Category Archives: Heaven

Gone…But Not Forever…

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Graham, sharing with the millennials group in 2012. He was in a recovery program in Atlanta and in a ‘good place’

It’s fitting that before I could post this, my 9th (and presumably last) installment since our son passed, I needed to sit by Graham’s graveside and read it out loud to him. I’m not intending to sound melodramatic, but, somehow, I feel I owed him that. Anyway, you, dear reader, have graced me more than you know for following along. Processing this way has helped ferret out many of the emotions tremendously. Thank you. Oh, and since I’ll still be blogging, come back and visit from time to time. I’ll probably need an ear or a comfy shoulder again soon.

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(Continued from previous post, “Gone…But Not Homeless…”)

It was March, in the year of our Lord, 2003. Our church family was challenged to believe Jehovah-rapha for my healing, to press in, intercede, and see if God wouldn’t take my body and raise it from the prison of paralysis, and grant the healing so many cried out for. Graham, then 13, was out front, emotionally leading the charge.

Before we left for church that morning, this conversation ensued:

“Dad, let’s put the regular van driver’s seat in today.”

“The regular chair?” I asked.

“Yes sir. You’re not going to need your wheelchair after the service. You’re getting healed this morning,” he answered with unhinged exuberance.

I knew that “faith comes by hearing the word of Christ” so I used the moment to teach my boy a little something about how God operates, as best I understood it.

“Has God told you I would be healed today, Graham?” I pressed.

“I just know you will be, Dad!”

“Graham, buddy, I haven’t heard that He will. Only that we are to ask together as a church family and see what God might do,” I tenderly explained.

He could not be deterred. He even held a stiff hand out to stop me.

“I know you’ll be healed today, Dad!”

And that’s when I sensed something dangerous afoot. I had to do something, say something, to help my son see that just because it’s a strong wish doesn’t mean it’s God’s will.

“Graham, what if I’m not healed today?” I pleaded.

He shook his head sternly. He wasn’t hearing that. No way. I was getting healed that morning. End of story. The matter, as far as Graham was concerned, was dropped.

The rest of that morning, I didn’t pray with the couple hundred who gathered around me, pressed shoulder to shoulder, groaning and pleading and crying out for my healing. Instead, I was praying for a boy whose young faith was almost certainly going to take the hardest of hits. I felt Graham at my right shoulder, dying by degrees the longer the prayers went “unanswered”, and knew in my spirit he’d be fully deflated by the end of the morning.

We left that service and I rode the lift up into the van and locked my wheelchair into its place behind the steering wheel. Just like always. Graham, sitting in the co-pilot’s chair, was quiet. Nothing changed. The hopes he’d pinned to my full healing were lying in shattered pieces at his feet.

Later, in the gloom, Graham confessed to something else occurring while all the praying was going on. It confused him greatly.

“Dad, everyone had their eyes closed, but I just watched. I watched you for awhile, but nothing was happening, so I just started watching people.”

There was an unsettled expression on his face that prompted me to ask: “Did you see something?”

“I saw Jesus,” he said.

I didn’t say a word. I trusted my son. If he said he saw Jesus, I believed him. Whatever it was he saw confounded him, clearly.

“He just kinda appeared in the back of the church. Then He passed through all the people and came right up to you.”

“To me?” I prodded.

“Yes sir. He just knelt in front of you.”

“Did you see His face?” I asked, masking excitement.

“Not really. That was a blur. But I remember He put His hands on your legs and I could tell – even though I couldn’t see His face – that He was looking at me.”

I thanked God that night for graciously revealing Himself – in whatever way it was – to the most devastated soul in the room. That experience puzzled, more than moved, our son. He wasn’t making up a story to appear spiritual. No, he was already mad. He didn’t want anything to do with God. But he couldn’t deny…something happened. And was flummoxed.

A common prayer of mine became,

For Graham, I pray that a great and mighty olive tree would grow from his tender shoot and that future generations would be blessed through him. May he not “settle among the Philistines” but always pitch his tent in spiritual places, leaving altars to You everywhere he goes, and may he constantly be seeking to build new altars to You! May the fire never go out. May faith be his walking stick, and obedience his shoes, and may Your provision always fill his backpack every mile of his journey with You…

The pull of darkness, however, was irrefutable and our gorgeous son, in spite of God’s tender overtures, lacked the intent to refuse its draw. He was defiantly pitching his tent toward Philistia.

