Today is my dad’s birthday.
He would have been 67. Way too young to not be here anymore.
I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately, as I just had my second experience with the agony, exhaustion, and honor of end of life care…my second experience with a beloved man dying all too young…my second experience with cancer taking someone I love. Chris’ Uncle Leo, who you know best from his spectacular toenail art and crochet shorts, passed away on July 4, at the age of 65.
I am finding myself doing a lot of writing offline, processing things way too personal to share publicly right now. There’s a lot to sort through when life throws you topsy-turvy…death forces everything to be re-evaluated. And death twice in ten months makes everything look different.
But the following is a post I wrote ten months ago after my dad died. At the time, it too was entirely too personal to share, but I knew I wanted to share it one day.
It might be too spiritual for some. Too long for others. But to me it represents hope in the darkness, light when light is needed most, and not feeling alone when we are walking down the darkest and most desolate paths of our life.
I hope that for at least one person out there, it can encourage you when you need it most.
My Dad had cancer for six years before he died. I shared about his initial diagnosis, but I could never bring myself to share here about when that cancer spread two years ago. I just didn’t have the words.
I didn’t just not have the words for you, I didn’t have the words for him.
I remember vividly the day after mom and dad came over to tell us Dad’s cancer had spread, and that there was no cure, but that they were going to do everything they could to fight it. The next day was the first time I ever therapeutically “got lost in the woods.” I went trail running to clear my mind and process things, and actually did get a bit lost by accidentally going off trail, falling down a hill covered in pine straw, and in general letting the woods beat me up to make me feel better. I remember sitting in the car at Oak Mountain, and Jasmine Thompson’s version of “Like I’m Gonna Lose You” (by Meaghan Trainor) came on Spotify. That song broke me. I realized that day that the most painful part of this process for me was how very unable I was to talk about real feelings and emotions with my dad. We had a good relationship, but there had always been an impassible wall for genuine, real communication – at least on my side. And it wasn’t just with Dad – I’m pretty much always better at telling funny stories than talking about the deep and real issues of my heart. But I saw no way around this – it was so impossible, I couldn’t even tell Chris about the painful realization for several days, and even that felt like ripping my soul out.
For two years, Dad had a series of ups and downs, miracle drugs, medications working then not working, scans that were good and scans that were bad. He had doctors dismiss him, telling him they had nothing else that would help him, and doctors tell him that they couldn’t believe how well he was doing. He even had a doctor tell him he could live for 20 more years. He was told that a month before he died. The roller coaster of treating an incurable cancer is intense, anxiety-filled, and requires real conversation.
Dad made huge efforts to open communication with me. He even tried to open communication with the entire church, teaching a Sunday School class on death and dying, sharing all he’d learned through his process. I’d gotten marginally better at talking to him about the cancer and even about dying, but never was I able to cross the impossible divide of telling him what he’s meant to me.
One of my prayer requests for the year in our small group was that I would be able to talk to my Dad. Even with all Dad’s efforts at helping me with that (unbeknownst to him that it was my prayer request), I still failed constantly. Even the idea of writing my thoughts was excruciating and impossible.
Last summer, Dad very suddenly started feeling worse and worse. It was determined within a couple of days that his liver had shut down. I knew this was terrible, awful, horrible news. My stomach stayed in knots for a week. Mom and Dad went to multiple doctors looking for answers, even driving to Philadelphia as a last ditch effort. The night that they met with the Philadelphia doctor, they called me. They told me the doctor had told Dad that he had days or weeks to live.
After my phone call with them, I had about an hour to myself. I was at a loss. I didn’t know what to do, how to pray, how to process. I asked the Holy Spirit to pray through me. To guide me. Anything. Because I had nothing.
I immediately felt the urge to write out how my dad had influenced my life and my personality. I started scribbling in my journal. The words flowed out and in just a few minutes, I had filled two pages with the feelings that I had been completely unable to think, speak, process, or write for the last two years. Then I felt an urge to type them up and email them to my Dad, which I did.
I went to bed that night feeling an unbelievable feeling: peace. Peace that I had heard from and felt the Holy Spirit’s direction. Peace that I had done exactly what He had directed me to do. Peace that He had done it through me, since I had been completely unsuccessful at doing the same thing for the past two years.
Dad read my email the next morning and sent me a simple email back – the last email I would ever receive from my father.
As you might imagine our emotions have been a roller coaster these last few weeks. Your email this morning was very humbling but helped answer some of my uncertainty if I had made any differenceI love you
The Holy Spirit had enabled me to do what had been impossible for me at the exact time that my Father needed to hear it.
And in doing so, my confidence in prayer was renewed and strengthened when I needed it most.
I was still sad. Sad for me, sad for my Mom, sad for my children, sad for my brothers, sad for the world that we were all were losing my Dad. I was sad for the vast amount of stories and knowledge that was going to be leaving the world with my Dad. I am still sad about all these things, and I am certainly still struggling daily with the reality of my Dad’s death. But I know his eternal destiny is good, and I have been comforted by the One who Dad is now with. So I am not broken. I am not in despair. I am not angry or bitter with God. Because I trust in the One who loves me enough to comfort and speak to me when I needed Him most.
