Today would have been my father’s 87th birthday. He died a couple of years ago after a battle with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, basically black lung disease without the coal mining. I was with him a lot in the weeks before he died, something for which I am grateful, but left his house in northern Kentucky about 20 minutes before he passed. The hospice nurse had just left and said she thought it would be a few more days. I decided to run back to Tennessee to regroup, and he died before I made it to the interstate.
That was pretty much the story of my relationship with my dad, near connections, bad timing, wrong place wrong time. Dad had some struggles early on in what should have been the formative, nurturing years for me and my sisters. He was ultimately estranged from us for a long time, never really knowing much of his grandkids and certainly not his great grands. There was a lot of dark, much pain, in my father and it kept us from being relational for most of my life.
In the last 4 or 5 years however, we made an attempt to reconcile and reconnect. I would call him a couple of times a month. Funny, though he never said it, I knew he was keeping up with us because he always knew the weather and the latest news where I was. Our conversations usually centered on that. Once a year, around Christmas, I would make my kids load up and we would travel the 5 hours or so, up I-65, to take him to supper, give him a gift, and let him see how the boys had grown. I think those visits meant a lot to him, and, though he never saw a ballgame or attended one of their major life events (graduations, weddings), he was able to feel somewhat informed about his son’s sons.
It was a less than ideal relationship to be sure, but most relationships probably are. We made the best of what we had and tried not to waste it with time spent in bitterness or regret. Again, I am grateful for the choice I made to re-engage with my father and for the privilege of “ministering” to him in his last years and days.
Well, that’s certainly a depressing diatribe to celebrate his birthday. I don’t mean for it to be. Here are the reflections I have as I look back over those last few years:
1. There is good and bad in all of us. I am pretty sure when I have joined my father on the other side of eternity, that my sons could write a book about the mistakes I made and the boneheaded nonsense I put them through. Maybe they will call it, Failure and How HE Achieved It. But hopefully they will also see some of the good that I accomplished, some lives influenced for Jesus, some benefits made for the Kingdom. Too often we allow the screaming negatives to drown out the whispering positives. In nearly everyone there are both. It’s probably important to look for that.
2. Sometimes it is in the bad that we learn the most valuable lessons. I am a firm believer that the most meaningful lessons of life are learned in difficulty and pain. That is also true in the insight we garner from our relationships. I learned a lot of really good things in the bad parts of my dad’s life. Things like never giving up on someone, putting my own feelings aside for the sake of the other, and the unbelievable power of forgiveness. Doris asks, “Do you think we messed our boys up?” To which I reply, “Of course we did. I hope we did. That’s what parents do. They mess ‘em up and God heals them.” It’s the cycle of life. It’s also where I learn a lot.
3. Finally, it is never too late to celebrate. I hate that Dad missed so many years with us. I wish he had been at my graduations (shoot, I wish I had been at my graduations.) I wish he had seen Josh hit a home run or Jacob kill them at Tootsie’s. I wish he knew how smart Jon-Mical is or how funny Jakson is. But if I had become stuck on that I might have missed the chance to talk about the weather twice a month, take him a cheesy gift once a year, sit beside his hospital bed in the middle of the night, or preach his funeral. There is always a place to turn from the regrets of the past and start celebrating the present.
So, happy birthday Dad. And for the rest of us, today might be a good time to forgive the “bad” in somebody, look for the good, and start enjoying the moments that you have. Who knows, it might keep your kids from writing a book about you when you are gone.