There was no lack of warnings, mind you. One of Graham’s strongest champions, his school administrator who loved him unconditionally, once looked into his eyes and said, rather brokenly,

“Graham, you have had so many chances to repent – more than most. Just remember, young man, GRACE REFUSED IS GRACE REMOVED.”

Dark storm-clouds began to move across his countenance. His sweet face turned sullen and hard. In short order, he was devolving into a slave of darkness, feeding himself the opiates of satan’s kingdom to compensate the emptiness within. He hated God, hated me, hated church, hated ministry, hated…yes, I’m very certain, even himself.

Many have commented on his tattoos and have seen it as a positive expression of his artistic side. I’m sure there’s s o m e of that but I also have an altogether different take on it. While I was so proud of his script (handwriting was never his specialty!) and how beautifully his drawing was evolving, many of his own tattoos were also ugly and dark. I sensed for some time that the way he inked his body reflected how he intrinsically felt about himself, deep down, minus the masks.

I know others will take issue with me on this front, but I know my son better than anyone except his mother, plus I know a thing or two about the nature of evil and how it manifests. It eats from the inside out.

I also know that 24-year old Graham was tired of his rebellion. Living in opposition to the higher plan of God does that to you.

It exhausts you.

It leaves you empty and unfulfilled, running on putrid fumes.

In the fullness of Graham’s shortened time on earth, God intervened and mercifully rescued our boy and received him home. God’s grace does that. It takes what the enemy means for evil, turns it upright, and creates something beautiful from the wreckage of our choices. Something praiseworthy.

This GLORIOUS REVERSAL first became evident to us when Dr. Venugopal, the attending cardiac ICU doctor at the Univ of MN hospital, called me at 5:30 p.m. on December 16th. I had been expecting her call for several hours so I had my pen and little notebook handy to write down everything she said. The last word we got was that Gra-Gra was found alone in a car, unresponsive at the scene, likely an overdose, but that he was on some sort of “blood warming” machine and that the next 24-48 hours were critical to his survival.

That’s all we knew.

So I’m driving Sandy to the airport so she can catch a flight to Minnesota to be with her baby boy and we’re scared and we don’t know details and we just want someoneanyonetocall
andletusknowthateverything’sgoingtobeokaywithourGraGra
andwhyisn’tthedoctorcalling…?

We pull up to a Zaxby’s because Sandy hasn’t had a thing on her tummy all day. The drive-thru lane is wrapped around the building for the supper-time rush, so my lovely goes inside, discovers she has no appetite, orders a drink, then visits the ladies’ room.

And.

You guessed it.

While I’m waiting in the van, Dr. V calls.

I pull out my pen and moleskin notebook. I need to write it all down, word for word, can’t miss a detail because I’m not, by nature, very detail-oriented (except in my writing) and I’ll need for Sandy to be completely in the loop.

“Mr. Mitchell?” the female voice responds when I say hello.

“Yes?” (Pretty sure my voice cracked)

“Mr. Mitchell, I’m the doctor in the cardiac ICU here at the hospital. You can call me Dr. V because my name is pretty long…”

My heart is in my throat.

“Mr. Mitchell, what do you know at this point?” she asked kindly, like a gentle counselor, not professionally.

I told her.

“Mr. Mitchell, I understand your situation is that you’re in Georgia?” Her voice lilts on the end.

“That’s right.”

Dr. V sighs. And pauses.

“Mr. Mitchell…”

I’m ready, pen in hand. Can’t miss anything she says.

“…If only there was some other way to do this…”

I thought she meant having to give all the medical jargon over the phone rather than face-to-face.

I thought…

Rather, she said ten plain words: “Mr. Mitchell, I’m so sorry, but your son is…”

Oh God

“…GONE.”

My hand, holding the pen, was shaking. A blast of sorrow came through my insides and exploded out my mouth. I don’t usually cry hard. My eyes get watery and leak, sure. My voice cracks, yeah. I pause to collect myself, certainly. But this was so sudden, so unexpected, a dam inside released and oceans of sorrow – years of pain and pent-up sadnesses – broke out and through.

