Gone fifty-five years. He died three days before Father’s Day in 1968. His funeral was the day after. Father’s Day was not as big a deal back then. My dad’s death was. He only lived forty-eight years. The good die young, they say. In this case, it’s true. I’ve lived most of my life without him. During those brief years, he taught me many things. The harder, deeper lessons are the few I learned from my dad after his death.
My dad earned a living as a mechanic. A good one. Good enough he eventually worked on the Titan missiles. In his spare time he taught me little lessons like how to run a shovel, hammer a nail, ride a horse, laugh at and tell Dad jokes, wait, wear cowboy boots, ride horses, receive life from rivers, fish, clean dirty car parts, avoid rattle snakes, skin a rabbit, tell the truth, apologize, string a barbed wire fence, bleed, shovel horse shit, treat girls right, mow the lawn, listen to my mom, sweep the garage, love baseball and football, and admire dreaming through his heroes: Charles Lindbergh and the Wright Brothers.
Those lessons required honing and trial and error. But the life lesson he passed on after he passed has taken longer to learn.
He taught me how to die
Dad was a typical 1950s male. Tough, hard working, self-made, self-sacrificial. He always offered those in need a helping hand. And he literally loved meat and potatoes.
Typically too, he ignored his health. Having beaten death in the coal mines of southern Colorado and in WWII, he gave death little thought.
Two years before his fatal heart attack, he collapsed and fell from his horse while deer hunting on my great-uncle’s ranch. He woke long after in the snow with his horse standing above him. According to my mom, it was probably his first heart attack. And he never went to the doctor about it.
As I recovered from his loss and the anger at him for that, I grew to realize ignoring your health is not healthy. Don’t die before your time!
Life is fleet
Yet that’s not the the most crucial life lesson dad willed me in his death.
Life is fleet. Life is that glorious silver sliver of light above the mountains at sunrise that too soon melts with the heat of day. Days after Dad’s funeral the ugly truth that settled into my soul was that you could climb out of a car and never see the person behind the wheel again. Thereafter, I’d not walk from a room or leave the house without saying multiple goodbyes and I love yous.
At first that was a fear response. Maybe I can keep those I love from suddenly disappearing by nailing them down with words of love. And if they do vanish, they’ll know how I felt about them. And maybe—please God—they’ll tell me they love me too before they perish.
Later, after I came to know the resurrected Christ, fear slowly turned to commitment. While I’m here and while The Redheaded-Wildflower and my children and friends are walking the earth with me, I will give them the gift of love in my words and hugs and time. Of course all this has been lived out through my imperfect life.
Now I see those were, in part, bloody finger nails in the dirt hanging on to life. A fierce, desperate version of seize the day. After my own heart attack in 2015, this lesson on how to die transformed.
Loosen Your Grip
I saw God’s hand in my survival
First, I saw God’s hand in my survival. I grew more comfortable not being in control. I could loosen my grip. God redeems every tragedy and triumph of life.
Second, with an eye for how close death is to all of us, I adopted my dad’s impervious view of death. I ceased to fear it. Mostly. And with that lack of fear I have been able to embrace each day of life as a gift. I see how rich it was that my dad passed on little things to me like how to shovel shit. Coffee, conversations, jokes, nails, glances in the eye become eternal. I don’t need to change the world. I can change the look in my eye to one of love and that is life. I can die today or tomorrow—though I don’t really want to—knowing that I’ve given myself to the people and the events in that twenty-four hours. I am living more deeply now because dad has taught me how to die.
Live Fully in the Moment with Death in Mind
Maybe this is what the Apostle Paul, who faced death and experienced loss more than most of us meant when he wrote, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
To live, even for a glorious flash in the sunrise, is a gift, and yet to die—in Christ—is the fulfillment of it all.
Thanks, Dad. I would have preferred to live the last fifty-five years-with you. But I see now in so many ways. God has kept you teaching me. Happy Father’s Day.
Here also is a Father’s Day Prayer:
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit:
Thank you for filling the world with glimpses of your goodness and grace. Your creation shouts your name. Even fatherhood reflects your glory. In your word you tell us to rejoice with those who rejoice. Today we rejoice in your gift of fathers. We are grateful that they have taught us everything from silly jokes to how to worship you, our heavenly Father.
They have fed us and tickled us and disciplined us and shown us everything from how to color in and out of the lines to how to write a poem to how to tie our shoes to how to change a tire—and even how to pray. Thank you, God, that in your unfathomable wisdom you have used mere humans—birth fathers, stepfathers, adoptive fathers, spiritual fathers, and even imperfect fathers—to reflect what you are as a Father.
God, for each father—and father to be—renew in us the sacred calling of fatherhood. Forgive us where we have failed. Give us grace to better reflect you in our daily lives. Empower us to be more like you, to step in the gap of fatherlessness in our communities.
And Lord God, we mourn with those who mourn on this day. Comfort and encourage those whose fathers did not reflect even the barest of your image, those who have lost their fathers, never knew them, have lost children, or cannot be fathers themselves. Take them in your arms in a way only you, their heavenly Father can. Whisper your love in their ears. Give them the grace to forgive, the ability to hope, and the will to patiently wait for your redemption of the pain of fatherlessness.
We confess we sometimes have not listened to our fathers when they have spoken truth. Forgive us also for the times we’ve misused and misunderstood this great gift.
And God, give us all a vision for what it means to be in sacred relationships the way you are as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen