and whose concern and love for me never wavered somehow reached out from the unknown and offered one more word of encouragement to a son who needed every ounce of strength to survive a major life crisis.