Mourning doves coo like a soft flute from the windows of Mrs. Holland’s sixth-grade music class at my old brick elementary school. An orchestral arrangement of tweets seems to play mockingbird from all directions. And bright orange streaks of light kiss the tops of rogue bushes and twisted tree trunks. Tiny buds of future daffodils sneak out of the rich dirt, ready to reach for the sky and please the eye.
I’ve not been in my hometown in early spring since I left there as a teen about to start my life elsewhere. Though I tend to make a brief appearance every couple of years, this weekend’s visit is a rarity. This homecoming is a grand sendoff for the man whose last name I bear, providing a chance to reconnect, possibly one last time, with cousins and family acquaintances who share our grief.
The silver lining in this dark cloud is making renewed acquaintances, hearing stories we’ve never heard, and seeing people we’ve not seen since “you were this high.”
While making arrangements, one of my dad’s lifelong buddies pointed out that we have been frozen in time. His son, now 42 with kids, is stuck in my mind as the 17-year-old I last saw. To him, I’m still 30, about the last time he saw me. We both experienced an unexpected jolt. How can this be?
Though the price paid for this experience was high, there is pure joy and a sense of security when reconnecting with the past.
Why, we ask, have we not spent more time together over the years, discovering that we like one another and had more in common than we knew? Yet we know somewhere deep down inside that we may never again have this connection unless we are deliberate about it.
Death has a price, but so does life. There is a price for everything, and there is irony in the price. It’s as though I feel guilty having so much joy in seeing these people who have been frozen in time. Seeing faces I’ve not seen since high school, once shiny, hopeful teens and now weathered and tired senior citizens. Another jolt, for a brief moment, but a deep pleasure.
It’s Not Possible
Thomas Wolfe said, “You can’t go home again,” and it holds true. We’re here today, gone tomorrow, and all the joy held here is fleeting as we return to our hectic lives, no longer intertwining like the yarn of a comfortable old sweater. Not only is there sadness at the burial, sorrow is also creeping in like an old, gnarly vine as we all figure out that this may be the last time we connect.
Why don’t we spend more time together? Why don’t we do anything? What stands in the way becomes the way. The only alternative to taking things deeper is to identify the obstacle, then chip away or solve it so you reach the desired outcome. Ultimately it boils down to whether we’re willing to pay the price. Is the reward worth the effort? In some cases, yes. In others, well, probably not.
I’d not wish this past few weeks on anyone, but the reward has been sweet just the same. The process of everything we’ve gone through as a family has been a gift, in spite of the price.
A Flood of Gratitude
Though I can dig deeply for things I wish I’d said or done, I feel grateful that I had a chance and took it. And my sensitive, tear-filled eyes, which have more tears to come, have also helped me see the sweet gifts of the process. Now, at least for these raw moments, and hopefully longer, I look at those I love, those I’ve not seen, and appreciate that I can smile and see a smile in return. Appreciation fills my broken heart, and it’s my hope that I can keep the appreciation at a higher level each and every day, never once taking anyone for granted.
Look around you. Look at those you love and ask, if they became dust tomorrow, would you have said what needs to be said, encouraged what needs encouragement, and made it clear, in a deeply meaningful way, that they are appreciated? If not, go now and do this, before breath escapes for the last time.
And reconnect with those you have not seen, and maybe have forgotten, and deeply enjoy those conversations and expressions. The world in which we live at the moment has been filled with scores of unpleasant and unexpected surprises, and that may continue into the future. Don’t look back in regret with good intentions but lacking actions. Reach out, embrace, and feel the joy.
Dark clouds are billowing over the distant green pastures. A rickety old fence manages to keep the longhorn cattle from walking into the dirt road, which only sees an occasional truck each day. It’s the middle of nowhere, and I’m here in the camper for a much-needed break to simply relax for the weekend. I might slip out and paint the fields of bluebonnets.
Following our big online artist convention, PleinAir Live, which was an intense four days after even more intense days and months of advance preparation, I was exhausted. But instead of sleeping in the following day, or sitting on the back porch, or playing in my art studio, I had to face something I’d rather not face. Boarding an airplane, Laurie, the kids, and I flew to Florida, knowing we would be spending the next few days saying goodbye to my dad and being at his bedside.
Big Changes in One Month
When we left there a month ago after spending almost four weeks taking care of Dad, who was up and in good spirits and alert, we returned to find him shutting down. He was barely able to talk, and, though we were only able to make out a word or two, we just wanted him to know we were there at his side as he made passage to a new and better place.
Hospice said it would be about five days normally, but Dad had been working 15-hour days up till then. They said, “The ones who work are still working in their heads, and take more time to give up.” He lasted till 8:39 on the ninth day.
The hand of death can be swift or slow, but its grasp is strong and makes no exceptions. Rarely do we admit it looms, hovering above like vultures awaiting their kill. They circle for as long as it takes.
Some, whose greatness seems limitless and whose vulnerability to death seems almost impossible, these larger-than-life characters, fall just like the rest of us, perhaps the only difference being the disbelief among others that they could ever go.
