I still remember becoming a father for the first time. For the first time in my life I wondered if I was really up to the challenge. I was so happy and proud, but also a little scared.
Toni Lee Unger was Glenda’s and my parents first grandchild. Although my father was mildly disappointed not to have a grandson, everyone loved our little bundle of love. Ungers have pretty babies! Her round eyes and long eyelashes caused everyone to swoon. Glenda and I were so happy and proud.
The first floor of our home at the time made it possible to walk from room to room in a circle. I remember walking in circles for sometimes up to an hour to sooth little baby
Toni when she was cranky. Having her in my arms was such a pleasure.
Toni very early learned to like stopping at Sandy’s Hamburgers which were only fifteen cents. When she saw the lighted sign, Toni would say “Pepise” which we thought was so cute that we really had difficulty driving by without stopping for a treat.
Pepsi, usually diet, became Toni’s favorite beverage. Later in life she changed to preferring Diet Coke. Toni was never a coffee drinker. Interestingly during her final stay in the hospital her taste changed back to preferring Diet Pepsi. Her last few days she lost her taste for soda, preferring just plain water.
We have had many quality times with Toni during the past few weeks. Recently Toni told her mother that “you had me an extra 35 years.” She was referring to the time that Glenda ran over her with the car when she was only two. I was helping with a bus ministry at church so Glenda and Toni went home without me. Glenda parked the car, a full sized Oldsmobile, on the concrete driveway. Apparently the transmission was not securely in drive, because the door open knocked Toni from her mother’s arms, the left front tire of the car ran over the torso of our toddler! The tire marks on her white leotards provided a clear map of the path of the tire. Toni went into shock, but x-rays did not find any damage to our daughter!
Toni is the only one of our three children to ever visit Disneyland. When she was three, we make a trip to California with Glenda’s folks. In spite of the long ride, it was a family event which still causes us to smile. We rode Dumbo, went aboard the Queen Elizabeth and ate fancy pastries at Solvang. Toni had many stories about her fun time at “Busyland.”
Toni was always a happy kid who liked school, but some parts of school were better than others. In third grade she filled out a work sheet that asked various questions such as: “What do you like most about school? What is the most important part of school? What is the hardest part of school?, etc. All of her answers were the same! “Math.”
All of our children worked detassling corn, except Toni was the only one to stick it out for the entire season. She often needed extra encouragement at first, but once she became fully involved she was in for the duration.
She had a paper route for many years in Blandinsville delivering the Macomb Journal. While we helped her some, she did much of the work herself.
During her High School years she attended basketball camp at Eureka College. Toni was recognized for being the most improved player. She really loved the game even though genetics did not give her an ideal sports body! Later she had the privilege of playing basketball at Lincoln Christian College. I will never forget watching her team play against Moody Bible Institute. I think they lost, but it was a winning game as far as I was concerned.
At Northwestern High School, Toni played in the band all four years even though the band at that time was very small. She got really good at the flute and even was tutored some by Steve Richter who now teaches music at Monmouth College. Toni tirelessly marched in the band, sometimes when the parade route was two miles long. Although somewhat horizontally challenged, a trait that runs in my family, Toni seemed to be a very healthy young girl.
Though not a straight “A” student, Toni studied very hard and was honored for her achievement by being inducted into the “National Honor Society” during her Senior year. She did her own work, but I did do her typing (and proofing) for her. Toni never did get good at the keyboard.
Toni was never one to ask for much. During her High School years we would give her a “five” when she went to a football game and she would give us four dollars in change. I don’t think she would have complained if we hadn’t given her any money.
She was the only one of our children who rode the bus all four years of high school. Toni was not a complainer and never wanted to be a bother to anyone.
It was my desire that Toni attend a Christian College at least one year. Being a very compliant child, Toni enrolled in Lincoln Christian College. During her Freshman year she sang in the Chorale which had a Spring tour in Florida. Her mother and I heard the Chorale perform once at the college campus and one in Springfield. She made her mother and father very proud. Toni had a wonderful alto voice, but was reluctant to sing solos.
