Sunday, June 18, 2017

Lessons I Learned from Dad

It's Father's Day, 2017. I'm missing my dad, who died on New Year's Day, 2012. I wrote this piece a few years before my dad passed and shared it with him and some family members. He didn't say much about it, which was typical of Dad--it made him uncomfortable to talk about himself--but I like to think it meant something to him.  I shared parts of it at his memorial service.


Lessons I Learned from Dad

     I'll skip the obvious ones:  work hard, be a man of your word, love Jesus. When I reflect on what I learned from my dad, it's more about actions, behaviors, attitudes than it is about words he said (though he was good with words, and I remember some of those too).
Teach us to care
     As I look back on my experiences with Dad, I remember him as one who cared, and by that word I mean something like passion.  Some of the things he was passionate about were the big, important things: family, church, the needs of others.  But some of them were things that many would call insignificant.  Take, for example, basketball.  Dad was an athlete and a coach in his younger days, and he followed lots of sports, but the one I associate with him most is basketball.  During my growing up years, he was an avid fan of the Wichita State Shockers, to whose home games he had season tickets. He took it seriously.  Wins were met with much rejoicing, but losses were mourned and hashed and rehashed. I think it was from him I learned how to be a fan.  When you're a fan, objectivity is not an option:  you live and die with the team. You invest yourself in their fortunes.
     Of course, being a fan has its perils.  You can go overboard at times.  I remember the first time I was fortunate enough to go to a Shocker game with him, I was amazed when he voiced his displeasure at a call in loud, rather direct terms. And since his seats were courtside, I'm pretty sure the refs heard him.  I was surprised because in every other setting in which I had witnessed him, my dad was a quiet, unassuming man who seldom raised his voice,  He was a gospel preacher, after all; wasn't he supposed to be setting an example for others?  Looking back, I think the basketball arena provided a space for him where he could set aside his preacher image and just be a "normal" person.  Unfortunately, the lesson I learned was that it was okay to yell at referees, a practice which would get me into trouble later when my sons played high school basketball.  However, the enduring lesson I learned was that part of living, part of being human is caring.
Teach us not to care
     From observing my dad, I learned that some things are not worth caring about:  status, position, material possessions.  I'm not saying Dad didn't like nice stuff; he did.  But he lived simply.  No need to rush out and buy a newer model TV, or car, if the current one was still working.  He was not a self promoter, believing that his actions spoke louder about who he was than any words ever could. He taught me to be suspicious of people who spent too much time caring about or promoting their image.  He also taught me that some things were worth more than others.  He would readily interrupt a quiet evening at home watching a favorite TV program to go help a church member who was having car trouble.
     One of my most embarrassing childhood moments perhaps demonstrated this trait most emphatically for me.  On a hunting trip we stopped for gas.  After the car was full, I asked Dad if I could pull the car forward, ostensibly to make room for other cars, but really because I wanted to experience what driving was like. I was 13 and had never driven any kind of vehicle.  As it happened, the car was in Reverse, not Drive, when I decided to hit the gas, a move that propelled our car into the car directly to our rear.  I felt horrible, of course. What I remember about the incident today is that Dad did not say a harsh word to me and pretty much acted as if it never happened.  Perhaps he knew that I felt bad enough already, but I've often wondered if I would have reacted with as much grace had one of my kids pulled a similar stunt.
Take time to rest
     No one could ever accuse Dad of being lazy.    Throughout my growing up years, he worked what amounted to two full-time jobs, serving as preaching minister for the Northside Church of Christ and as an 8th grade English teacher at Roosevelt Junior High.  Most evenings were filled with hospital visits, and weekends were devoted to sermon preparation and church.  While he worked hard, he always made time for entertainment.  He played golf and tennis at least once a week in the summers, and our family had two summer vacation rituals:  we would spend a week at Table Rock Lake in Missouri, which meant fishing for him and swimming for me and my brother.  And at some point each summer we would take off on a road trip, which meant sightseeing for Mom and Dad and swimming in motel pools for my brother and me.  When I graduated from high school, Mom and I figured out that I had been in 45 of the 50 states.  This rhythm of work and rest was obviously important to him because the routine never varied.  This lesson I am still trying to learn.  So far, I've displayed more of dad's workaholic nature than the rest and relaxation part. 