I heard Dr. V saying other words but I, for whatever reason, put down my moleskin notebook and picked up a white piece of paper in the cupholder. Who knows why? It was a receipt from an earlier stop. I turned it over and wrote a single word:

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I’m almost finished, you’ve been so patient to make it this far, but I beg you to stay with me because the next paragraphs are the most critical. They put the “amen” to this epic story. Read on, I beg you. You won’t regret it.

Earlier that same afternoon, as Sandy raced home from an early shift, to pack and race again to catch a flight out of Atlanta, a myriad of thoughts whirled through her mind. At the forefront was her son’s soul. She cried. She prayed. She veered through traffic. She stormed heaven.

God, who was already cradling our boy, prompted Sandy, through the chaos, to play her worship CD. He always seems to speak to her through music. Her finger touched play and the disc responded with the song, “Amazing Grace, My Chains Are Gone.”

Meanwhile, I’m sitting at the dining room table, waiting for Sandy to get home and I’m crying out for my son’s soul at the exact same time. I’m thinking the next day-to-two-days is crucial, so I’m praying that God will intervene. I honestly was thinking this will be Graham’s ‘wake-up call’, that he’ll somehow survive, and I’m asking God to run ahead and use it to redeem him from his broken path.

And turn his heart toward home.

Little did I know he was already there.

Once upon a time I’d been given a word for Graham: “as long as you’re looking for a way out instead of the way HOME, you’ll always remain a prodigal.”

Recalling that truth, I prayed this scary turn of events would turn our prodigal son home.

So I prayed. And, just as Sandy was prompted to push play to hear from heaven for herself, the Father of mercies niggled at me to open the Bible app on my ipad and read the “verse of the day.” And this is what it was:

Psalms 85:2-3
You forgave the iniquity of your people;
you covered all their sin.
Selah
You withdrew all your wrath;
you turned from your hot anger.

Maybe my theology is askew here, maybe my imagination is running awry, but you’ll be hard-pressed to convince me otherwise of what I believe my son’s dying moments were like in the realm of the Spirit.

I believe the adversary – satan – was fully convinced Graham Scott Mitchell would be his. As our baby man was expiring in that back seat, the accuser was posturing for his claim, talons snicked, breath hot and visage contorted with hellish glee. He had won. He was sure of it.

But in those last milliseconds, as our son’s breathing slowed to a final heave, a Voice thundered in the heavenlies. As his last gasp pushed through the natural realm and into the unseen, I can almost hear what the Almighty commanded as He dispatched His guardian escorts:

Psalms 87:4-6
Among those who know me I mention Rahab and Babylon;
behold, Philistia and Tyre, with Cush —
“This one was born there,” they say.
And of Zion it shall be said,
“This one and that one were born in her”;
for the Most High himself will establish her.
The Lord records as he registers the peoples,
“This one was born there
.”
Selah

The great deceiver was himself deceived in the end.

HALLELUJAH!

Dear reader, if you’ve journeyed with me in these few posts, you’ll agree that these truths buttress and serve as soluble bookends to our boy’s life and are our unarguable and unchanging testaments to this God-story:

The LORD gave…miraculously
The LORD has taken away…mercifully

Thank you, merciful God, for setting Your affection on Graham, and seeing him Home before the darkness swallowed him up. I know You ran to meet him, because You never disowned him, and that’s how You treat Your own. Thank you for letting us have those very last words with our boy: “I’m so glad your mine” (Sandy) and “I’m so proud of you” (Me). Now he’s safe, he’s gleaming and he’s free.

Amazing Grace, his chains are…GONE.

Clouds Into Stars: Celestial Stories of Our Son

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My boy on one of the many ‘father-son’ ministry trips we took together; here, we’re at Christian Overcomers disability camp

Today is month two of our son’s leaving his cold, hard earth and finding full and final freedom in the arms of Jesus. He is home free and we, the left behind, praise the Father for giving our sweet, embattled boy an entrance (2Pe 1:11). These final two posts will be the most difficult in the series, as I want to tell the truth, painful as it is, but preserve the memory of Gra-Gra with the grace and dignity it demands. Thank you, reader, for following along with us…

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What does this ‘resurrection body’ look like?…What we plant in the soil and what grows out of it don’t look anything alike. The dead body that we bury in the ground and the resurrection body that comes from it will be dramatically different. You get a hint at the diversity of resurrection glory by looking at the diversity of bodies not only on earth but in the skies—sun, moon, stars—all these varieties of beauty and brightness…

– Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthian believers (Chapter 15, MSG)

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Once upon a Sunday night, my little boy was staring out the passenger window and looking into the evening sky. He was silent for several minutes.