During the three semesters Toni was in school in Lincoln, I was a commuting student at Lincoln Christian Seminary. Not only did this provide me with the opportunity to visit her weekly, but I keep her well supplied with “Diet Pepsi.” Her friends were amazed at her stack in the store room, which often was ten or more cases. Toni never asked me to do it. I just never wanted her to run out!
When she returned home to finish her education at Spoon River College and Western Illinois University, she applied for a job at Wal-Mart. She was overwhelmed her first day as a cashier and wanted to quit. We encouraged her to give it at least a week and the job turned out to be her career. Toni always loved helping people and was quite content with her “college” job after graduating from W.I.U.
Toni celebrated 17 years at Wal-Mart May 27th of this year. One of her goals was to make it twenty! June 2 of this year was her last day to work. Water retention was making it impossible for her to be on her feet. June 18 she took her last shower as we left for Iowa
Cities to attempt a medical measure to extend her life. It did not work. She returned home June 23, but in less than twenty-four hours we were on our way to McDonough District Hospital. Toni never got out of bed again.
During her final hospitalization, we had many quality times. We all agreed that we wanted quality rather than quantity, but little did realize that the quantity of days ahead in this world was so few. During her final days, Toni expressed many goals, most of which she never accomplished.
She expressed her desire to have one more trip to a White Castle, which would require a trip of several hours. Toni also longed to eat at Lee’s Chicken where she found her favorite livers and gizzards. We often stopped at Lee’s in Rolla, MO on our way to visit Grandma Unger in Southern Missouri. I was really hoping that we would be able to do both, but I realized that was only a hope.
Toni wore button pictures of her two nieces, Olivia and Laurel, on her work clothes. They were very special to her. She once expressed her desire to live long enough to see the new baby that is due in December, but that too became just a pipe dream.
When the staff at Heartland asked her want her goals were, she stated that her parents would like her to get strong enough to go home. Toni wanted that more for us than for herself. It soon became clear to her that home in Heaven was more realistic.
Sunday afternoon, June 15, Toni was in an unusually reflective mood. She really got everything said that she wanted to get “off her chest.” Much of what she talked about was very personal, but it was clear that she wanted everything right before she left this life. Glenda and I were not planning to stay late, but we just couldn’t leave with Toni having so much that she needed to say. We left at 10:30 p.m. and got a call soon after we arrived home from the nurses stating that we should return. We really thought that was going to be Toni’s departure from this life.
We had several false alarms after that, but Thursday morning, July 26, things were different. The Hospice Nurse told us that there was definitely a change and that in her opinion she had a couple of days left. The next afternoon with all of her immediate family gathered around her bed she breathed her last breath.
About a week earlier, Toni told me that she had a peace about her dying. She said, “I think you and mom can take it.” About a week before that Toni had expressed her apprehension that “we were dying around her” because of the long hours we were spending by her bed in the hospital. Even in her final hours, Toni cared more about us than her own physical circumstances.
Our daughter was prepared for Heaven and was looking forward to it. We are confident of her faith in Jesus and are looking forward to the day when we will be reunited with her. In the mean time, we will never forget that big smile. Toni always saw the glass half full.
Like so many people, I saw Toni Unger frequently when I was in Wal-Mart over the years, but I didn’t really get a chance to get acquainted with her until she was in the hospital these last few weeks. Over the past several weeks I have learned some things about her that I want to share with you. At the end of my “verbal snapshots” we are going to give you a chance to share some of your quick pictures of Toni. Maybe you have a quick story or a special memory of Toni this afternoon that you will share to help us celebrate and thank God for her life.
I think you can use a number of words to describe Toni Lee Unger but each of them only catches a part of who she was. She was a friend, she was content, she was compassionate, she was a woman of faith, and she was a survivor.
Toni gave her heart to Christ when she was just five years old at a Good News Club. She was baptized as a teenager. She wasn’t outspoken about her faith but she made every effort to try to live out what she believed. If you had a need, Toni would try to meet that need.
