The wreath on the door was festive–a final touch to the other lovely outdoor Christmas decorations that told passersby, It’s Christmas Time again.

Still, seeing the festivity made me think, One just never quite knows what’s going on behind a closed door, does she? What joys. What heartbreaks.

Opening, we stepped inside, and as we did, I was taken back to a couple years earlier–the first time I walked through that same door.


“Come on in!” So excited to get the door open, he fumbled with the key in the lock. Finally, it turned, and he led the way. “What do you think?”

We looked around. Although bare, no furniture having yet arrived, the space was lovely. Carpet in the living room and new cabinets in the kitchen.

My father-in-law, Dennis, led us from room to room–showing us where he planned to change an exhaust fan here, substitute a light fixture there, and replace the flooring–“Over there,” he’d pointed, concluding with, “Eventually anyway. One thing at at time.”

My in-laws were from Ohio just like my family, but–also like us–planned to move to North Carolina. “Can’t wait to retire to the mountains,” they’d said.

The day finally came. The moving van arrived on December 10, 2017. Grandsons came to help unload the heavier items. Boxes lined the floors, almost to the ceiling in places. Undoubtedly, there’s a lot to move when one’s lived in Ohio all his or her life–raised six children and added grandchildren in later years. Soon their belongings would fill their new NC home.

And in no time, sure enough, the empty space we’d seen only weeks earlier was filled with the cozy touches of two who loved the simple things in life–candles and knick-knacks, and matching, thematic memory-pieces that evoked nostalgia, exuded warmth.

They settled in and were quickly familiar with the area–joining a local church and frequenting often a favorite nearby grocery store. They both even procured part-time jobs–my mother-in-law Faith as an assistant to a Christian counselor and my father-in-law Denny at Willy Brooks, a local barbecue restaurant.

In the course of two years, they invested in the lives of their children and their families–some who lived nearby. They invited grandkids to spend the night and took them to Dollywood where, while the kids enjoyed rides, they enjoyed the crafts and shows.

It was their love for their grandkids and Dollywood that led them to devise a plan.

“With our season passes, we’ll take the kids each Tuesday in the summer and go to either Dollywood or Splash Country. After all, we’ve missed out on a lot of time being together over the years–miles having separated us as they have–so that will be extra special.”

And it was–the two or three times they were able to go. But then, one bright Tuesday morning, tragedy hit. Like the feeling one gets on the first hill of the Wild Eagle roller coaster, our stomachs dropped and our feet felt as though they’d flown out from under us.

Cancer–it hit hard.

Although he was able to see a urologist almost immediately, my father-in-law was diagnosed with late stage bladder cancer–the news coming, of all times, on his and Faith’s forty-fifth wedding anniversary. The man I remember as a girl–the friendly salesman at a local furniture store in my small Ohio hometown–was facing something fatal. It seemed almost impossible.

Dad Denny went through extensive surgery in early August–on his 73rd birthday. With the gift of modern medicine, we’d hoped the robotic procedure that took over five hours would–with the removal of his bladder–stop the spread of the disease. Though his life would be different after that, different wasn’t bad. After all, different can become normal. Different can become comfortable, even for a routine kind of guy like my father-in-law, who loved and appreciated the same, simple things in life–like the change of seasons, both summer and snow.

Same coffee drink from Starbucks.

Same scent Yankee candle.

Same shirt–his favorite, the one with the blue and white checked pattern.

Same hat–navy blue with Delta stitched in white.

But as too many know–too many are personally aware–sometimes that first adjustment to different just becomes a series of “differents,” much like adjusting where one fastens his belt, inching it bit by bit from one notch to another. Such was metaphorically and literally true for Dad Denny–as he lost weight, the disease progressing so quickly. All he wanted was to have enough time to settle into a “new normal,” but one new normal became instead another “different,” and time sadly seemed to be slipping from our hands.

We each held out for a miracle–had our reasons to do so. Wore the bracelets on our wrists that testified, at least to one another, that we believed God would be glorified in Dad’s healing. And while it felt a bit like a copout to say, “Either way, he’ll be healed–whether here or There, and God will be glorified,” we knew that was true. Still, we felt, at least at first, that a tangible miracle would happen on this side of Heaven. On this side of the veil. When Dad could be seen and touched and heard and even smelled with our physical hands and eyes, ears and nose.

That’s what we wanted. That’s what we believed.

So, as one different became another and there seemed to be no time to settle into any new normals, hope sometimes waned and fear felt big, while God felt, at times, far away and death loomed large.

That’s just the honest truth.

And as I watched my father-in-law as he journeyed through months–from his surgery in early August to the season of falling leaves and finally, to a day when families are supposed to gather to give thanks–I was humbled. Though I don’t know what happened in those moments alone with God–those times when anyone might be prone to shake fists at the heavens and cry out, “Why?” or simply say, “No!”–I never saw my Dad Denny do this. This man who loved the simple things, the routine things of life, lived in a world for more than several months of unknowns and abnormals and complicated moments where life–yes, death–wasn’t fair or made sense or seemed kind.