“What’cha thinking about, buddy?” I asked.

He turned to me and I saw the most serious expression on his sweet boyish face.

“Dad,” he began, “you know when the clouds go away they become stars?”

“They sure do, buddy.” I smiled at my prodigy.

My boy.

Sigh.

Oh, the insufferable ache!

Fifteen or so years later, give or take, I’d be looking into his casket; face, neck, hands and arms – every exposed place – just covered with tattoos. Innocence erased. Boyish wonder swallowed by a life that had stolen away too many spring-times and summer adventures and given only harsh winters in return. My little boy lost. A young man who tried to grow up way too fast and far too free.

Looking back, I’ve said some pretty hard words in my years of life and ministry…but nothing I’ve ever had to say compares to this:

My sweet boy died from a heroin overdose, cold, alone and homeless.

I can’t believe those horrible words just spilled from my fingertips and now smudge my screen. Dark. Unrelenting. Mocking. It’s out there. I’ve actually written it. And now I feel sick.

This boy?

This same little boy who, on the way home from church on Sunday, with family settled in for the quiet ride, begins singing “I Love You, Lord” word for word – and in perfect pitch – from his little fastened-in car seat? And, oh, did I mention he was only 18 months?…

This same little charmer who sidled up next to his mama and bravely watched a drama depicting the five missionaries who spilled their life-blood in Amazon sand and were added to the hallowed list of martyrs, at which he looked up at her with fiercely honest eyes and remarked, “that’s what I want to do with my life!”…?

My little third grader whose girlfriend Stasia ‘broke up’ with him, then later, on the playground, had told her best friend he broke up with her, which led to said friend pushing Gra-Gra down and calling him a “stuck-up ***-hole”, then mocked him, saying, “aren’t you going to cuss back?” and our Gravy Train picking himself up, brushing himself off and replying with a sense of bravado, “Nope. I’m a christian”, then she called him a “stupid christian” and he just smiled…?

You mean, that brave little guy?

My precious seven-year old who told me he wanted to be an astronaut when he grew up, and when I jokingly asked “you don’t want to be a preacher?” (I never pushed this on him), honestly replied, “I’ll be an astronaut who goes to church and loves the Lord”…?

Our darling first-grader, holding the ‘S’ sign for his Christmas program and standing ramrod-straight and belting out the all-too-famously encouraging Advent passage of Luke 2:10,11 loudly and proudly? Surely not him?…

The very Gra-Gra Scott who changed his “when I grow up” declaration a year later and told us he wanted to be THREE THINGS: “a father, a ‘ski racer’, and a husband”, then proceeded to inform us with utter sincerity “I won’t even kiss a girl before I’m married, and if she asks me to dance, I’ll say ‘uh-uh, not until I get married!'”…?

Our little ‘Bubby’ who would not be silenced on McDonald’s playgrounds, telling other little boys and girls about his True Love Jesus, and Sandy getting a couple different stare-downs from appalled mothers, to which she could only smile and shrug, and the day our little guy actually “led a little African-American playmate named Terrance to the Lord”…?

Him? Dead of a heroin overdose at twenty-four, all alone in the back seat of a car?

Our precocious nine-year old who walked in on Mommy and Daddy one morning in Clearwater, Florida, then ran out giggling and telling Grandmother about what he saw…?

Not my ten-year old little shadow who lamented to me one day he didn’t have a best friend, then me saying “sure you do, buddy, tell me who you’d rather spend your time with more than anyone else on earth” and hearing him say, “you, Dad”…?

Him?

Oh, dear God, no…

But…yes. The very same.

