My son Connor is a funny kid. He says whatever he’s thinking no matter where we are or whom we are with. Sometimes this brutal honesty trait is totally terrifying as we are guests someplace and he declares that the food is disgusting. At other times, it can be fun and uplifting, like when he declares, “Dad, when I grow up, I’m going to be just like you. I’m going to be a missionary, I’m going to drive a truck, I’m going to wear your clothes, and I’m not going to be a picky eater.” Those are the moments that make any father swell with pride. Especially when he follows up with commonly arguing to all his friends that I’m the strongest man in the world. He has recently relegated me to the second strongest person in the world, but there are a lot of people out there, so even being considered the second strongest person makes me feel good.
Perhaps these reflections won’t be interesting to anyone, but I feel the need to get them out. Right now, I’m thinking of my father and how I thought of him as I was growing up. I write these words sitting in London’s Heathrow Airport as I await my flight to Johannesburg, and eventually on to Lubumbashi. The last text that I received from my mother before boarding my plane in Dallas read, “Dad’s been moved to hospice care, will let you know of any news as it comes.” The first text I received after connecting to the airport WiFi here in London read, “The nurses have notified us that he is entering the final stages.”
It’s strange to me that I receive this news in an airport. You see, my first memories of my father also mostly come from inside airports. He traveled a lot and could be gone for a month at a time. Back in those days, you could go all the way to the gate and watch the plane come in. That is what we always did. In that small San Antonio airport, we could see the planes come in and taxi up to one of 10 gates. It was always so exciting when the plane pulled up to the gate we were waiting at. Then, it seemed like it would take forever for him to walk off the plane. I would try to carry his bag but it was always too heavy. When we got home, my sister and I would fight over who got to sit by him and we anxiously awaited the treasures that he brought us. As I grew up, he was the man who taught me to ride my bike, throw a baseball, rescue Zelda (original Nintendo version) and how to do math in my head. Maybe I wouldn’t have said that he was the strongest man in the world, but perhaps I would have called him the smartest.
I know it’s a broken world and not everyone has great memories of their father, but it’s my hope that everyone would have memories of someone who has nurtured and guided them in their young years through to adulthood. As an adult, he continued to teach me how to be a good husband and father, how to garden (it’s not as easy as it looks), and how to serve. He served our local church, and its daycare, as the treasurer and handyman for more than twenty years, all without ever receiving a paycheck. He didn’t want to get paid, it’s just who he was. I’ve learned a lot from him and will continue to learn from him after he is gone.
We knew that moving to Africa would be a sacrifice. For us, it’s not too difficult to be apart from family. We have technology that allows us to communicate regularly and in the worse case scenario, we will see them every other year. What has proven difficult is to not be there in the event of an emergency. We knew that we would get a similar call one day; “Come home quick, so and so is really ill,” but we just didn’t expect it to be so soon. Now, my dad is old. I was born just a bit before his 45th birthday. But he never seemed old; not to us. I remember walking home from elementary school with a friend one day, and for some reason, my dad was home when we got there. My friend asked, “Do you live with your grandpa?” “No,” I responded totally puzzled. “Is that your dad,” he followed up in disbelief. “Yeah…” I replied, still totally puzzled. I was a lot older when my friend’s question made since to me. He never acted any older than my friends’ dads. Perhaps he stayed young because he had young kids, and then when we grew older, he and my mother began to care for foster kids who really had them running around.
In any case, I knew this call was coming one day. We missionaries know that we have accepted to miss certain big dates or events in the lives of our families. For me, this time, it will be the final moments of my father’s life and his funeral that I miss. We are very lucky to be a part of a great church that has allowed us to go back and see my dad. Jill and the kids were there for a week, and I’ve stayed an extra week after them. We cherished these last days together and hopefully have left the kids some good memories of their grandfather. As I said, I knew this call was coming one day, I had just imagined (and hoped) that it would have come many years down the road.
This last paragraph comes two days after I wrote these words from the airport in London. This morning, I received the news that my dad had passed in the night. He went quietly, without complaining, as was his way. He made the man I am today and I can’t thank him enough for all he did for us. He was a low-key, behind the scenes kind of guy but I’m going to miss him in a big, in-your-face kind of way.