Toni was one of those people (like the majority of us, I guess) who never belonged to the so-called “in crowd”. Yet, she was one of those people that everyone enjoyed having around. She enjoyed being with people but was also perfectly content to be at home. Having sometimes been the outsider, she was especially sensitive to those people that others might overlook.
Academics didn’t come easy for Toni. She had to work hard to get good grades. In her senior year she met the requirements and was voted in to the National Honor Society. She went on to Lincoln Christian College for a few semesters but finished her degree in Sociology at Western.
Toni Unger was a woman who accepted and enjoyed life. She loved all the people she got to see and enjoy (most of the time) at Wal-Mart. She loved to watch people. She was always watching what other people were buying because she was fascinated with new things that were on the market. Toni collected all kinds of little trinkets and had boxes of different kinds of notebooks, paper, and pens. She was an avid journal keeper. She loved writing down recipes and buying recipe books. She had a joy within her that allowed her to enjoy life in whatever circumstance she found herself. One of her friends said she “had the fragrance of God . . . she had his heart.”
For 12 years Toni dealt with pain of all different kinds. She was an incredibly strong person. Though her own body was destroying itself, Toni refused to give in. Though many of us might have chosen to go the route of disability, Toni chose to keep working. She worked until June 2nd. She wasn’t one who was interested in hand-outs.
Toni loved her family. She enjoyed those times when she traveled to Springfield to the Doctor with her mom. They became special times that usually involved a stop at Chick-filet at the mall. She and her dad had a special affection for White Castle restaurants. She was always there to support her brother and sister (as they were there to support her). When she was in the hospital she was always asking how her mom and dad were holding up. She was concerned about whether her illness was traumatizing her nieces and nephews. Even when she was really sick she was alert to the need of others.
Toni had a tender heart but also had a good sense of humor. She loved to sing all kinds of music. She liked to dance with her mom while they were in the car. She enjoyed playing her “air guitar”. When she was driving behind a painfully slow car she might show her exasperation by saying, “Ancient Chinese Secret: Drive Faster”. She and Dustin would laugh on occasion when they heard the number 219. If you convert 2 and 19 to their corresponding letters in the alphabet, you have the letters B and S. So, 219 was a way of saying someone was lying to you or they weren’t doing their job.
Toni created good will in those around her. She was a giver and not a taker. It is not that she wasn’t wounded by the things other people did to her. She just chose not to hold a grudge. She refused to let others dictate how she would enjoy life.
As she approached her death it is impossible for us to know the fears she faced and the pain she endured. We would have understood if she was bitter. But she was not. She faced death not as an enemy but as a friend. She told me that she was tired. She was ready “to go home” to be with the Lord. She was ready to get her new body. With the Apostle Paul she was able to say, “for me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain”. She knew what was ahead and faced it like she did everything else in her life: with courage. I suspect that Toni Unger will enjoy Heaven to the fullest . . . just like she lived her life.
Comments from Lisa Nickerson
I was one of those greeted by Toni’s bright smile at Wal-mart, having had the privilege of working with her at the store for six years. We quickly formed a friendship that extended outside the front doors of Wal-mart. I was blessed to meet and come to know her family as well-partly through Lee’s substituting at LaHarpe High School, where I was also employed, and partly through Glenda’s occasional shopping at the store with Bridget and Dustin.
I learned that Toni was someone who could be confided in. I even let her in on a secret past-time of mine-coloring books! This week I searched through a drawer hoping to find some artwork of Toni’s. I found two-I know they are hers, because I always ask people to sign their coloring book masterpieces.
Whether we were chatting over crayons on the floor in my living room, car-pooling to Wal-mart when Toni would go 12 miles out of her way to rescue this friend with a bum car, or enjoying a weekend trip to my parents, it was obvious that Toni was a true friend that I could share my heart with. We had some similar life situations and experiences beyond our place of employment-both of us were oldest siblings and preacher’s daughters. Both of us had attended Lincoln Christian College. Toni and I were in constant wrestling matches with numbers on the scale.
