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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Remembering Dad

My father died on this day in 1985, after a long bout with emphysema and bronchiactis. I had spent my last memorable twelve hours with him two nights earlier, taking my turn being by his bed at the Waynesboro, Virginia, hospital.

At age 80, dad was down to a fraction of his normal weight and strength. Sometimes disoriented, he couldn’t understand why I had to restrain him from getting out of bed or removing his oxygen tubes. In a strange reversal of roles, I was now the parent wishing I could somehow hold and comfort him in his pain and distress.

I don’t cry easily, but I couldn’t help losing it during my 45-minute ride home. Not only was I grieving the loss of my one and only dad--gentle, hospitable and generous to a fault--I was also mourning the father with whom I had never fully connected as I wished.

Financial struggles as I was growing up limited my father’s energy and time for us nine children, especially us younger ones. I realized in a new way on that long ride home how much I ached for more memories of fishing, playing ball or going for walks with my dad. I also wished I had been able to share with him more of my feelings, struggles and dreams as I was growing up. I also realized that any lack of closeness between us as adults was as much my fault as his.

Yet I was very much aware that he had given me much more as a parent than he had ever received from his own father. That truth had come to me in a new way a year earlier, when he and I had a 1 1/2 hour conversation in which I recorded many of his childhood memories. While I already knew much of the story, to have a recording of it in his own words was priceless. 

A defining point in my father’s life was his losing his mother when he was three. And this was my grandfather Dan’s third time of becoming a widower. His first wife Lucy had died of measles at 23 after only four years of marriage, leaving him with a two-year-old son and nine-month-old daughter. On the day of Lucy’s funeral, daughter Anna also died of measles.

A decade later Dan’s second wife Rebecca died of tuberculosis at age 30, leaving him with five more children. Later that year their youngest daughter Mary died of the same disease, also at nine months of age. 

Two years later Dan married Elizabeth, my grandmother, and had three more children, the youngest being my father, Ben. Then at 35 Elizabeth died of complications from her fourth pregnancy, leaving Dan, at 44, with nine living children.

My father has few memories of his next five years except of sometimes crying at night wishing he had a mother like other children he knew. He also wished for a warmer, more nurturing father instead of one he aptly described as a “man of sorrows.”  Surely he was "acquainted with grief."

As if this weren’t enough family drama, five years later Dan married Miriam, a widow with nine children of her own. While eight-year-old Ben was glad to have a real mother again (and some new siblings) their blended family didn’t blend well, and the rest of my father’s childhood was marked by constant family tension and friction. 

I’ve sometimes wondered what kind of dad should have come out of this troubled story, this mysfunctional family. But instead of his becoming a highly depressed or bitter man, Ben became one of the kindest and most gracious people I’ve ever known--even though he had never learned how to hug us as children or to lavish us with praise (we did teach him to hug in his later years!).

On his deathbed he breathed the words of his favorite song, “Blessed Assurance,” the title of which appears on his tombstone, set right next to my mother’s, who had died of cancer fourteen years earlier. With her he had learned to live a new life, celebrate a new lyric, as in, “This is my story, This is my song, praising my Savior  all the day long.”

He left no estate to divide among us, and barely enough savings to pay for his funeral. But we all received a much more valuable legacy, that of a sturdy faith and a graciously lived life.

Today I wish I could tell my father one more time how grateful I am for the way he turned his grief into an amazing grace. As I reflect on his life story, I am better able to embrace my own.
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