Scenes From My Father

Scenes From My Father

Fathers, seek out your children every day and give them a gift. Here are some gifts from my father.

My first memory of dad. I’m not yet 4 years old. Dad lost his mother and younger brother in a terrible accident, which he witnessed. Strong hands are under my arms from behind and they hold me up to look down through glass at my grandmother and my uncle in their caskets. His voice is in my ear, explaining to me that they had an accident, and what the bruise on their foreheads meant. Something bad had happened, but my dad was stronger than the bad. It was a calm, matter-of-fact voice, and it felt like, in the middle of a house full of whispering adults, he was thinking of me, and had the confidence in me that I would be able to understand and process it. He treated me like a big person. No moral, no lecture, but years later I realized what he gave me that day: Bad things happen, and you can face them straight on.

Fathers seek out their children to give them gifts.

Fast forward…I’m 6 or 7 now. I’ve apparently thrown a rock through the window of the dentist office down the street, and dad tells me we’re going to have to go make it right. He knows the dentist and has talked to him and we have a meeting scheduled (he knows everybody.) We walk together down the street. I apologize and offer to pay for the window glass out of my allowance, on an installment schedule. The dentist thinks for a minute, and decides the offer is acceptable. He shakes my hand and says he is impressed that I did the right thing. A long time later, I understood that day’s gift: you sometimes do bad things, but you make them right.

Fathers seek out their children to give them gifts.

Fast forward, I’m 10 or 11. It’s my birthday. Dad comes home with a present for me – a pair of boxing gloves. I hadn’t asked for them. I still don’t know where he got the idea, but he had boxed in high school and I’d heard him talk about it. He put the gloves on with me and taught me how to stand, move my feet, and jab with the lead hand. I can still see his lead glove, I can still feel my head snap back from his jab. The neighborhood kids boxed in the backyard that summer. What were the gifts of that day? Where to look, where not to look. That it’s not going to kill you to get hit. Never start a fight, but if he won’t have it any other way, hit first, hard, straight, and watch his feet.

Fathers seek out their children to give them gifts.

Fast forward…I’m in my late teens. Dad seeks me out and says “come with me, I want to show you something.” We load into his car and drive quite ways to an old rundown hotel. I follow him up dark, smelly stairs, to a dark room, and he goes in and fishes out someone we knew who had gotten into a dark, dark place. We loaded the prodigal into the car and off to a safe, warm place. It was clear to me that wasn’t the first time Dad had rescued him. As we drove home, not many words, just “Son, I wanted you to see that.” Just like that. Just like when I was four, he had the confidence to show me something ugly and how one does the right thing, and trust me to grasp it. What was the gift that day? Men go into the dark to save the weak, even if the weak one is at fault.

Fathers seek out their children to give them gifts.

Fast forward, to about a month ago. Dad is in the nursing home, and I’m visiting. Some of the aides had not kept to a schedule of medication or something, and he had cornered one of them and was giving her a hard time. He never liked it when anyone made a commitment but didn’t keep it. This aide was gracious and apologetic but he just wouldn’t let it go. He made her and everyone else in the room uncomfortable. She was able to work her way out with promises to do better. I was bothered, and thinking about what to say to him, but before I could, and after she was gone for a few minutes, he turned to me and said “Was i too hard on her?” If you knew Dad, you know that wasn’t easy for him. But I could see in his eyes he was sincere. So I said “Yes, you were rude, and you hurt her feelings, and you should make that right.” I expected a fight. But he thought for a minute, then said “You’re right, I was wrong. I’ll make it up to her when she comes back.” And he did. And that, in all fairness, was probably hard for him. The gift that day? Sometimes we fight when we don’t need to.

Sometimes I’ve fought when I didn’t need to.

There is so much more to tell if I had more time. He gave me a love for the names of plants, flowers and trees and somehow that became a playing in the sounds of words and a love of poetry. He taught me how to sharpen a knife, make a whistle from a twig. i saw him suffer through sickness for years, unable to eat most foods, to work to support his family. He noticed and greeted everybody, especially the waitress, the clerk at the counter, the janitor, the old men sitting on the courthouse steps. He picked up hitchhikers and brought sketchy characters home to live in the spare room. He taught us, I hope, there are no little people.

Fathers give gifts.

Fast forward…to about a week ago. We moved him into the hospice house and got him settled in bed. He had a minute here and there when his thoughts were clear but mostly, not. As evening wore on and we just sat with him, just being together, he began to talk, stronger than we had seen in days. We realized he was preaching. Not quite clear-headed; he wasn’t with us, he was somewhere else, leading a service, complete with special music and some sort of dedication of the church building. We thought it was a momentary confusion, but he leaned forward, looking off and up, gesturing, and building to a conclusion, like we had heard in his sermons all our lives. He hadn’t had that strength for a long time, and he went on and on and on — Dad could go on. We didn’t know what to do with him. But he wasn’t upset and didn’t seem to be hurting himself, he was just…elsewhere. Then, the invitation. In a loud, clear, impassioned voice – “come to Jesus!” “Come to Jesus!” His voice was bright, clear, urgent, and he was looking out over the congregation back to the distant pews where the preachers’ kids and other sinners hide. It’s a custom for teachers, at the end of their careers, to give The Final Lecture. We were hearing Dad’s Final Sermon.

After that, he settled back, and his strength failed quickly. He would lapse into silence, and sleep the next few days, until he woke this last Monday into the arms of his Savior. The last earthly sentences he would ever speak were an invitation to come to Jesus. Because, in his heart of hearts, dad was: an evangelist. If you knew Dad longer than 5 minutes, you knew that.

Who are we, really? When reason fails, when youth and strength are gone, what is left? Isn’t that when the undisguised heart shows its passions? What does your heart really, really want?

What Dad really, really wanted, wants tonight, is for each and every heart to hear the voice of a loving father. Come to Jesus. Come to Jesus.

Thank you Dad, for all these gifts.

Note: Written to honor my father and read at his funeral.

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