Such was the case with my father, the man who stood above others, not in stature or importance (because those things were not his God). Not only was he the man with that magical eye twinkle and beaming smile who befriended everyone he met, he was the one who was truly interested, whether you were the head of a government or the restroom attendant. All were equal in his eyes. Each person had a story, and he was curious to learn it, and make a new friend. Like a high-powered magnet, he drew others to him.
Though driven to excellence and being as great as God intended him to be, he too possessed flaws and imperfections. He had regrets, but made sure he used them as lessons to prevent future mistakes. He too was seduced by shiny objects, but his family was his foundation, and he gave to them deeply. Every encounter had a story attached to a lesson he felt we should learn, but they were never lectures. Mistakes were ours to make, yet he was never critical. Instead he may have helped us find our own correction, but he never told us what to do, never yelled or raised his voice that I can remember, and never would be critical or negative about others. Never a word of gossip, not even so much as giving in to the temptation to pile on when someone else said something negative. Instead he would suggest that we should never be critical because we’ve never walked in someone else’s shoes.
Adventure was his muse, challenge was his seductress, and God was his guide. His family prayer, with us or strangers over each meal, was “Change our plans according to your plans for us.” Prayers were never short, and often as long as the meal itself. We were each mentioned, whether we were present or not, because he was calling on the Almighty for protection; he understood that our control and protection had earthly limits.
His number one goal for each of his family and friends was that they find “the ticket to heaven” referred to in John 3:16. He never preached, but the way he lived drew others to ask, at which time he would share. Countless stories of conversion or salvation were like notches on a gunslinger’s belt. Not because he believed one could earn their way to heaven by good works, but because he deeply wanted what he believed was best for others. He was an example of someone who loved everyone he met, and they felt it.
Staying Home to Go Home
The greatest gift we could give him was to hold to our lifelong promise that he would never be placed in a nursing home or die in a hospital. He was home, and thus lived his full life on his own terms. One of the greatest gifts I had was a daily visit for almost a month, when Laurie and I came to help with his care and where we would chat late into the evening every day while he was still able. Though he had an occasional bad day or two where chats were limited due to exhaustion from treatments, it was time I’ll never regret.
Your Terms Only
Dad’s other big mission was trying to convince anyone who would listen to live life on their own terms, not at the whim of others. That freedom, he would say, comes from starting your own business. His message got through to me, and it’s a message I share because he was right. It’s not easy, sometimes downright frightening, often at the control of outside influences like regulations or customers, but always in your own hands to decide direction.
A Giant Inheritance
The inheritance my dad left me was his voice in my head influencing my decisions like a compass pointing me the right direction. Baskets of memories he went out of his way to make. For instance, at the end of each summer, everyone would get a one-on-one boat ride with Grandpa to impart advice and reconnect one more time. The memories are flooding me and always will, and now I must carry these traditions forward.
Not one week went by that I did not get a call or a text with a long comment on Sunday Coffee. Always encouraging, and expanding on the ideas I’d discuss. One of the last things he said to me, before he could talk no more, was that he loved the last Sunday Coffee. Then he said, as he often did, “Spread your wings. You have a gift to help others. This isn’t just about art; you can help the world. Think big, not small. Expand your reach. The world needs you.”
Sunday Coffee has been rooted in lessons from my life, many of which were passed to me from my father.
Though writing this is cathartic for me, it’s important to share these lessons, because we each have an opportunity to make a mark on others with encouragement, belief in them, and giving them the confidence they need. I’ve had that since the day I was born, and I’ll miss it. But I got enough to get me through a lifetime. Now it’s my turn to make sure I’m providing that for those I love.
You and I walk on this earth for a brief moment in history. I don’t think we’re placed here accidentally so we can just watch TV and become couch potatoes. Though there is a time for that, this is a fresh reminder that time travels fast, and we need to leave that mark in some way, with each person we touch, each day we’re on earth. Remembering that today might be our last.
What about you?
Who have you encouraged lately? Who have you shown that you believe in them? Who have you helped see the greatness inside that they don’t see for themselves?
Life has a purpose. Sometimes we go through years without understanding that purpose, and sometimes others see it when we don’t. My dad saw things in me that I did not see, and he boosted me with confidence and encouragement.
Today, as I celebrate the life of my father, and I celebrate his entry to God’s next realm, I’m filled with joy because his absence makes me see just how fortunate I was to be born to the parents I was given.
Time is short, and there is much work to do to touch more lives and encourage more people. Thank you for allowing me to share this deeply personal moment of my life with you.
PS: We all have everything we need inside ourselves to accomplish any impossible dream. But if you and I can help people see it before they see it themselves, we can impact their lives in a big way. What if each of us started today? Nothing critical. Only encouragement of others, and showing belief in them. (And no self-criticism either.) It would be like rocket fuel to make this world that much better.
I have received thousands of notes, e-mails, social media comments, and things in the mail. You’ve really warmed my heart with your outreach. Thank you. It means so much to me, knowing others are there for me.
Bright Light on a Dark Day2021-05-07T11:14:38-04:00