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This picture was taken during my dad’s last visit to North Carolina. The last time I would see him alive.

One of the many things I’m thankful for regarding my Dad is that over the last four years we had taken the time to say everything we could to one another.

My close friends know this story well… through their counsel and loving guidance I wrote my dad a very long, and difficult letter. Four pages, hand-written and brutally honest. Well, it was brutally honest from the perspective of a kid who was confused by his father’s emotional and physical absence during those fun years we call adolescence. I’ve since come to recognize my blindness towards his experience of the same story. Indeed a large part of my being able to see his side of it was me taking the time to write out the letter with all of the gut wrenching honesty I could muster.

So at the behest of my counselor I finally sat down and wrote this letter in one night. It was all “true” and it was not at all pretty, but the odd thing to me was that I felt absolutely nothing as I wrote it, or even after I had finished. Shouldn’t I feel anger or sadness or something? No. Just coldness. So the next day I read it to a close friend out loud over the phone… and it took me what seemed like an hour to get all the way through it because I could not control the avalanche of emotion. She sat with me in my pain and offered that fantastic gift of deep listening. The next day I read it to my counselor in person… same thing. His response: “30 plus years of holding all that down… makes sense to me that it would feel cold and numb at first… now you’re making up for lost time.”

You counselor types can be a bit sheisty. “Now,” he says, “I want you to read this to your dad.” {long silent pause}       There was no way. I loved my dad and to say these things to him would be devastating. As a dad myself it would be earth shattering to hear of the heartache I had caused regardless of the circumstances. Well, to make a long story a little shorter I did read it to him about a month later when he was visiting from Texas. Leading up to this I’d had this vision in my head of me getting into the letter and him simply standing up and walking out of the room. For a 12 year old’s version of the experience this vision made sense. However, my dad’s response exploded my expectations along with the box I’d placed him in out of my own self-protection. I was able to read through the four-page letter with composure until the last sentence was complete, and then with an exhale 30 years in the making I buried my face in my hands and wept. When I caught my breath I noticed my dad was no longer on the other side of the room, but rather on his knees in front of me, weeping with me as he put his arms over my slouched shoulders.

This was a gift I never imagined possible. About two years later I wrote him a “follow-up” letter of sorts that basically said “thank you” and outlined some of the ways his response had helped move me towards wholeness.  His response: “you’ve never been anything but deeply loved.”  And while there was still the geographical distance between us (NC and TX) and plenty of father/son banter over politics and religion, there was much more depth of understanding in our relationship. I no longer saw him as the absent father and myself as the confused and angry teenager.  As sons and daughters we forget to consider our parents as humans in process and development.  I began to see us both as hikers on the same trail… just his limp was a little more accentuated than my own.

Then this past summer, as his health began to decline, many of my friends asked if I was on good terms with my dad. I’d pause, consider the trail we’d hiked together and with a tear-filled smile say, “We’ve said everything we can to one another. All that’s left is, ‘I have nothing but love for you.'”

I sure do miss him.

During this time of Advent what better gift to give your loved ones and yourself than the gift of reconciliation? It’s not an easy trail to climb, but it is well worth the effort.

To my friends and counselors on this trail… thank you.  You mean more to me than you know.

There is a small city in east Texas nestled within rolling pastures and boasting a population of just over 600 people.  Seriously, as you drive into town the sign says “Population 612.”  And I thought I grew up in a small town.  John Cougar Mellencamp has nothing on this place!

I’ve been to Cushing twice now.  First, in 2008 to see my dad’s new hometown and meet his wife whom he had recently married, and then three weeks ago (July 2014) to see my dad for the last time.  His cancer had returned and his health had taken a dramatic turn for the worse earlier this year.  He had been telling us not to worry because he would be out to NC for my niece’s wedding in September.  They had bought his airline ticket and a dandy new suit complete with Texas cuff links and tie.  Meanwhile he told one of his close friends that he didn’t think he would live through the following week.  He was correct.  He died in the early hours of July 15th.

My siblings and I all spoke with him on the phone the night of the 13th, and we left town on the 14th to go and see him as we knew his time was short.  The 16 hour drive proved too long and just before we crossed the Mississippi, he crossed the Jordan.  My sister Laura and her family were a few hours ahead of the rest of us and arrived at his house approximately 40 minutes after he passed away.  Dad never did like to wait on us.  As we’ve reflected on it we all seem to agree that he really didn’t want us to see him in such a state.

When we received the news of his passing, my brother, two of my three sisters, one of my two nieces and my two oldest boys (9 & 10) stopped along the highway just inside the Louisiana State line.  We wept together, hugged, and then caught our collective breath and traveled on to Texas to say goodbye in whole different way.  The whole drive out there was an incredibly rich time with my family; we laughed, we wept, we prayed, we talked and we sat in silence…together.  Later my wife and my sister-in-law would fly in to join us.  

We pulled into Nacogdoches around 5:00 A.M. on Tuesday the 15th and slept in our hotel for a few short hours.  Around 8 or 9 I took my sons to the lobby for their not-so-nutritious-but-free breakfast.  The boys ate their waffles that had come out of a waffle maker in the shape of Texas and I drank my coffee while checking my Facebook news feed.  Then the tears started to come.  It seems odd thing to me that of all things Facebook would be the cathartic straw on the camels back, but when you come from a line of emotionally constipated males you take whatever works.  As I read through the comments and posts about dad, the prayers of loved ones and the condolences of friends it hit me… he’s gone.  No amount of mental preparation can stand in the wake of tears born from the depths of this kind of grief.