Put other's needs before your own
     Dad demonstrated a selfless attitude in so many ways, big and small, but I remember most his social grace, what his generation might have called manners.  This characteristic manifested itself in settings like the golf course, where I learned golf etiquette by watching how he invited others to hit first and was careful on the green not to step in someone's path to the cup.  Having dinner at a restaurant, he was concerned, not just about his meal, but about the well being of others at the table.  Perhaps the greatest test of this trait were the last five years of so of Mom's life, where he cared for her as her memory and her ability to care for herself deteriorated as a result of Alzheimer's.  I don't think a selfish person could be a caregiver in such circumstances.  Dad performed the role as if he had been preparing for it all his life, and I guess, in a way, he had.
Find something you do well, something you love to do
     I mentioned earlier that Dad worked two jobs, and I'm convinced he loved both. He never talked much about his teaching job, but I suspect he enjoyed reading literature and discussing it with his students.  He loved words and has always been able to recite long poems from memory.  From him I first learned that words are important, that books contain important ideas, and that poetry is entertaining.  I must have inherited some of his mnemonic facility as well since I can still recite long sections of Eliot's The Waste Land and the prologue to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.  I also remember the words to numerous Simon and Garfunkel and Bob Dylan songs from the 70s.
     I know he loved preaching.  I'm sure he didn't have as much time for sermon preparation as he would have liked, but the time he did have, he used well.  One example is telling.  Years before PowerPoint, Dad decided that illustrated sermons might increase audience interest, so he got the idea of using a flannel board to illustrate his Sunday evening sermons.  So after writing a sermon, he would spend hours drawing words and images on flannel-backed paper and cutting them out.  One of the church members helped him build a supersized flannel board that could be hung off the edge of the baptistery at the front of the auditorium. I'm sure these illustrated sermons were viewed as high tech in the 60s and 70s.
     I made my career choice in college based on what I loved, not on what I thought would bring in the most money, and I still suggest to the college students I advise today to do the same.
Old dogs can learn new tricks
     Perhaps the most important lesson I learned from my dad came from what I'm certain was the most difficult period of his life: walking with Mom as she lived with Alzheimer's.  About a year after her death he was asked to speak to his fellow church members about the experience.   I'm sure it was the most personal sermon he ever delivered.  What I remember are these lines:  "I learned something new about God through caring for Ann.  I noticed that the more helpless she became, the more I loved her, and it hit me that God loves me, loves us, in the same way.  He doesn't love us because of what we can do or accomplish.  In fact, it's the opposite: the more helpless we become, the more he loves us" (my paraphrase).  Dad went on to reflect that in his years of preaching there were probably times when he expected too much of the people he ministered to, when he was judgmental of their weak attempts to follow Jesus.  His experience with his wife, he said, made him regret those times and wish he had been more loving, more graceful, in fact, more Godlike in those relationships.
     I didn't get to spend this past Father's Day with Dad, but I was able to spend my spring break with him at the retirement apartments that he recently moved to after selling the house he lived in for some 54 years.  He gets around slowly these days with his walker, but he's still alert and can still recite long poems from memory--not bad for an 88-year-old.  Spending the week with him, I noticed many of the same traits I talked about.  Ever the gentleman, at dinnertime, if a resident sitting at his table did not get served, he would flag down the waiter and make sure the person was helped.  Even though he had just moved out of his home, he was more interested in talking about the new home Janet and I had purchased in Oregon.
     And he was still being a fan.  My visit coincided with NCAA March Madness, so we watched a lot of basketball together.  What I noticed was he still retained the old competitive fire.  If he had no particular reason to root for a team based on region or conference, he would still pick a favorite, and he would react with emotion to the ups and downs of that team throughout the game.  He still complained about the bad calls.  He still cared.

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