I often wonder if I am too hard on the memory of my father. As the years go by the memories fade good and bad ones. A couple of things happened this weekend that made me think of my father. He died in his early sixties. He should have had another thirty years.
92-year old Billy Graham was interviewed recently. He has come to the time of his life when he spends a lot of time alone, requiring the care of others. I suppose that stage of things makes one reflective.
When asked to give advice to those who are aging he said “Accept it! And thank God every day for the gift of that day.”
I do dread getting old. And yet I have this idea that I will just sort of live on in perpetuity with my body and mind falling apart. I have joked that I want to be euthanized to save everyone the misery of my madness gone out of control.
My father wouldn’t accept that he was sick or was going to die, so much so that he refused to talk about when he was gone. Even when he was diagnosed with brain tumors in regions of his brain that would leave him without speech and would impact his ability to sort out emotion. And yet as he slowly left us, his body breaking down from the chemotherapy and his mind slowly slipping away from us, he became meaner. And more confused about reality. And eventually he couldn’t form words. One or two here and there in the week that he died were like small gifts to those who received them.
His very last words to me, when I told him I loved him, were “I love you more.”
When he was still cognizant and before the surgery he did to his credit want to clear the air. Those last conversations differed for each of us daughters. In mine, I spoke more than he did. Fearful, I told him his anger and disappointment with me over the years had shaped my life. He listened and accepted. He spoke the words of apology. It would have been miraculous and life changing had he not then gone on to spend an hour with my sister berating and criticizing her for how she managed money. He wanted some money my parents had loaned her.
I felt responsible for that. My conversation had been unexpectedly positive and though a lifetime of experiences told her not to she trusted him and met with him. He crushed her as he had each of us so many times over the years.
That’s what he left us. He left no letters for us. He left without any parting advice or even the last word. Ironically, the man who always had the last word in life refused to believe he was going to die. He was going to get back out there to continue God’s work. He believed he had time.
When asked of his regrets Graham said “he would spend more time at home with his family, study more and preach less.” Wow! I think every MK and PK alive today longs to hear those words from their parents. He wished he had spent more time with his family. My dad prayed for healing to get back out there, not a few more months of life so that he could treasure his family and say his goodbyes. He wanted to get back out there and reach our world for Christ. (At that time it was his work in China.)
“God has a reason for keeping us here (even if we don’t always understand it), and we need to recover the Bible’s understanding of life and longevity as gifts from God—and therefore as something good. Several times the Bible mentions people who died “at a good old age”—an interesting phrase (emphasis added). So part of my advice is to learn to be content, and that only comes as we accept each day as a gift from God and commit it into his hands. Paul’s words are true at every stage of life, but especially as we grow older: “Godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Tim. 6:6).
I miss my dad. He was never content. And I’ve concluded that he had to die for the rest of us to live. I know those are harsh thoughts. Do I really believe that God “took him” or did his life finally just end? I will never know and it doesn’t really matter does it? What I do know is the result of his death. I could not break free from the chains of my experiences with him and my mother. I did not have the strength or the knowledge of how to do that. In the end, he left and I became free.
Could I have experienced the growth of the last eight years with him still alive? Not so quickly. Or intentionally. Or in the same way. He was such a force. He was IRON in my life, but as iron sharpens iron, iron on something weak shapes it in the ways it wants.
So why so much talk of legacy and more time and regrets? Because it is a bittersweet thing to lose a parent when they were a coercive fury in your life. Choking. Compelling. And yet all that you knew of love.
Yeah, it’s mixed up.
PK: Preacher’s Kid and MK: Missionary’s Kid
Good Dad, Bad Dad (A poem I wrote in 2004)