Outside my bedroom window is a Gumball tree, and its leaves are a flaming yellow and red. In the early morning, when the rising sun shines on the leaves, they glow with an intensity of one clinging to life, determined to enjoy every hour left before they fall, and die.
There is beauty in Autumn, this period of dying. The beauty would be lacking if we believed new life would not return. But that is not what we know. There is hope in the dying, because spring will come.
My father was a difficult man. A wounded man. He was the son of a violent alcoholic who would force his children out into the night, using them as target practice as they fled. The lack of security and control growing up, drove my father to try and control everything and everyone about him. It hurt.
For all the challenges, there was also good.
Dad was a gifted teacher. He could explain math, science or English in ways that made everything so clear they seemed almost easy. Students reacted to his demeanor in such a way as to rarely challenge his authority or give him reason to use it. I have to admit, Dad’s control of the classroom was effortless, and made for an environment favorable to learning. The students I’ve stayed in touch with developed lifelong passions for learning and for excellence. Not only did Dad teach the core well, he took care to make sure we had a balanced education, and that included learning sports and music. He made an impact on many lives. Dad was a gifted teacher.
He passed on his love of learning.
Dad was a gifted musician. He took only one piano lesson, but from there taught himself well enough to become a church pianist and organist. His voice drew my mother to him, it was as rich and deep as many famous opera singers. He loved classical and religious music. Modern music was unacceptable. If we as children listened to something else, we were sure to rush to change the channel at the first sound of Dad’s car approaching. Still, our home was full of music.
He passed on his love music.
Dad loved nature. Birds in particular were his passion, as anyone who knew him when he was in possession of his iPad. He loved to play birdsongs, and often was totally unaware that at the volume he played it, it annoyed quite a few of those in the vicinity.
I enjoy birds, but never got to the place where I remember the names of those beyond robins and blue jays and such, much less recognize who sings what.
Growing up, we camped and hiked a lot. These were the times Dad was the most relaxed. He knew the names of all the creepy crawly creatures, as well as their winged friends. He passed on to the next generation that fascination with the outdoors and the beasts that hide there.
When living in PR that love of the outdoors ventured into the ocean where shell collecting and catching brightly colored fish for a saltwater tank became the hobby of choice. I was ever frustrated with the snorkeling. At the time, my brothers and I were swimming (and mostly winning) in competitions. Dad, having never watched us race, insisted on me wearing a life jacket anytime the water was too deep to stand in. Lifejackets and diving for fish or shells do not go together well. I ended up leaving that hobby to my brothers. They, by the way, were NOT required to use the personal flotation devices.
Instead, I was content with my place at the very tippy front of the ski boat, legs under the safety rail and hanging out over the water, wind blasting in my face as we flew across the ocean swells. (insert Titanic theme song.) Not that it would have helped if I fell over, but I did this (what I now understand to be death defying) adrenaline filled experience WITHOUT a life vest.
I love the ocean, and I LOVE boats.
Dad loved to travel. An unknown road was obviously put there to find out what was on the other end. State parks were meant to be explored, museums a required part of our education.
Twice we travelled through all the continental United States, except for Alaska, camping all the way. My siblings and I could set up and take down camp in record time. We also learned that where Dad would not tolerate a lot of backseat chatter or bickering, he didn’t mind singing. Our road trips involved a lot of singing. And reading.
Dad loved books.
Dad loved books as long as they met one criteria; they could not be fiction.
I loved books. I loved fiction. I devoured the fairy tales in the Encyclopedia Britannica because they were the most available fiction in our home. My imagination drove me to write fiction from the time I was very young. Dad did not approve. But asking me not to write was like asking me to hold my breath.
Over the years, I watched as Dad alienated those closest to him. He loved us all, I know that, in his own way. In his brokenness, he kept trying to force into submission, trying to hold and control what could not be held so tight without causing harm. It didn’t work. In the end, he lived alone.
His illness caused him to not be able to care for himself and left him with little control over what he could do or where he could go. He was miserable. There was no peace, no joy, no patience. There were times when he was kind. Dad could be very kind and generous. He wanted to be kind, and loving, but often didn’t know how to be so.
He was in pain, lonely, miserable. Although I helped care for him, we didn’t talk much past the weather or the plan for the day. It was never easy talking about things with any depth. I no longer held to the same system of beliefs as my father, so he would cry and warn me about Jesus’ soon coming and my need to keep the law. He knew my love for my Lord, but couldn’t understand how I could be saved. There was no grace in his theology. He tried so hard to keep the law. It broke my heart.
At the end, Dad lay in the hospital, fighting to breathe through the pneumonia that clouded his lungs. The doctors came in and talked with him about his options. Basically, it was be intubated and hope they could wean him off later, or…
He was scared. It had to be terrifying. Making the choice to live or die, but knowing if he chose one option he might live hooked to a machine the rest of his life and the closest nursing home that took patients with both vents and dialysis was five hours from his family.
Just then, my phone beeped, announcing the Bible verse my app sends me on a daily basis. I stared at the phone and almost cried. I had to share it with Dad. It was made for that moment.
“But I’ve done so much.” He said. “I’ve hurt so many.”
I was able to share the gospel, a gospel my Dad had heard, but somehow thought could not be his. The dawning of faith that God wanted to forgive and save him drove Dad to prayer and we prayed and cried together. He asked my mother, and those he could reach, for forgiveness. And Dad rested.
The next morning when the nurse called to tell me Dad wanted to be taken off his oxygen, we rushed to the hospital to be with him. He was at peace. We prayed together. He was able to FaceTime some of his family, even sang with his sister over the phone. An hour later, with his favorite songs by George Beverly Shae playing for him and his hands held by people he loved, and loved him in return, Dad took his last breath.
As family gathers for the holidays, we will also have a service to remember my father.
I look at the leaves out my bedroom window. They are brilliant and reflect the sunshine. In death there is beauty. There is the hope of spring. When next I see my father, he will be a different man. He will be the man he was made to be, the man we saw many glimpses of. I will get to know my Dad again in a place where he will not be broken. Where none of us carry baggage. It will be beautiful.