I was sitting on the couch with my wife Jamie and my mom on a Sunday afternoon in December watching the Dallas Cowboys game, and suddenly I started getting phone calls. My dad and his wife Vickie had been involved in a car accident somewhere in Oklahoma. Jamie and I ended up getting our stuff together and got in the car to drive to St. Francis Hospital in Tulsa, where my dad was being taken by care-flight.
When we got there about midnight, he was very much awake and clear of mind. The first thing he said was, “I guess you aren’t coming over for dinner Wednesday.” Which I thought was funny because on the way there I had asked Jamie if she thought it would be funny if texted Vickie and asked if we were still coming over for dinner Wednesday. She said, “No.”
The next morning the orthopedic surgeons were there in his room, and they were talking with me at the foot of his bed about the fractures in his hip and pelvis and what may need to be done about that.
He spoke up and said, “Excuse me.” They kept talking to me. And he said, in his typical fashion, “Do I get any input on this? One thing you need to know is I am not having hip surgery in Tulsa. I have a doctor in Dallas, and for a number of reasons, it’s not workable for me to have surgery here. So I’ll be going to Dallas. Keep that in mind as you are making your plans.”
They said, “OK, we’ll talk about that later.”
Turns out he didn’t have hip surgery; he had serious internal injuries that he wasn’t able to recover from. Three days later we were making the decision to stop treatment, and, when they removed him from the ventilator, he died quietly within minutes.
My dad had a good and successful life in many ways. He was able to achieve basically two successful careers. First as a CPA and a partner in an accounting firm. And then in mid-life he decided he wanted to do something different. And so he started over completely in the insurance and estate planning business. We endured some lean years then, but over time he made a great success out of that work and ended up doing really well. I’m proud of his success and determination to succeed.
He had a twenty-three year marriage to our mom, Helen and three remarkable sons. And then he ended up having a twenty-three year marriage to Linda until her death a couple of years ago. He loved her well during the time of her declining health. He also had a good and loving relationship with Linda’s children. He loved Kristi, and she loved him. I am proud of my dad’s marriage to Linda.
For me and my brothers, Brian and Brad, we experienced our dad as someone who
loved us deeply,
was proud of us and supportive always,
was sarcastic but tender-hearted.
We all thought he was funny; he really made us laugh. He was
organized, always making lists and notes on yellow post-its.
Available to us.
He helped us all in many, many ways over the years — with financial things and in countless other ways.
He liked to buy and sell cars, so he was always our go-to person when we needed to do that. He actually knew absolutely nothing about cars. When he was looking at a car they would open up the hood, and he would study what was under there with a lot of knowing looks and concerned expressions. But he knew nothing.
He wasn’t exactly a work-on-the-car or handyman type of person. What I learned from him was that if you bought a bike at Target you could pay the guy who works there $50 to put it together for you.
He always did our taxes. He was trying to retire from doing my taxes for several years, but I always asked him for one more year, because keeping records is not my strong suit, and I didn’t think a CPA who was not my dad would put up with my liberal arts major approach to record keeping.
He loved to sing. In recent years he really loved being a part of the New Song choir at Wilshire Baptist Church. He sang at least once at every church I was ever pastor of. When I became Pastor at Broadway, he was always asking me when he was going to get to sing a solo. If anyone could ever sing at his own funeral, he would’ve wanted to do that.
A couple of years ago he had a second hip replacement surgery to repair the one he had had 15 or 20 years before. His recovery was really hard. But he was finally leaving the rehab facility, and we were walking out. He was using a walker. And one of the nurses was talking about how he had led them in singing at some point while he was there.
And he decided that as we were standing by the nurses station on the way to the elevator that that would be a good time to gather everyone around and lead in a Christmas carol or two. So we stood there, and he sang for everyone, and we sang along.
He was a big personality and a character and kind of liked the spotlight but also didn’t think he was important and didn’t take himself too seriously.
He was a good friend and father. He had really good relationships with his daughters-in-law. He was often kind of sparring with them.
He was a really good grandfather; he took great, great pleasure in his grandkids’ accomplishments. I know in my case, he was so happy that we had moved closer so he could go to Sam’s and Ivy’s games in high school. I’m proud of how he was as a grandfather.
Despite all of these good things I have just talked about, my dad was someone who wrestled mightily with guilt and grace. He carried a lot of guilt around with him for any mistakes and bad decisions he had made in his life. He was often trying to atone for past sins in one way or another.
I found in his Bible some notes he had from teaching a Sunday School lesson or Bible study about ten years ago. Predictably his subject was the struggle to accept grace and forgiveness. At one point in his notes he wrote: “For many years I carried the guilt and shame of everything on my shoulders and in my spirit. I can’t describe the burden I carried.”
Near the end of his notes he wrote: “A few years ago I asked God to help me remove this guilt from me.”
He always struggled with allowing the grace of God to remove guilt from him.
I think that’s why he loved to sing the gospel song “I’m Free.” I have heard him sing this song many times. He would sing it with great gusto. I can hear him singing it now. The chorus is:
I’m free from the fear of tomorrow,
I’m free from the guilt of the past;
For I’ve traded my shackles for a glorious song,
I’m free, praise the Lord, free at last.
When we were leaving his hospital room for the night on that Tuesday, we knew the next day was going to be a decision day of sorts. I was just sort of standing by his bed. I don’t want to make it seem like I was some great presence at his bedside last week. Many other people would have been better than I was at being affectionate and talking to him. Mostly I just stood there or sat in the chair.
But on that night I did feel like I wanted to say something before I left. I felt like I had one thing to say that he needed to hear — that I wanted him to hear. I said, “Hey Dad.” I patted him on the hand and spoke into his good ear. “Hey Dad. You did good. We are OK. You did good.”
Randall Balmer has a book I really like about fathers and sons called Growing Pains. At the end of the first chapter he writes:
“I have come to see the Christian life no longer as a steep and steady ascent toward holiness but as a tortuous journey full of twists and turns and switchbacks and perhaps a rockslide or two along the way.
“But over the course of that journey I feel the embrace of a God who accepts me as I am in all of my humanity, who loves me unconditionally, in spite of my shortcomings. It is a pilgrimage
“of joy and sadness,
“of loving and suffering,
“triumph and tragedy,
“but it culminates in sweet union with Jesus, who somehow takes our sad and broken lives and makes us whole.
“That’s the gospel, I think. That sounds like good news to me.”
It sounds like good news to me.