A year ago, when Dad died, we had an open mic time at the memorial service. I didn’t have capacity to share that day. It had been a deep season of loss, figuring things out, people to call, things to do and get done, and I just couldn’t do it. It wasn’t time. I wrote Dad’s obituary, but that’s about all I had in me.
Dad was an unlikely saint. A ragamuffin of the finest order. I suspect some were surprised by his persistent relationship with God, for all his rough ways and inappropriate commentary on things, but he showed me that those who have been forgiven much, are able to love deeply. He also had a lot to forgive in others. Dad’s struggle with repeatedly having to forgive those who profoundly injured him, but living as though they were always forgiven, is one of the most remarkable lessons he demonstrated to me.
Dad was determined to live all the days of his life. He fought hard to live because he believed he had a lot to live for. And he really did live. The summer before he died, although his body was full of cancer and his mind was failing because of all his body was going through, he got mom to pack up and fly five hours to visit us. Why not, right? He made breakfast for us every day, and talked so much he drove us crazy. He was fully alive – and a livewire.
Dad loved young people and remembered the names of people who went to high school with me, long after I had forgotten. He had an adoptive heart that welcomed anyone to the table who wanted to be part of the family. He remembered all the 50-some students who had lived with he and mom. He loved the underdog and fought hard for them. He loved being part of something and gave countless hours to causes he believed in. All my friends knew my dad, and he knew them.
He fought hard for justice and was deeply bothered by injustice. He didn’t really care if you disagreed with him or even liked him, he was going to fight for what he believed in. He was okay with being disagreeable (much to my dismay, many times.) However, in his not caring whether someone agreed with him, he taught me to stand my ground.
Dad really loved my mom and gave me a high standard to measure any husband up to that way. He bought her flowers almost weekly, and told her regularly she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. He loved spending time with her – although mostly he chose things he wanted to do, and made her go along. In loving my mom, he really loved us too.
Dad really loved me. He was a fierce fighter, and enormously compassionate. He had been abandoned, belittled and abused, but he was determined not to do the same to his children. He was my biggest cheerleader and was nonsensically proud of my brother and I. We really were, in his mind, his greatest accomplishments. After one particularly tender session, my grief counsellor told me that I had received an uncommon gift in how much I have been loved by my parents. It’s amazing how being secure in that love allows one to launch. He loved my husband and had great admiration for him, even though it about killed him to walk me down the aisle. He was ridiculously proud of our wee girl and actually believed that she might have been God’s gift just to him. I think he might have been right.
Dad was brilliant. I think it would shock people how smart he was. He could estimate a full house in his head, speed-read a full book in an hour, and was incredibly well-read and self-educated. He was always thinking, and, for all his disagreeable ways, was remarkably teachable. His father had not allowed him to go to college, although he had a football scholarship, which meant he was determined that my brother and I would have an education. He was creative, resourceful, and clever.
Dad was a man of tested, deep faith. He had a lot of questions for God and about God – mostly because of the enormous amount of hurt he’d endured, and because his brain never stopped whirring. He wrestled with God. He sought the church and walked away from the church, and then came back again. In the hospital, he exhausted the chaplain’s supply of Bibles, giving them to everyone and anyone who would listen to him. He sought out people with answers, and never stopped asking questions. Dad treasured the Eucharist and took communion as often as he possibly could. One of the things that has given me enormous joy over the past year is knowing that he had an eternal hope and doesn’t have to struggle anymore. His whole life, quite literally, was one struggle after another.
It was so hard, on the day we flew home last March, to be the one who would ask that Dad be moved to the palliative care ward. Despite all the cancer, he refused to own that he was palliative, at the end of life. When a doctor, after his multiple times of being seen in the ER, asked him if he knew he was dying, Dad’s answer, which left the poor doctor slack-jawed, was, “hell, I’ve been dying since ’94.” We all laughed because that was just so him – truth, but no context. When he was just 46 years old, he suffered congestive heart failure. They gave him 3 – 5 years to live, maximum. No one ever imagined that in the end, cancer would steal his life. He really lived for the 22 years he was dying.
And now? He’s more alive than we are. One day, in the blink of an eye, I will meet him there. Until then, he’d tell me to stop caterwauling and just live all the days of my life.
Want to know more about the reality Dad’s living in now? This book really helped me envision it – and get excited about it. I’m pretty confident that, as much as we miss him, he doesn’t want to come back.