My dad in WWII

Father’s Day: What My Dad Taught Me After His Death

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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 

10 thoughts on “Father’s Day: What My Dad Taught Me After His Death”

  1. Georgie Ann Kettig

    very beautiful, Eugene,… I have had a similar-but-different experience with “losing father(s)”, but the essence is the same,… happily, God is able to meet us in our deep quest for meaning, purpose and love, and also bring us great joy as we unite with our extended family of brothers and sisters, in this life!,…

      1. Georgie Ann Kettig

        I would usually let this pass ~ but since we’re talking about fathers and Father’s Day, I thought I would mention that “coincidentally”, my very special stepfather usually called me “GA”, so that has a special “ring” to it for me,…

        and as long as I’m mentioning “coincidences”, I might as well tell you what happened to my cellphone, quite awhile back,… I have absolutely no idea how this transpired, technologically speaking ~ it’s pretty obvious that I inadvertently touched something in a way that was “cellphone clueless”, and suddenly the background of my opening cellphone page had switched to your photo of the very overgrown-woolly looking group of sheep!

        at first, I was in shock, but eventually adjusted to the “new look”, and they’ve been there ever since!,… when you were obviously suffering and in need of prayers, more recently, it was comforting to have them there as a steady reminder to always keep you in “hope and prayers”,…

        I’ve wanted to tell you that story for a long time, so I guess this is now “the perfect timing” that I was waiting for!,… (-:

        1. I’m glad you didn’t let it pass. When I think of you, I think of you in terms of GA. But I often answer your comments more formally. Thank you for sharing that beautiful, short story. And I am so thankful for the prayers. Sheep aren’t so dumb!

          1. Georgie Ann Kettig

            a long time ago, I lived on a “group farm” with idealistic folks who were learning to “meditate” and discovering the blessings of “going back to nature”, in the New York Finger Lakes region (which was also “wine country” for some),… in addition to grapes and more typical farm produce, we raised sheep, and had a fairly large flock,… they do get that “long woolly look” shortly before time for shearing,… we even had ladies who carded the wool, and then spun it into yarn, and then wove it into homespun craft projects, which the “Farm” was also famous for,… btw ~ this was what I was more interested in doing after graduating from an upstate university, rather than going to work for IBM or Xerox,… lol,… (-:

          2. Haha. This story does not surprise me about you. Are you writing a book about your adventures? Maybe you should.

  2. Janet Yancet

    You look like your Dad. That in itself is a gift. Thank you for this post.

  3. Georgie Ann Kettig

    just a quick answer to the above ~ (couldn’t find the last reply button in that comment thread),… I am starting to make some notes with something like that in mind,… I have no idea what form it might take, or where it might lead eventually,… just doing “one footstep in front of another” and then “we’ll see”,… at the moment, my goal is to “remember and record”, and then to find the “significant highlights with meaning”, and see if they lead to an overall “picture worth sharing”,… and then, see if I can bring it into an acceptable form to share,… we’ll see ~ “one step at a time”, and I’m only at the very beginning,…

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