I have an entry in my journal, dated July 1, 1999, when Graham was not yet ten, and I’m crying out to my Father in heaven for the soul of my son who was struggling with his young faith, questioning everything about God, already with a scary bent to go every way but God’s way and I’m drawn to a single phrase that apparently reflected the fear I held for my child: “

“Dear God, I beg you, do not let my son run in rebellion…

The prayer that was my mainstay through the second third of his life, written all through my prayer journals, was that the Lord would keep my baby from drugs, pre-marital sex and a prodigal life. I wanted him to go to the altar a virgin. I begged God to make my son “a man You would write about”.

Over and over…

                                 and over…

                                                                  again.

How I wish for better endings.

And yet…

I’m reminded of a wrinkled piece of paper I carried around the country with me for many years, tucked in with my sermon notes; an illustration I used to highlight the sovereign goodness of the Almighty who can override our wants and plans anytime He chooses, simply because He loves us relentlessly and wants so much more for us than we can imagine for ourselves.

It told of a parchment found in the clothes of a dead Confederate soldier that cataloged the prayers of the fallen man throughout his life, and how nothing turned out as he hoped. The final stanza included the words, “in the end, I got nothing I asked for, but everything I hoped for.”

I’ve got my own stanzas and recollections of our Gra-Gra Scott (there are dozens and dozens more, I assure you), each their own separate “star” in an evening sky clouded right now by heartache, questions, griefs and wish-fors. Even some Dad regrets.

But, in the end, when the clouds roll away, there is nothing left but a brilliant galaxy of truth, lit by the unarguable proof from our Father (next post) that the same tattooed shell I looked upon in his casket two months ago is right now and forevermore adorned with everything his crying heart on earth hoped for: real peace, real hope, real answers, real freedom…real life.

Among those whom we shared a hug with in the five-and-a-half hour long receiving line at Graham’s viewing was a blind man who sees things mere mortals can never see, a friend, arm-in-arm with his wife who guided him to me. Tom handed me a note and told me to give it to Sandy later. He said it was “hefty and robust” and she needed to know what God spoke to him.

Later on that night, home and still reeling from the impending chore of burying our only child the next day, I unfolded the note, read its contents, and silently broke. The words told my wife that “one day you will see your son, running to you, skin gleaming.”

You were right, son. When the clouds go away, they turn into stars. Tonight we’ll look up and ‘see’ you shining and feel you running toward us.

And we’ll be okay.

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Graham at Teen Challenge, PA 2005

Graham at Teen Challenge, PA
2005

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Gravy and I, Good Friday Passion Concert, Verizon Ampitheater

Family, Millennial Gathering, 2012

Family, Millennial Gathering, 2012

Sandy and Gra The Keys, 2007

Sandy and Gra
The Keys, 2007

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Gra-Gra during testimony service following mission trip to Honduras.

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Kindergarten program at school

My son and I praying together at a church event.

Gra and I praying together at a church event a decade ago.

Adoption Finalized; 1990

Adoption Finalized; 1990
Parents and sister, back row with ‘official’ Mommy

Good Grief

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Copyright © Tayfun Eker. All rights reserved.

On December 16, our only child, a son, left this earth and found his place at Jesus’ table. Graham’s passing was unexpected and sorely painful, but Sandy and I are finding, in the mess, the beautiful handprint of God. I’m attempting to write in the rawness of this near-season, because that’s how I process. Please forgive any puzzling sentiments; this is brand-new territory. And be patient with me; this may be the first of several postings.

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Burying your child bites.

At any age.

And Christmas, no less.

If it wasn’t so sad, it’d seem almost ‘made-for-Lifetime-tv’ cliche.

An empty stocking. A poignant absence. A cask of memories stoppered, it’s aroma sealed off so that only the fragrance left over could be imbibed. It’s tough sledding.

Yesterday I returned two books to the library for my bride. The sweet girl with the kewpie doll voice asked about our holidays. I paused a couple of ticks, then lied.

It was great, etc., etc., family in town, etc., great food, laughs, etc., etc….

Her co-worker overheard and added, ” oh that’s good; mine was the best in memory.”

I bowed and took my leave. I could’ve sucked the air out of the atmosphere right then with a story made for Kleenex, but what possible end would that achieve? I wheeled toward the exit, smiling, and kept our library a tissue-free zone.

My next stop was the neighborhood hair cuttery. What the heck, I thought. It happened. I can’t hide it forever. So when the smiling girl behind the counter asked my phone number, I knew her screen would pull up two names, mine and my boy’s.

