I’ve told this story enough in the past week that I felt compelled to write it down. This is the story of how my dad passed, and also how I experienced the peace of Christ like never before after intense sorrow and sadness like I had never known.
My dad had prostate cancer six years ago. He was treated, cleared, and living normally, but with regularly scheduled checkups. He lived a pretty normal life since that time, with an emphasis on traveling and making the most of his time with my mom, his kids, grandkids and other relatives, because he knew there was a decent chance that some type of cancer could recur.
Sometime in the past 18 months (the dates get confusing) his checkup revealed some cancerous growth area’s on his bones. He entered an immunotherapy treatment program, but ultimately got kicked out of the program because it was having adverse affects on his gastro-intestinal tract.
This past summer, while our entire family was at the beach, he was in a lot of back pain while trying to enjoy the grandkids and play in the water, etc.
He eventually ended up at MD Anderson Cancer Center for radiation, pain meds, etc. He was in and out of MD Anderson from August until he passed away in December. The main reason he was there, was because they could not get his pain under control. They tried a lot of different things, but ultimately the cancer was too aggressive.
On the Saturday after Thanksgiving my parents called me and told me that they needed to talk to all three of us boys (I have 2 younger brothers). I had been dreading a call like this for some time and knew they would probably be stopping any attempt to treat the cancer. We arranged a 4 way phone call, and that is indeed what they called to tell us. My dad would be getting pain medications, and once the pain was somewhat under control he would be going home to receive hospice care and live as long as he could.
There were many tears on that call, this is what I wrote to some friends when sharing about it.
Mid morning today, he and my mom called me and my brothers today to have a group conversation on the phone (we were in Dallas for Thanksgiving). I knew this was going to be a life altering phone conversation. ..... The doctors told him this morning that this type of cancer is aggressive and there isn’t much of anything they can do about it without seriously threatening his health in myriad other ways... The doctor told them that he almost certainly would not make it to my parents 50th wedding anniversary in July of 2018. My parents informed us that he has elected to go home, go on hospice care, and live the rest of his days in their house and managing the pain........ Obviously, this was a contingency I had played out in my mind, but was devastating to actually hear. There were tears from all 5 of us, 7 including Jessica and my brother Josh’s wife who were also on the call. It was one of those moments that you experience, that you know will change you deeply while it is occurring, and it is still somewhat surreal and overwhelming... On the bright side, my dad spoke of life and love and Jesus in ways that I never imagined him doing as a kid and it is a testament to the transformational power of Christ. Seeing how different he is now as compared to when I entered college is dramatic. I was so proud to hear him speak the gospel so plainly to us. He wasn’t always a perfect dad, and Jesus the living person/God wasn’t a big part of our lives growing up, but ever since about 1994 my dad has been a different person and has walked with Christ. He has become an amazing person of faith over the past 25 years.
Obviously, we intellectually knew that his time was close. We had time to prepare ourselves, to have important conversations, to say all the things you want to say before someone dies. We were as ready as we could possibly be.
On top of that. I’m in ministry. A professional Christian. I have spent my life talking to people about life, death, faith, hope, heaven, resurrection, etc.. If anyone should have been able to handle this passing from temporal life into eternal life, it should have been me.
My dad never made it home to hospice. They were never able to really get his pain under control and two weeks after that call he passed away at MD Anderson.
This is what I wrote to friends and posted on Social Media:
On Saturday, Dec 9 at 3:30pm, our father, Tom Bonesteel, passed from this temporary life into eternal life with Christ. He was surrounded by his family all day Saturday, as we knew his time was close. We are filled with both sadness and hope. Sadness because of his absence from our lives, which is emotionally devastating, and hope because of dad’s unwavering faith in Jesus and his desire to be with him. The past few months he has been in tremendous pain as he fought against aggressive cancer to stay alive. We are relieved that his suffering has permanently ended, thrilled that he is with Jesus, and overwhelmed that we will no longer have him in our lives this side of eternity. We are grateful for all the prayers and encouragement we have received in the past few months.
Emotionally devastating were words that I chose very carefully. While I intellectually understood the “upgrade” my dad was getting by leaving his painful life that was filled with physical suffering the past few months, emotionally I felt like I had been hit by a truck. My soul was in pain like I had never imagined existed. I was weeping off and on all of Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday morning.
It just hurt so bad.
Every time I spoke with someone else who had lost a parent, I finally knew (at least somewhat) the anguish that they had experienced, and that re-intensified my own pain. I intellectually believed I would see my dad again, but I sure didn’t feel it. I wasn’t sure how people lived and functioned with this kind of loss. There really aren’t words to describe the feelings, they were so intense and painful. I didn’t know what to do, so I reached out to Jesus.
I prayed for myself what I pray for others in this situation, that the “peace of Christ which transcends understanding, would guard my heart and mind” (Philippians 4:6-7).