As the tears rolled my phone rang.  Technology and grief – there is a fascinating relationship worthy of exploration.  My dad’s wife Vicki was calling me from their home phone which, thanks to my Samsung, had a picture of my dad’s Facebook profile pic.  When I saw it… whatever early-morning peace was being had by the other travelers in the hotel lobby was evaporated by my now uncontrollable lament.  It wasn’t just crying.  It physically hurt.  This grief was more visceral and intense than any I’d ever experienced in my life, and my boys were watching.

Then came the 30 minute drive out to Cushing along TX route 21.  Mark, my brother, was driving as we winded through the lush and hilly countryside  towards Cushing to help make arrangements for the funeral.  My brother has always been the biggest fan of U2 I’ve ever known, and as he played their song “Sometimes You Can’t Make it on Your Own” the grief hit me again.  This time with more force than before.  Something about the scenery, the music, and the thought of my dad driving his Harley through the countryside was simultaneously beautiful and desperate.  There seemed to be a deeper level of sadness that resulted from being with my family.   A kind of reciprocal  grief that, on the one hand was excruciating as I watched the sorrow of my loved ones (especially my boys), but somehow comforting and altogether good on the other.  I really don’t know what to call this odd mixture of shared grief and gratitude… perhaps this is “love bearing all things.”

Cushing was my dad’s home.  It is a small town filled with people who genuinely loved my dad in the last years of his life.  During the viewing and the funeral there were stories upon stories of people who knew my dad and had become close friends with him during his 7 years there.  Towards the end of the funeral service people walked through to pay their last respects.  I was struck by the teenage boys, the elderly couples, the middle-aged moms… all of them in tears.  Tears for their friend who had lost her husband, and tears for their own loss of a friend.  Part of the story here that I won’t go into full detail on is that before my dad moved to Texas he had all but totally isolated himself from friends and even some of his own family.  That he was able to find friendship, love and embrace in a small but hospitable place like Cushing is a strangely remarkable picture of redemption.  

There is so much more to tell.  To say it has been difficult to finally sit and write this post would be a gross understatement.  While I’ve written and spoke on the themes of hope and fear, or death and loss, nothing has brought me to the crucible of grief like the death of my dad.  Paradoxically, nothing has given more depth to the hope of the resurrection.  Death is not “natural” nor is it final.  Does the idea of hope even make any sense apart from grief?  That will have to be another post, but in the meantime  my family and I “do not grieve without hope.”

One of the messages I received the day after dad passed was from a good friend who had suffered the loss of her dad at a young age.   One of the things she said was “No two ways about it. No matter how much you tell yourself that  ‘he’s not in pain anymore’ or that ‘he’s in a better place,’ it hurts like hell.”  I could not have said it better myself.  And that is the point… I didn’t have to.  My friends and especially my family have grieved this loss together, and we’ll continue together.  Thank you to all of my friends for your text messages, phone calls, Facebook posts etc.  Your reaching out has helped and your invitation to be present to our pain is very much appreciated.    May my heart become a more generous place for going through these valleys of grief… and may God bless the generous people in the small town of Cushing.  Thank you for loving my dad so well.  10553634_10153051259956632_2717171370709773303_n

living in between

September 9, 2011

I’ve been blown away by the responses from my last post, and very honored to have read it today as part of the eulogy for my departed brother.  It was a tear-filled day for most of us and now the numbness is setting in… is this even real?  Am I going to wake up now?  I’m sure he’ll just call or text me any day now.  I know I’m not alone in these questions.  Many have expressed this kind of doubtful malaise that sets in after so much emotion and grief.  We still feel this loss but don’t seem able to stay connected to it in any meaningful way.

As hard as it is we should examine our grief rather than waste it.  I seem to recall Jesus asking the question on more than one occasion “why are you weeping?”  Regardless of the context I’m pretty sure it’s a safe bet that he already knew exactly why they were weeping.  It could be that he wanted them to connect deeply with their grief and examine their wounded hearts.  Words just seem so inadequate to express the emptiness and loss.  But why is it loss?  Because love is a reality, even in this broken place.  If we didn’t love Adam this day would have been a great day to simply enjoy the weather and then listen to politicians over promise and under deliver (sorry I guess that’s in their job description).   We do love Adam and that is why it hurts.  In the words of C.S. Lewis: “The pain I feel now is the happiness I had before.  That’s the deal.”  So we have all these memories that are flooding back and bring this strange mixture of joy and sadness.  Joy that we experienced these things and this person, and sadness that we won’t have the opportunity to share them with him again… at least for now.

If we are to have any substantial hope in this life it must be anchored to the next.  Death loses in the end for us because it has already lost to the One it could not keep.  While we give mental assent to this and even sense the longing for it in our hearts we still know the experience of death to be very real.  And very painful.  By faith we see the empty tomb in front of us and that is where our hope rests but we still have the here-and-now to deal with… work, school, bills, even funeral arrangements.  Our experience now is characterized by this tension between the joys of love and the sadness of loss.  Our experience then will have no loss and only the joy of love will remain.   It is in this tension that hope is born, and hope is a painfully beautiful thing.

And there will come a time, you’ll see, with no more tears.
And love will not break your heart, but dismiss your fears.
Get over your hill and see what you find there,
With grace in your heart and flowers in your hair.  –Mumford and Sons