In the summer of 2013, Diana Statzula planned to give a gift to her dad, Gene. A great gift.
A surprise 80th birthday party.
Though her family lived throughout the country, she hoped that a party might bring them all together.
“My dad’s health had not been good for a while,” she remembers. “He’d had a bunch of heart attacks and he was going to be 80. My parents had just had their 60th anniversary in October, and we had a huge party at the church. So I just started to ask people if they could all come… because it was probably going to be the last time.”
It all started on Facebook, she remembers. “My brother was in Wyoming, my sister was in Littleton. I talked to my kids and had my brother and sister talk to their kids.
“And I started to get messages and replies.”
Diana planned the party to be on December 28, two days after her father’s birthday. As word got out, more and more family members wanted to come to Montgomery for the party.
The event was especially exciting because Diana’s family had not been together in a long time. With family in Wyoming, Kansas, Colorado, Florida and Texas, this reunion was going to be memorable. A lot of work and planning was happening to ensure that everyone could be there.
To make the event even more special, Diana’s niece Myndi wanted to come. Though she had recently been released from jail, she asked for permission to attend the party. Her parole officer, understanding the importance of the event, gave her permission to cross state lines and enter New Mexico.
“Myndi hadn’t seen her mom in years because she had been in prison. And her mom had just been diagnosed with stage four cancer,” Diana says. “The fact that her parole officer gave her permission to come to my dad’s party was amazin
Everything was coming together. It was almost perfect. But In the fall, Gene’s health began to take away from the excitement.
“In October, [my dad] told me that he wasn’t going to make it,” Diana remembers. “It was because of that that I told him about the party. Because I wanted him to hang on.”
“He hadn’t seen his oldest granddaughter since she’d gone to prison. He hadn’t seen our son Robbie since before he went to Afghanistan.” Diana knew that he’d make it.
As he waited for the party, Gene was allowed to live at home with special machinery from the hospital. Diana remembers that “his cardiologist…put him on some special medication, which they normally don’t do. I think that the cardiologist knew; he was just trying to keep my dad alive for a while, for the party.”
Living at home with a nurse, Gene looked forward to the party in a few short months. “He had a pump that gave him medicine from the ICU,” Diana explains, “because we had been talking about this party. It was pretty awesome.”
In the middle of party and travel plans, though, something happened that Diana didn’t plan for.
On December 20, just eight days before the party, Gene didn’t wake up.
Diana didn’t know what should happen. Of course there wouldn’t be a party. But what about all of the plans that had been made? What about the travel? The days off?
Diana was not prepared for what happened next.
Jason and Courtney, two of her children, dropped everything and drove to Albuquerque. “They left within an hour of each other,” she says with a smile. “And they all got in at 11 or midnight that night. It just never occurred to me that my kids would drop everything, change their plans and come.”
Myndi’s parole officer also said that nothing had changed—she still had permission to go.
Diana’s sister came in early.
And Diana’s brother’s decided to come at the last minute; and he brought his family.
In one hectic week the party turned into a celebration of his 80 years of life. Three days after Christmas.
Diana remembers being overwhelmed by the response and support that she received from both her immediate and church family.
One of Gene’s last wishes was for his grandchildren to sing MercyMe’s song ‘I Can Only Imagine’ at his funeral. Though some grandchildren were more excited to do it than others, it ended up happening just as he would have liked.
“And I got it on video!” Diana shouts. “It is a really great thing to have.”
Jason Burnett, Montgomery’s Lead Minister, came very quickly to Gene’s apartment. Though Gene’s body was still laying on the floor, Jason was there to be with the family.
And other church members were especially there for Diana during this time. She remembers Jamie Smith being a shoulder to cry on. And Bill and Donna Estes helped out with the celebration.
“It was so incredible how [the church] was all there,” she says. “It was something I never really understood until then.”
A year later, Diana looks back and sees God’s hand in everything that happened. “It was the best and most difficult Christmas at the same time,” she says. “The Lord is limitless in what He can do. And it blows me away because it feels like He orchestrated it and showed up when we were hurting.”
And though she couldn’t give the gift of a party to her father, the family received an even greater one. “I feel like my dad brought his family together. His passing was the hardest thing I’ve experienced in my life. And it took me a long time to see the gift in all of it because of the grief.
“The gift was that we were all together to celebrate Christmas… It was a birthday celebration of Jesus, my dad and his entire life. It was such a gift to have our entire family together.”
"It was so incredible how [the church] was all there. It was something I never really understood until then.”
“I somehow think that my dad knew that he would die,” she remembers. “The day before he died he drove to Wal-Mart and to get a haircut. This was a week before anyone was supposed to come.
“That’s what makes me thing that somehow he knew. And I really feel like he was getting ready to meet his father.”
Gene got to be with his heavenly father five days before Christmas. Diana knows that he received the greatest gift of all.