I randomly opened the Psalms and just read the first one I came to, desperately asking God to just give me something to hang my hat on (BTW, I don’t endorse this as a regular way to go about seeking counsel from the scriptures, but I was desperate and I was asking God to do a miracle in my life, I needed it). I opened to Psalm 57, here is what I read:
Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
for in you my soul takes refuge;
in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
till the storms of destruction pass by.
I cry out to God Most High,
to God who fulfills his purpose for me.
He will send from heaven and save me;
Exactly what I needed to hear. First thing I saw when I opened the Bible.
This was Tuesday morning, and I had to start working on my message for my dad’s memorial service. The text of what I said is further down in this post, and the key passage was from John 11, the story of Lazarus, which is the chapter I live in whenever I speak at a funeral.
As I prepared for that message, as I wrote my thoughts about my dad, as I read through John 11, something amazing, miraculous, significant and life-altering happened to me. The peace of Christ came over me. Not all of a sudden, not like a lightning bolt, more like a sunrise, slowly, with increasing intensity. It started as I sat at my computer writing the words below and it continued as I drove to my parent's home to help my mom go through pictures for the slideshow at the service. I was dreading looking through the pictures, because I thought it would be overwhelmingly sad. I was surprised by joy. The more I looked through and collected pictures of my dad, the more peace and joy I experienced. Finally, I drove to Cypress to drop some of the pics off at my brother Josh’s house and we laughed about some of the photos, and by the time I left his house (it was 8pm by now) I felt peaceful, hopeful, unburdened and excited about my dad. I was believing and feeling that he actually was more alive than he had ever been before; and I was going to get a chance to relive all these memories with him in the next life. I was strengthened in my inner being by Jesus. His peace was guarding my heart and mind. It was a miracle in my soul.
I told Jessica it was one of the 4 or 5 biggest things that has ever happened to me. Seriously, it was such an amazing internal transformation that I can’t stop talking about it.
I’m still sad, I still think about my dad first thing when I get up and FREQUENTLY throughout the day. I still miss him. I’m still not sure what life will be like with this person missing, but instead of despair I have hope. Hope is a big deal.
I’m told that grief will ebb and flow like waves in the ocean, and I believe it. But I’m experiencing joy in the midst of sadness. I’m functional. I feel 88% normal. That is 100% because of God's work in my life, in the midst of my desperation.
Caveat — this is me. This is how God ministered to me. I’m not you or anyone else. I don’t think this is a prescription for everyone else, although it may be for some. I just feel compelled to share it… to tell people what God has done in my life, because it’s made all the difference and I’m grateful.
All of that prepared me to give the most important speech of my life, these are my notes below if you’d like to read them, it’s not long.
My notes from my dad's memorial service
Tom Bonesteel, thank God he went by Tom and not his given name, Murl.
I’ve literally known him my entire life. (haha)
He was very proud of his military service. He served on active duty for 38 months and the remainder of his 31 years in the Army was in the reserves. He achieved the rank of Colonel, which is a real big deal.
He loved to work and to excel and be successful at whatever he did. Seriously, the dude loved to work.
He loved to have fun. He loved to drive around in the car, especially when we were on vacation. He loved going to the beach for a vacation. Some of our fondest memories are of him playing in the waves with us for hours. Our last family vacation, when I was in college, was to Hawaii, we drove………. all around the island.
He definitely enjoyed a good adult beverage, or a bad one. He wasn’t that picky.
He was a great dad.
He loved us.
He was always there for us.
He coached our baseball and soccer teams, whether he understood that particular sport or not.
He was super supportive of everything we did.
He did not grow up in an ideal situation, but he did his very best to create an ideal situation for us.
He was funny and silly.
Whenever we sang Happy Birthday to anyone, he would always say at the end very loudly “Stand up, stand up, we won’t shut up til you stand up!”
I want to be more like him in all of those ways, except maybe for that ridiculous song.
He wasn’t perfect, none of us are.
He could be very critical, and it took me a long time to figure out that he was critical because he wanted the best for us. That doesn’t mean he was always right, but it does mean his motives were pure if not always helpful.
Sometimes he could be cheap… one year for Josh’s birthday, because he knew Josh hated sweeping the driveway, he bought him a broom because he was too cheap to buy a blower…… on top of that, the broom was terrible, we all remember it because it was so difficult to sweep with, of course, we kept it for 20 years.
Because of his military service he was very particular about how we cleaned the house. He would quickly inspect the bathrooms and the windows and if he didn’t feel they were clean enough, he wouldn’t say “do it again”, or “that’s not quite good enough”, he would use only one word …… unsatisfactory. He would walk around and point at different things that weren’t done well and say “unsatisfactory, unsatisfactory, unsatisfactory”. We were remembering this on Saturday evening after he passed and my brother Josh looked around the room with our immediate family and just said “His dying was very ……. unsatisfactory.” Everyone laughed, that is our family, he was the center of it.
He also made us use old newspapers to clean the windows instead of paper towels, because he was cheap, and we think because it was harder, so he could say “unsatisfactory” more. I think he enjoyed saying it, and it became a family joke.