These are the words I wrote about my Dad and sent him that night in September.
– Taught me that the pursuit of money doesn’t have to be the end goal of your career or occupation. He showed me that you can do what you love and make (and live on) little and be worlds happier than doing what you hate and making lots.
– Gave me my ability to find humor in the absurd, the annoying, the bizarre, the cheesy. We used to sit and watch the local news together just to make fun of it. Without his teaching me these important skills, I could have never been a writer.
– Is the origination of my observation skills, my attention to detail, and my ability to read people and discern their emotions and sometimes thoughts. He knows what is going on in my mind and in everyone else’s, whether we want to admit it or not. (My Mom literally thought my Dad could read her mind when they first got married and she would desperately try not to think about things she didn’t want him knowing.)
– Can do ANYTHING, and never shies away from any project just because it is something he hasn’t done before. He can write, draw, rebuild cars, build a house, do amazing and intricate woodwork, navigate his way across Asia and Europe in an antique car he rebuilt and fitted for the journey, drive a massive truck and trailer on insanely scary mountain roads in Mexico that frighten normal humans just to see pictures of them, start a business, write a book or a short story, raise bees (and create custom tools to take care of those bees and steal their honey), build a bridge and irrigation system, put on a week-long Model T Tour for 500 guests to drive hundreds of miles through the state, design a better chicken house, and teach a class on death while facing death. I am fortunate enough to inherit my lack of fear in starting something new and grand and overly large from him, although I might have it in lesser quantities. Without witnessing the unwavering confidence and work ethic he demonstrated, I would have never started Picture Birmingham five years ago, or organized Alabama Bloggers many years ago, or organized a Kid’s Hiking Club last year. He taught me that I can learn and I can do anything, regardless of whether I’ve been trained to do it or not.
– Is a renegade. He does his own thing his own way. He doesn’t conform to society’s standards or expectations on things like having a 9 to 5 job, or buying a house (rather than building your own), or having a completed house to live in (rather than living in the house you’re building), or accepting the accepted ideas and opinions of society. He works on what he wants to work on, he creates what he wants to create, and he often doesn’t fit in the neat little boxes or participate in the expected rites of society. I am happy to have inherited his renegade spirit. I don’t like to fit my life into other people’s schedules or templates or frameworks. I create my own frameworks (like homeschooling), and if I see a need, I don’t look for an outside group to fill it – I create my own group (like my Dysautonomia Support Group, my Hiking Club, etc.)
– Has insane amounts of patience, and values things done right over things done quickly. The man has been building his house, by himself, his way, for 17 years. If he has a vision of how something should be done, he doesn’t cut corners.
– Took me and my future very seriously. He made Chris wait two weeks while he prayed about his request to marry me, but once Dad was certain that it was God’s will for me to marry Chris, he never wavered on that decision. Although I very much wanted to marry Chris, I began to struggle with fear and anxiety a couple of months into our engagement, overwhelmed as a 19 year old over this lifelong commitment and decision I was making. My anxiety got to the point where it was leaving me in tears daily. Finally, on New Year’s Day, I broke down and cried with Mom and Dad. I finished my explanation with “I just need to know that I know for SURE that it is God’s Will that I marry Chris. Dad looked me in the eye and said “You know how seriously I took his request, and how long I prayed for it. Do you really think that I would have said yes if I didn’t know that this was God’s will for you?” My fears left that very moment and I’ve never, in 18 years, doubted for a single minute that it was God’s will that I marry Chris.
– Illustrated day in, day out; year in, year out how to have a faithful, faith-filled walk with the Lord. How to keep going and trust God on the good days or bad, in sickness and in health, in life or while facing death.
– Has been a stunning example of how to walk toward death with your head held high, with absolute assurance of God’s goodness and his eternal destiny. Dad has sought God throughout without anger or bitterness, and has sought open communication with not only family (which is harder than it sounds when you’re dealing with people like me who are really great at sharing their surface-level feelings but keep their deep feelings in a vault in a cave in a hole in a dungeon locked behind three chains), but also by opening his heart with his Church family and sharing the wisdom that he’s learned from God through the process of facing death head-on. His thoughts and wisdom have been so insightful that they leave no doubt that they are from God. His confidence in this walk he has taken has not only helped me have comfort for him, but has also helped me not fear my own death.
– My Dad has given me the wisdom, the tools, and the freedom to believe the Word of God and to hopefully live it out.
Seeing God answer my prayer in allowing me to tell my Dad what he meant to me, and seeing that God gave that gift to me right when Dad needed me to give that gift to him, was a bright beacon of hope over the next few weeks as I walked through the darkest days of my life. It gave me the confidence to grieve but not be inconsolable, to weep but not despair.
And for that, I will forever be thankful.