Thanks, Dad

Thanks, Dad. 

I’m thinking about him today. Dad died 1½ years ago at 92, having lived a long and good life. As I think back today, I’m recalling how he enjoyed life, loved God and his family, and worked really hard at a job he adored for 36 years as a professor and administrator at a Christian university. His focus was teaching New Testament Greek to young ministers. He also served as an interim pastor at scores of small churches across the mid-west of Texas through the decades. 

Dad lived with joy, having a keen sense of humor that showed up in most personal interactions. I loved his humor: fairly sarcastic, both self-depreciating and slightly arrogant at the same time, a deadpan dry wit usually accompanied by a twist that took a moment to catch. A former boss of mine upon meeting my father said, “Now I understand why you have such a weird sense of humor.” I didn’t understand what he meant. Still don’t. But thanks, Dad; wouldn’t want it otherwise. You are someone I want to imitate in nearly every way. 

Dad had a few strokes that changed his life. The first one didn’t damage his mobility, but shorted out some brain connections so that short-term memory was compromised, and he mostly lost the capacity to read. He coped without losing a step, adjusting seamlessly to the irony of being the professor and preacher of the Bible who can no longer make the words on the page connect to the pegs in his head. He didn’t complain, he adapted. 

The next to the last stroke compromised his mobility and cognition enough that he had to move to a nursing facility. It was even harder: some days he didn’t understand why he wasn’t living with mom, who moved to an apartment the floor above him so she could be with him as much as possible. Toward the end Dad seldom had the capacity of initiating a conversation or carrying one on for more than a brief sentence or two. I’m so grateful he took out that atrociously expensive long-term care insurance as he retired. It cared of him well in those compromised years, and it’s still taking care of Mom. 

In the final years, when there was very little short-term memory, Dad mentioned experiences from the distant past more often, like recalling what it was like to be an 18-year-old soldier in Calcutta during WWII. I remember the time in the nursing home when he said of being a private in the army, “The best thing is to shut up and do as you’re told, even when you don’t like it.” Then he added the punch line: “That comes in really handy around here, too,” gesturing toward the nurses’ station. And he quickly followed with, “I’d rather be home, but it’s good to have places like this when you need them.”  

During that last year of his life my favorite time to visit my parents was on Sunday afternoons when they’d wheel Dad up to Mom’s apartment to eat sherbet together, chat a little, and watch TV. They were so gently felicitous to one another, and the tender good-bye kiss before Dad returned to his floor never failed to melt me. 

I remember the day in the care home when he said out of the blue, “I was wondering how I can be of help to other people. I can’t teach or preach anymore. I’ve got to have assistance just to get around; people have to do so much for me. And I’ve been thinking about whether I can serve Christ here. Then it came to me: I can be kind to everyone who comes in my room. I can say something to lift them up and let them know they are important. That’s what I can do.” Ever the servant of the Lord. Ever trying to be Imago Dei. 

On Dad’s last birthday, his 92nd, mom planned a party for him with family and a couple of friends. When everything was ready, I went down to wheel Dad to the parlor for the event. He was lying in bed, dressed for the party by the nurses, with his eyes open — a rarity since he fell asleep so often and easily.

“Hey, Dad, how are you?”

“I’ve been thinking about what a remarkable life I’ve lived. I’ve seen so much, and I’ve been given a wonderful family, so many good things to enjoy, and good things to do. It’s been a wonderful life — not that I’m ready for it to end right now. But someday it will, and then it’ll get even better.” And so it was. And so it is. 

To the very end, showing me how to live well: with gratitude and hope. 

Thanks, Dad. 

With quotations from an article I published in the Baptist Standard, “Voices: Lessons from the Nineties,” June 27, 2018.

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