I moved away some years ago from western Illinois and we lost contact. I was saddened, blessed, and humbled when Lee contacted me last week saying that Toni had thought of me two days prior and would like to see me again before she went to heaven. He gave me her cell phone number and after hanging up with Lee I called Toni. I kept our conversation brief as I sensed her struggle to breathe. I asked if it was okay to come see her on Saturday and offered to bring a chick flick for us to watch together, but let her know that I would be just as happy sitting with her and catching up.
After we hung up, I remembered something else that we had both struggled with. Neither one of us had dated much and often wondered if God would ever bring the right man our direction.
In my heart I wondered what I could possibly bring or do for Toni that would return the blessing she had poured over me by getting in contact again. In speaking with my mom later, I told her how much I wanted to tell Toni a couple of sweet love stories that had happened to my siblings, whom she had met. I wanted to tell her of my own developing love story that appeared to be in progress. My mom questioned whether that might sadden Toni or any of her family members. I let my mom know that I had no intentions of leaving it at that-I wanted to remind Toni that she had a true love story of her own.
People have long thought that the Bible’s Song of Solomon was a portrait of Christ’s love for His bride, the church.
Knowing this and knowing Toni made a decision to be part of His bride, we can read the following excerpts from Song of Solomon to understand more of the romance between Toni and Christ.
First, Toni had captured His heart. Song of Solomon 4:9 says, “You have stolen my heart, my sister, my bride; you have stolen my heart.” His heart wasn’t the only heart caught-Toni’s heart was captivated when she made the decision to invite Jesus into that heart and accepted Him as her Savior.
Next, Christ was taken by her beauty. Song of Solomon tells us in chapter 4 verse 7, “All beautiful you are, my darling; there is no flaw in you.” Not everyone who is beautiful outwardly is just as pretty on the inside, but this is where Toni’s beauty began.
Third, Christ had extended an invitation to her requesting the pleasure of her company at dinner. “He has taken me to the banquet hall…,” Song of Solomon 2:4, talks about this invitation.
Additional verses of scripture tell us even more about His love for Toni:
His love for her is the only perfect, everlasting love. (See I Corinthians 13)
He loved her so much he was willing to lay down His life for her. I John 3:16 says “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us…”
Christ has had beautiful garments and a place prepared for Toni. “…He has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness…” (Isaiah 61:10) Jesus promised her, “…I have gone to prepare a place for you…” (John 14:2)
Beth Moore gives us a unique picture of Christ’s excitement over His bride in her book Things Pondered:
“Nothing has been more difficult for Christ than the marriage to His bride, yet Jude 24 says He’ll present her to His Father with great joy! The Greek root word is Agailliao. It means ‘to show one’s joy by leaping and skipping denoting excessive or ecstatic joy and delight!’ Just picture it. After all the ups and downs in the relationship, after all the marriage has cost Him, He’ll act like a love-struck boy introducing his girl to his dad for the very first time. Why? Because He thinks she was worth it.”
Christ’s love for Toni was shouted in the majesty of mountains and the ocean wave’s crash. He serenaded her in the chorus of morning birds. His love was delivered to her in bouquets of pastel spring flowers and the rich earthtones of autumn leaves. He sought her long before she made the decision to choose Him, but she DID choose Him.
Her friends and family will sorely miss her, but we can “rejoice and be glad” as in Revelation 19:7 because THIS bride had made herself ready to meet her bridegroom in the early afternoon of July 27. She is also looking forward to dancing and feasting at a wedding reception that was paid for in full 2,000 years ago.
Toni-no bride is complete without a bouquet and today you are surrounded by them. We want you to know that your family and friends have caught the fragrance of your bouquet and will carry it forever in our hearts.
I want to briefly share with you two passages from the Bible that seem to be appropriate for Toni Unger. The first is from Philippians 4:12-13. The Apostle Paul wrote,
12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do everything through him who gives me strength.