Back to the good stuff.
He was a phenomenal grandpa. Our kids loved him and thought he was ridiculous, which is probably exactly what he wanted. He loved spending time with them, and being the prototypical grandpa, feeding them donuts, sugar, candy, etc. He called them all “George” even though he only had granddaughters. George was short for George Goble. Which only makes sense if you are over 6o years old. He also called them “kenarshkins” and “Cuckarachi Girls” we have no idea why.
He said weird stuff like this all the time, and he often walked around the house singing old, weird songs incredibly loudly, mostly just to irritate other people in what he thought was a playful way.
He was married to my mom for 49 years and they made the most of that time. Especially the past 5 years, after he first got cancer…. He retired, they took trips together, they came to all the grandkids events. They lived life well together. We are very thankful for that time, because we got to make the most of it, and we were able to say all the things we needed to say to one another. It was a gift.
I’d like to take some time to talk about his spiritual life, his soul. What he believed and who God made him.
Like I mentioned he grew up in tough circumstances. His parents divorced when he was very young and he lived with relatives for a good portion of his childhood. He went to church and was around religion but it wasn’t a central driving force in his life. When he was a young adult he attended a Billy Graham Crusade and he went down front to meet with one of the counselors afterwards to ask them some questions, so he asked them, but he told me they couldn’t answer his questions. So he went on with his life, believing that God existed but not having any kind of relationship with Him.
He married my mom and they always attended church wherever they lived, but Jesus was not a super relevant part of his life. As kids, our family attended church regularly, but talking about God and Jesus was not something we did either.
Until the early 1990’s. I met the Lord through the ministry of Young Life in 1988 while in high school, and I started attending North West Bible Church in 1990 before I left for college. After I went to school my parents started attending North West Bible too, of their own choice. In 1994, I called home as a requirement for a paper I was writing for a class at UT about the genealogy of our families religious beliefs. My dad and I had a conversation about belief and he told me very clearly and with certainty “I’ve decided to give my life to Jesus”. I was blown away in a good way, because he had never used that kind of lingo with me before. During the years leading up to and surrounding that time both of my brothers had also met Christ while in high school through the ministry of Young Life , and I think our experiences; combined with what he was experiencing at church lead him to reexamine his life and go “all in” with Jesus.
That was real, and changed the course of his life. He was a different person after that time and his impact for Christ was felt by many including me. He started to look for ways to serve and give more generously.
We were in a bible study together for a year before I got married, where we learned to better husbands. He prayed for us regularly. He served in lots of different ways to make God’s kingdom known.
During this time, when he first started praying at meals….
For the past 25 years he has given his life to Jesus, daily. He keeps the song lyrics that are printed in the program in a frame above his desk, just below his picture of Clint Eastwood.
He spent the last years of his life mentoring young men through Hope’s Path, who described him last week as their first and most loved volunteer. He helped them get their ministry off the ground and the staff spoke passionately about his commitment to mentoring and discipling young men regardless of their circumstances. Some of this information was new to me, and was so encouraging that he had become such a significant man of God in many people’s lives.
When he and my mom called us Thanksgiving weekend to share with us the terrible news that he wouldn’t be receiving any more treatments he spoke passionately of life, love and his faith in Jesus. Whenever I visited him in the hospital or spoke to him about death in the past few years he assured me he was not afraid to die because of Jesus, but he was sad to miss out on seeing the rest of our families lives.
He was very evangelical and desired for others to come to know and follow Christ, so in this difficult time I’d like to turn to Jesus words for a few minutes to help make sense, of life, death, sorrow and hope.
John 11 - I walked through the story of Lazarus and I focused on: Please read John 11 by clicking here.
verse 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?
verse 35 Jesus wept. He knew what was going to happen, so why did he weep? He isn’t weeping becasue Lazarus was dead, he knew he wouldn’t stay dead. These are just my thoughts…. he wept because of death itself, because of sorrow, because of suffering, because of loss. I know my dad is ok, but it still hurts. Jesus weeps with us, he understands the pain and loss. He gets us. He weeps for all of the suffering and pain and sorrow that we feel. He is the ultimate empathizer.
The resurrection of Lazarus.
In order to back up his claim to being able to conquer death, Jesus chose to prove it by raising Lazarus from the dead. He has the power over death, and that is why we can have hope even in the midst of our sorrow, because Christ is risen, he has conquered death and we can look forward to seeing my dad, because of what Jesus has done.
Have you believed this? Tom Bonesteel believes it now more than ever before, because for the first time he sees all of this clearly. I’m 100% certain that he would want me to share this with you, so that you too can make a decision of your own to put your faith and trust for your life and your death in Jesus hands. That on the cross and because of the resurrection he paid for our sin and made a way for us to spend eternity with Him and each other.
We will miss him profoundly, but our hope is that we will see him again, and it will be much better than we can ever imagine.