I am an associative thinker and tend to rely on analogies to help me interpret my world, particularly its more painful aspects. And so, as I stood alone in the aft, transfixed by the cruise ship’s turbulent wake, a different wake, my father’s from three months prior, came readily to mind.
Close by the ship’s propeller, the water churned fiercely. Yet, as the vessel moved on, I was consoled to see order and serenity gradually restored to the sea. Perhaps the emotional aftermath of my father’s death will follow a similar pattern. Time is essential, of course. Time… and very much grace!
I have written elsewhere about my father (most notably in “The Red Sweater” http://wp.me/p3OG1U-3C), testifying to the healing work that God has already accomplished in me. Tragically though, forgiveness does not always translate to reconciliation. So, by my father’s choice, which I honored, for the past twenty-three years – his final twenty-three years – we were estranged.
Considering the painful distance between us in life, and now, that ultimate separation in death, I’m amazed by the significant space my father still occupies in my psyche. Such is a son’s need, I guess, even as the son himself grows old.
A few years ago, I was called for jury duty. At the courthouse, while waiting to go through security, I struck up a conversation with the man immediately ahead of me in line. He was an African-American Protestant minister, who explained that his “calling” was to help broken-hearted men, of which there were many in his congregation. He referenced the story of the Baptism of Jesus in Matthew 3 and made special note of verse 17, wherein God the Father’s voice is heard saying:
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
“That verse,” the good man observed, “is something every boy – and every man – aches to hear from his father.”
Quite unexpectedly, while inching toward courthouse security, I felt laid bare. Fighting back tears, I desperately hoped that my vulnerability, my wound, went unnoticed by my new acquaintance… that healer of broken-hearted men.
When a loved one dies, memories sometimes come in a torrent. In the wake of my father’s death, an all too familiar memory came yet again to me.
When I was a young boy of perhaps eight or nine years, my father made me a special promise. “This Saturday,” he said, “will be our day. We’ll spend the whole day together, and we’ll do whatever you want to do.”
I was ecstatic! Time alone with my Dad!? Even as a child, or perhaps especially then, I had sensed the disconnect between us; but, maybe things could be different.
The days of that week could not pass quickly enough.
When Saturday came, I bolted out of bed and into the kitchen, where I found my mother, with a knowing smile on her face, already making breakfast for my father and me. As we ate together, my father told me that he had a quick errand to run but thereafter the day would be mine. In fact, I could even accompany him on his errand. It didn’t matter to me. We’d be together.
While on the errand, my father ran into a co-worker, who told him that a number of their mutual friends were getting together to play golf that morning. Then, he asked my father if he’d like to join the group.
Even now, it’s difficult to explain my feelings as I was dropped back at home that morning. Rejection? Embarrassment? Confusion? Yes to all those things. But maybe shame comes the closest to telling the story. Even as my mother tried to console me, I just wanted to disappear.
Through the years, I’ve often wondered if my father enjoyed that round of golf, which was surely the most costly round he ever played.
“The Red Sweater,” was a story I’d told a number of times, but I’d never felt free to write it down. It always seemed like something that should wait until my father’s passing. Then, in late September of last year, I unmistakably sensed that the time had come. The writing proved cathartic as I relived that blessed experience.
My work was completed on October 6th. I then sat staring at the “Publish Post” button on my blog site. “Should this wait?” I briefly anguished again. Then, feeling a surprising sense of peace, I really knew the time had arrived. I clicked the button without regret.
The next day, I received a characteristically kind phone call from my dear, life-long friend, Paul. “Steve, I’m so sorry about your father’s passing…” he began, but I quickly lost track of his words. You see, no one close to my father had informed me of his death. Paul had unknowingly broken the news. He had died the previous morning… just a few short hours before I posted “The Red Sweater.”
All things considered, I am truly grateful to have learned the news the way I did, from a loving friend. God is good!
I didn’t attend the formal wake or funeral. After all, his second family had shared his life far more closely and deserved their private time of grief. Instead, my wife, our children, and I went to pay our respects the night before, alone.
My father was eighty-eight years old when he passed. In death, his body looked so small and frail… so unthreatening.
In the funeral parlor, my family gave me some private time. Time alone for just me and my Dad.
I knelt, prayed, and said “good-bye.” The next day, after the graveside service had concluded and everyone from his second family had gone home, I paid my final respects just before the cemetery workers filled in his grave.
May God rest his soul!
And, at a time known to God alone, may we finally have that special day together… father and son… on a day that will never end.
In the meantime… healing, as the waters gradually settle.