And that, too, is just the honest truth.


When Allie and I arrived for our visit on that chilly, snowless December evening, we stepped through that wreath-covered door into the warmth of their home. After dinner, my mother-in-law asked if I’d read the Advent devotion for the day. Both she and Denny listened as I read of Jesus’ birth, then Faith encouraged me to sing the closing hymn–which I did, quietly, with broken voice. Far from perfect, the lyrics were poignant just the same.

O come, O come, Emmanuel,

And ransom captive Israel

That mourns in lonely exile here,

Until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Then, exactly one week later, I stepped through that same door again–having run an errand for Faith. As I opened and entered that quiet space on that snowless Tuesday evening, I realized then that it had been exactly two years to the day since their initial move to western NC–December 10, 2017.

The thought interrupted my argument with God, because even when one’s theology has been hashed out–born out of seasons of wrestling–and feels firm, there are moments, moments when one still asks “Why?”–still cries out, “Stop the suffering, for crying out loud.”

Opening the door of their home of exactly two years, I was enveloped in quiet songs of praise, lights low, voices but a whisper. And it felt like a most holy space–much to me like the Bethlehem barn that was anything but pristine. Anything but clean, yet holy just the same–even with pain.

The irony of laboring to birth life and the laboring in death hit me hard.

A man who never doubted–at least that I witnessed–that God might heal him here but also believed that He’d certainly heal him There was stretched out on his hospital bed. Eyes closed, he didn’t speak, nor acknowledge my presence. After all, perhaps he was preoccupied with the company he was keeping.

Before him on the wall hung a large quilted tapestry depicting the Nativity. Everyone–the wise men, the shepherds, and Joseph and Mary–bent low to behold the Baby lying in a manger. Animals gathered round, too–with Dad Denny’s sweet dog Daisy lying near his feet, which seemed somehow so fitting.

As I sat on the couch observing–taking in the sight before me–I vacillated between both the bitter and the sweet. We knew the time was drawing closer–when we’d either see Sweet Jesus do a mighty physical work or would witness the slipping away into the sweetness of Heaven, which requires one’s faith to kick into high gear and believe what one professes, all the while wrestling with grief.

Hence, the bittersweet pill.

Every now and then, as we sat there witnessing the reality of death’s sting yet crying silently for God’s healing here, one or the other of us would hear Dad say something and thus, would bend low to listen.

After all, he’d called out earlier. That very morning, a gathering of his daughters–those who’d courageously and tenderly cared for his needs all throughout the night–heard him call out, “Ray! Ray!” with arms outstretched–as though seeing his own father-in-law, Faith’s daddy, for the first time since his passing in 2012.

As I sat on the couch that Tuesday night, I thought for certain I heard him whisper, and I, too, took my turn to lean in. Had I heard correctly?

Joseph and Mary.

No one else heard it, and I wasn’t even sure if I had, though I thought I did. And it made sense. After all, having said the names of several others, it wouldn’t be surprising for Denny to mention my parents–my dad Joseph and mom Mary. They’d been friends for more than forty years, and that’s no trivial thing. Though they’d been to see him just the day before, they’d not been by that particular day.

Then suddenly, like a whisper, I knew. Like those in the tapestry above his head–that holy nativity scene–it seemed that maybe Dad, too, was bending low. With eyes wide with the wonder of a boy, it was as though he’d entered into that heavenly scene in a very real way. Perhaps he was acknowledging others who were gathered there–Jesus’ own sweet mom and dad, seeing them for the first time with eyes more real and whole than even the most perfect of 20/20 sight one might experience in this lifetime.

Joseph and Mary.

And on December 10, 2019–two years after having opened the door of his home in the NC mountains to set up residence–our Dad Denny would step into his heavenly, eternal, and perfect Home–where sin and sickness are no more.

Yes. There, behind the door, beyond the veil–through which one simply cannot imagine the joys that await, though certainly without any heartbreak-he would behold the Lamb.

Allie and I left close to 8:00 that evening, while Bill and his siblings remained. Just before 10:30, I received the call from my husband that, by then, I guessed would come, and through the bitter of grief, my heart experienced the sweet peace that transcends all understanding and was almost immediately filled with joy inexplicable.

I looked out the window, and snow–Yes, snow!–was falling. And I knew.

Dad was Home and God was glorified.

O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer

Our spirits by Thine advent here;

Disperse the gloomy clouds of night

And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel–

Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Dear Jesus, please tell Dad Denny that we love him. That we’ll miss him. That we’ll see him again one day, when we, too–right there with him–behold the Lamb.

Dennis Ronald Miller 8/5/1946-12/10/2019