Today would’ve been my Dad’s 64th birthday, and I miss him. Those of us who have lost close family members know that it’s the big days—holidays, birthdays and the like—that hone the dull edge of our grief into something more sharp and penetrating. So, today I feel his absence a bit more keenly than I did just yesterday.
I was always my father’s son. Perhaps that was because we were so different. Dad, you see, was an odd mix of conflicting notions. He was soft-spoken yet bold and fearless in his proclamation of the Gospel. He was, after his many illnesses did their work on him, a small man who still managed to fill a room with his presence. He was a Baptist who didn’t care about being Baptist, a loyal Cowboy fan who never actually attended the games, and an anointed man of great theological thought with no seminary degree.
Over the years, I watched my dad invest himself in the lives of others, pouring himself out as an offering with little to no reward for his selflessness. It was that grace that drew men to his side who were fiercely loyal to him when trouble or illness came to call and, under his mentorship, they became stronger men of faith who went on to pour out that grace on those around them. I wonder if he ever knew that I paid attention to those things? If he knew that, had I not been his son, I still would’ve wanted him to be my pastor? He knows now.
My last real conversation with my Dad took place just before he entered the hospital that final time. He had fought fiercely time and again to remain with his family even though continuing his journey had cost him a great deal of strength. He asked me for a hug and he got one. Then, he told me he wanted another one. As I pulled back from that second hug, he said two words that I had never heard pass his lips.
“I’m scared,” he said.
As in awe of my dad as I had always been, he had never let me mistakenly believe that he was anything more than a fallible human being with a nature as sinful as any man’s. I never thought my father was perfect. He was transparent with his shortcomings and quick to apologize for them. He was gracious to those who wounded him because he was all too aware of how much grace and forgiveness he had needed over the years. He felt that, if God had been able to forgive him so freely, he could do no less. So, yes, I knew Dad wasn’t Superman minus the cape, but I was a bit shaken by his confession of fear.
I took his hand and looked him right in the eye, though I could barely see him because I had started to cry. Unlike my dad, and in opposition to the way people normally perceive me, I am not a man who has a great deal of confidence in himself. I tend to have whole conversations in my head to work out all the angles before I approach someone with a thought or idea because I don’t trust my ability to communicate on the fly. And, when I’m forced to respond to something on the spur of the moment, I typically either regret my approach or “what-if” myself into oblivion after the fact. In that moment, however, with my dad’s hand in mine, I trusted my words because their source was not just my heart or that feeble organ I like to call my brain. They came from somewhere so deep in my spirit that I did not doubt them nor have I doubted them since.
“I don’t know much, Dad,” I told him. “But I know that, whatever happens in the hospital, YOU don’t have anything to be afraid of.”
When Dad left us just a few days later, he had his family around him—each of us holding onto him and whispering our great love for him through our tears. He closed his eyes to a very broken and all-too-human love and opened them to a greater love he had only known the mere shadow of before.
I miss him. I really do. But I also rejoice with him that his trials are over and his race has been run—that his wounded body is now perfect and without the scars this old world can mark us with. I miss his shepherding of my heart, but am so grateful that I had him for the time I did. It was grace that allowed what time we had and grace that took him Home when his time had come. He left me with an understanding of that grace and a strong desire to be a bearer of it into the dark places.
I wear his ring. It’s a ring with an onyx stone bearing the image of a Roman Centurion. I’m not sure if there was any significance to the ring, but he wore it always. The stone is cracked and it will only fit on my pinky, but I wear it because it makes me feel close to Dad and serves as a reminder of God’s blessing in my life—to have such a man love me and teach me humility and service and remind me that, even in my imperfection and (at times) outright wickedness, I am loved with a love that can never be quenched. I wear it because I know that, if I could just be half the man, the husband, and father that my Dad was, I’ll consider it a victory.
Happy Birthday, Dad! I love you.