“Are you Scott?”

“That’s me,” I said cheerily enough. A few clacking noises of fingernails on keyboard, then, I took a breath and took my chance.

“You can remove Graham’s name.”

I did it. I requested the erasure of my son’s memory from their hard drive.

She laughed, probably a little too loudly for anyone’s comfort. “Remove it?” she half-smiled, but now seemed momentarily puzzled.

“Yeah, go ahead and take it out.”

In retrospect, I’m pretty sure she thought I was being facetious?

Because now she smiled a full-white-teeth smile.

“I know its morbid,” I continued, “but he’s no longer with us…”

What happened next caught me off-guard.

“Okay, Mr. Mitchell, right this way…”

She never even acknowledged what I said. I followed her to her station and parked in front of her mirror where I saw the reflection of a dad who had just lost his son, laid his body to rest, and would never know the feel of grandkids bouncing on his paralyzed lap. In ten minutes, the insipid business of clippers on head and hair on floor was over; I paid, tipped generously, and quietly removed myself from the premises, already on to the next jejune errand. Sigh. Life goes on.

Good grief.

Tonight, as I compose these thoughts, I’m surrounded by the din of small talk and redolent aroma of coffee in a bookstore cafe. No one here knows me, thankfully, or what I’ve just been through. I find the juxtaposition of conflicted feelings has got me all Sybil-ed out. On the one hand, I’m safe in my nest of anonymity. On the inexplicable other, I want to tap on my cardboard cup with my plastic spoon and announce to the room I’m grieving. I somehow think if I did that, a few might be mildly irritated by the interruption, some would be confusedly alarmed and others might smile, nod in deference, then return to their paused-on paragraphs, none the wiser.

Who would it help? No one, most of all me.

I easily relent.

It’s been almost two weeks removed from “the call” (next post) and the suddenly-childless couple are braving the public. We want to, yes, need to, get out, but we’re not yet ripe for frivolity.

The day after laying our son’s body in a scar in the earth and paying our soulful respects, someone wanted us to leave all that weight and grief behind and let Madea turn our mourning into dancing with them. Completely understandable. But nowhere near our radar.

There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.”
― C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

Amen, Clive. I so get you.

It’s hard to be on Facebook these days. For all its good, it can be painfully obtrusive or, even worse, obtuse. Aloof. People’s lives (rightfully) have already moved on past our momentary grief. We’re just not that interested in friends’ parties, get-togethers, selfies and animal snaps. But I too have been the unaware perpetrator of similar ‘crimes’ against others’ sorrow. Sitting here atop my own ash heap of dirge, I’m acutely aware of it.

We’ll move on, yes, but grief is, paradoxically, healing.

So we’ll heal here in the warm bath of hurt.

And praise Him in the pile.

On the day I knew of my son’s departure from this hard earth, I was visited by a friend. He came to the house, drew a chair close beside my own in the dining room and wept there with me, wordlessly, for fifteen minutes. Tears didn’t run down his cheeks, they flung outwardly to the floor. After he hugged me and held my hand, he prayed a few-second prayer, hugged me again then left. I still talk about that visit. There was no Romans 8:28, though it’s no less true. No counsel, though we welcome words of life into our soul. No bumper sticker theology. No tweets. No platitudes. Just grief. Good grief.

We’ll be okay.

We are okay.

We’ve been prepared for this. God has made us ready. And when our Father requires us to redeem our suffering by entering into the suffering of another – which He will – we’ll most gladly tell of His good deeds, gracious intentions, expert wisdom and unfailing love – without words, if we have to; with simply being present; with silent sobbing; with resurrection hope; with His authority, because of a new degree added to our schooling.

On the night before Graham’s funeral I wrestled with my responsibility to share something. The people need to hear from us. I didn’t want my silence to be translated into depression or hopeless grief. The pastor in me wanted to explain, expound, exposit and exhort. The encourager in me wanted to encourage the many who came with question marks. It turns out, my pastor friend handled it with all the eloquence and grace I pined for. He was magnificent.

I, on the other hand, listened to my wife who said, “it’s okay for us to grieve, Scott. Just for today, would you be a Dad instead of a minister?”

Yes, my love. Yes, a million times over!

I like Dad mode. Who says it’s supposed to be over?