Toni could have just as easily have written these words. Contentment comes from cherishing what we have in life. It is enjoying where you are instead of whining about where you wish you were. It is trusting God’s wisdom and love even when life isn’t going the way you had expected. It is knowing that we can face all things through Christ. That’s the kind of life Toni lived.
The second passage is also from Paul. He wrote this in his second letter to the Corinthians, chapter 4
We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body.
A few verse later Paul explains his attitude. He said,
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
Paul never pretended that life was easy. He acknowledged that sometimes life is hard. However, even though he was hard pressed, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down . . . he was not defeated. Paul viewed those assaults that came at him as “light and momentary troubles that were achieving an eternal glory that made the trials seem like nothing.” Paul said the key to this attitude was to “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.” Isn’t that the same kind of focus we saw in Toni? In the midst of all her problems, she looked past the pain. Her focus was on Jesus.
Paul followed his words with the familiar words that begin 2 Corinthians 5,
Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.
What fitting words these are for Toni Unger. She could have moped around and felt sorry for herself but she didn’t. She could have spent her life complaining but instead she chose to keep climbing the mountains that were placed before her. She understood that life had a purpose even if she didn’t understand what that purpose was. We mourn her loss. We wonder about the trials of her life; those mountains that she continually had to climb. Yet, because of her attitude, because she focused on Jesus, she not only climbed those mountains . . . but I think she saw things and understood things that those of us who never face the mountains can never appreciate.
As we gather to mourn and to reflect today WE must keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. We must remember that though our loss is great, Toni’s gain is so much greater. Toni Unger understood that this life was not all that there is. She trusted Jesus as her Savior. She understood that on the basis of His death, her sin was forgiven. Because of His resurrection she could have a new relationship with God in the present, and she would spend eternity enjoying His presence in the future. That future has arrived for Toni.
Some people think that the message of life beyond the grave is wishful thinking. They believe that such talk is our way of coping with horrible loss. I believe these people are wrong. Our hope of Heaven is based on Jesus. He claimed to be God, He demonstrated that He was God, and He told us that His words would help us to know God. His death was foretold by the prophets and also by his own words. His resurrection was a one of a kind event. This one who said He could lead us to life beyond the grave, came back from the grave Himself.
All other religious leaders are still in their graves. Their words may have been sincere and even insightful, but they cannot lead us to life beyond the grave. Only the promise of Jesus can lead us to life. Our hope is based on a sure foundation. It is not wishful thinking, it is a bold confidence. This confidence is available to anyone who will put their trust in Christ. “Trusting Jesus” however is more than pious words. It is more than intellectual understanding. The kind of trust that God calls for is the kind of trust that says that we are willing to “bet our lives” on Jesus and what He has done for us. That’s the kind of trust Toni Unger had.
The Bible says that those who put their trust in Him will live even though they die. That is the promise we hold on to today. Today in our sadness we must remember that we grieve today for our loss . . . not hers. Toni has been set free. She is cured. She is home. She has lost nothing; she has gained everything. We need to fix our eyes on Heaven and the pain of loss will become more bearable.
In the book 90 MINUTES IN HEAVEN the author recounts his experience of Heaven after a devastating car crash. He says Heaven was more beautiful than anything he has ever seen. It was a place filled with music and he was greeted by the significant people of His life. In his vision the man was drawn toward the gate with the warm light behind it. There were no thoughts of regret, only feelings of welcome and belonging. He was moving toward the gate when he was brought back to life.
I don’t know whether this man really went to Heaven or not. And you don’t know either. However, his vision seems to square with what the Bible teaches us. Joni Eareckson spends most of her life in a wheelchair. Her legs are lifeless and her arms are limited in what they can do. Joni spends a lot of time thinking about the transformation of the body. She imagines what it will be like,
One day no more bulging middles or balding tops. No varicose veins or crow’s-feet. No more cellulite or support hose. Forget the thunder thighs and highway hips. Just a quick leapfrog over the tombstone and it’s the body you’ve always dreamed of. Fit and trim, smooth and sleek. [Eareckson, HEAVEN p. 34]
The Bible likens our resurrected body to the transformation that takes place when a seed is planted in the ground, or when a caterpillar comes out of the cocoon as a butterfly. The transformation that takes place is something that we can’t understand. Eareckson writes,
trying to understand what our bodies will be like in heaven is much like expecting an acorn to understand his destiny of roots, bark, branches, and leaves. Or asking a caterpillar to appreciate flying. Or a peach pit to fathom being fragrant. Or a coconut to grasp what it means to sway in the ocean breeze. Our eternal bodies will be so grand, so glorious, that we can only catch a fleeting glimpse of the splendor to come. [Eareckson, HEAVEN p. 39]
What I want you to see is that the key to how we face this day is determined by your focus. Whether today is seen as the end or as the beginning; defeat or victory; depends upon what you are looking at.
- Are you looking at a lifeless corpse or are you focusing on the promise of the risen Savior?
- Are you dwelling on the trials and inequities of life or on the infinite strength available to face those trials?
- Are you drawing your sense of value from the crowd or from the Creator who sees you as on who is fearfully and wonderfully made?
- Are you focused on the journey or the destination?
- Are you betting your life on the philosophies of men or on the promise of Jesus?
Jesus said, “come to me all you are weary and heavily burdened, and I will give you rest.” That’s His invitation to You today. Put your confidence in Him. Believe His promise. Dare to believe that there is more to this life than what we see and feel. If you do this, you won’t miss Toni any less, but you won’t have to worry about her either. In those times of grief you will draw comfort from the fact that those who put their trust in Christ will see her again and we will have all eternity to catch up on lost time.
Toni Unger will be missed. She will be missed as a friend, as a sibling, as a daughter, and she will be missed as a breath of life in an all too dreary world. As we conclude we would do well to remind ourselves of some of the lessons she tried to teach us,
- Just as it is the gift in the wrapping paper and not the wrapping paper itself that makes it special, so the value of a person is not that person’s physical appearance (or wrapping paper) but the character and the heart that is within that matters.
- The best witness for Christ is not the doctrine we espouse, but the amount of that doctrine that we allow to impact the way we live.
- Holding grudges is a waste of time. It robs us of life and joy and doesn’t change anything.
- Life is not always easy and it is not always fair; and the sooner you accept this the sooner you will be able to concentrate on making the most of the life you have.
- The mountains of life are arduous to scale; but the view from the top is incomparable.
- God does not measure our lives by the years we live, but by the faithfulness of those years.
- A stop at White Castle or Chick Filet can turn a bad day into a good day
- Life is filled with a lot of 219 but if you dig deep enough you can find a treasure that makes life worth living
- As much as we cherish this life, it is only the title page for the life that is to come.
- Finally, of all the pressing issues of life there is nothing that matters more than who you put your trust in. It will determine the aulity of your life and your destination for eternity.
May God help us to learn the lessons well and to be grateful for his teacher, Toni Unger.
Let’s pray together,
Our Father, we thank you for the life of Toni Unger. As we stand here before this young body we can’t help but feel that this is wrong. Yet, we see as through a glass that has been darkened. So help us to hold on to You. Help us to find our way through the confusion that is caused by our grief. Help us to find contentment, even in this.
We are so grateful for the life and the example of Toni Unger. You touched us through her life. You used her to help us see a deeper value in life. In her, we met You in a new way. Thank you for her life. Grant us a portion of her spirit and her sense of compassion.
I thank you for her faith. Thank you for loving us. Thank you for sending Christ Jesus. Thank you for His sacrifice, His instruction, and the resurrected life that gives us hope and confidence even in the face of death.
So please wrap your loving arms around Toni. Let her know how much she has impacted our lives. Grant her the joy and freedom that you have promised to those who believe. And in those times of our deep grief, I ask that you replace the memories of suffering and loss with a vision of Toni now set free from pain and limitation. Help us to see her smiling and dancing before You. Work in our hearts so that our faith might be truly placed in your mercy and your grace so that we might be able to live with a new sense of anticipation, perspective, and contentment. We ask these things in the strong name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and our King. Amen