Monday, June 18, 2012
Dad: A Late Father's Day Post
This is a little late because by the time I finish writing this post, Father's Day will likely be over. Nevertheless, I did want to write a few thoughts about my dad, who passed away 20 years ago while I was on my mission.
Seven months prior to my leaving for a mission, serving a mission for the Church was the furthest thing from my mind. I was estranged from the Church, completely inactive, had started coming out to people, and was very much focused on college and my future career as an actor. I had barely any relationship with God at all and what relationship I did have was filled with anger, bitterness, and confusion. You can read about what changed me here.
In the last years of his life, Dad has suffered a series of debilitating strokes that had both racked him physically and changed his personality somewhat. This was one of the many reasons I was angry at God at the time. I couldn't understand why God would let all this suffering happen to such a good and decent man who had spent so much of his life serving Him. I was angry that the dad I had grown up with was "gone" and replaced by this crippled, slow, and dependent dad. I was impatient with his health issues and because I was such a selfish kid at the time anyway, I wasn't always as kind as I ought to have been.
But as God softened my heart in the months leading to my transformation, I started to realize that there were things I really liked about this dad. Old dad was very quiet and didn't show his emotions easily. He was very loving, and I knew he loved me, but he didn't share very much of his inner feelings. New dad could not control his emotions. If he thought something was funny, he laughed so hard he would drool and choke. If something upset him, he would sob uncontrollably. At first, seeing this scared me because I was not used to seeing my dad this way; but I actually grew to like it because it helped me see this man who was usually so guarded with his emotions expressing the things he actually felt inside, and I think that was very healthy. I think Dad often kept his feelings bottled up, and I theorize it may have contributed to his health problems.
Dad was very shaky on his feet. His equilibrium had really gone kaput after the strokes. I recently remembered a time we went bowling (a sport Dad quite enjoyed) shortly before his strokes made doing that impossible. His balance was off, and every time he'd bowl, it would knock him off his feet onto his butt. If he would've gotten hurt, it wouldn't be a pleasant memory, but it is a good memory because each time it would happen, Dad would just laugh. I don't know that I thought it funny at the time, but it makes me smile now.
Dad had to walk with a cane and a walker. The summer before I left for my mission, Dad had kind of given up on walking, and I started getting him walking again. I would make him walk with both the walker and cane, and I grew to be much more patient with him. It was good for both of us.
Dad had to have a catheter hooked to his penis because he kept wetting himself. In my bitter moments, I was resentful that Dad had lost his independence, and I know Dad felt embarrassment that we had to change his catheter (and I admit I couldn't do it; it was too embarrassing to me, too), but Dad never complained about his condition (to me, at least), and I admired how he handled his illness.
The only time I ever heard Dad get angry about his stroke was when he started to lose his ability to speak clearly. He was really frustrated this one time and Mom asked him what was wrong, and he just spewed, "I CAN'T TALK!" That was the only time over the years of strokes that I heard him get angry. But then, Dad rarely ever showed anger. He was a very gentle, mild-mannered man.
Dad was so happy when I gained my testimony. He was thrilled that I was going on a mission - something I think he had lost faith I would ever do. Yet he never judged or scolded me during the time I was inactive. Like Mom, I think he was prompted to let me find my own way, which I think is exactly how it needed to be. I think if they had pushed me towards the Church, it would have pushed me away instead.
When I went on my mission, they were still doing farewells, so the whole meeting was dedicated to my leaving, and my whole family was involved in the program. I had assigned everyone to talk, including Dad, who could barely get anything out. I think I just assumed God would provide a miracle and make my dad well enough to give his whole talk.
Dad shuffled up to the podium and attempted to give his talk. He spoke haltingly, struggling to get the words out...and then he started sobbing as emotion overtook him. Then he tried again, but couldn't do it. I finally realized that he either wouldn't get through it or that by the time he did, there would be no time left for my mother and sister to speak. I stood up next to him and asked him if he wanted me to give his talk for him. He nodded, "yes," I placed my arm around him, and proceeded to read the words he had written himself:
"'And they who endure to the end, they shall be lifted up at the last day.' I have chosen this subject because it's the hardest for me, especially with health problems I've had. The dictionary defines 'endure' as 'to hold up under pain and fatigue.' This is so hard for me. Because of my first stroke, I was able to take an early retirement which allowed me to serve my fellow man in a way I could not have done otherwise. With my last stroke, I met a lot of people at the rehab center who have had a great influence on my life, and I pray that I have been an influence on them.
"We've been told that it is important that we 'endure to the end.' This is necessary to enter into the kingdom of God. We all have different endurances. Mine is health. Yours may be something else, but whatever it is, I pray that we can all endure to the end because the reward will be worth it.
"In conclusion, I know that [Cody] will do a good job. Anything he puts his mind to, he always does a good job, and I know that he will be able to handle the endurances that will come from his mission."
After I finished reading Dad's talk, he looked at me with such loving eyes and said, "Thank you." When I hear it on the recording of my farewell, it just breaks my heart (in a good way).
Somebody told me after my farewell that the last time they saw a father and son exhibit the love he saw was when he saw David O McKay with his father on some occasion. I do not remember what occasion, but the point is he was moved. It wasn't my intention to move anybody. I was just trying to help my dad get through a difficult thing.
In my own talk, I talked about prayer and trusting God, and I talked about how I had found so many positives in my father's health issues, and that we were closer than we had ever been, which was true in some ways.
When I said goodbye to my dad at the airport two months later, something very strange happened. I had the distinct impression that I should make the hug I gave him really count because I would not see him again in this life. At the time, I dismissed the thought (although I did give him a good hug) because Dad, although he was experiencing inconvenient health issues, was certainly not having any life-threatening issues. Less than a year later, however, Dad contracted pneumonia, and it became clear that he would not survive.
People have often asked me, "Wasn't it hard staying out on your mission when your dad died?" It may sound weird, but no, it wasn't. I knew I was supposed to be doing what I was doing, I was happy to be doing what I was doing, it felt important to be doing what I was doing, and most important of all, Dad wanted me to be doing what I was doing. It was a no-brainer. It wasn't like I could help Dad; but I could help the people I was teaching. And it wasn't as if I didn't think I would ever see him again. I know I will.
Dad hung on for about a month. He was miserable. I'm actually glad I missed all the suffering. And I was glad when he was finally released from the pain.
Dad never knew I was gay. The only person in my family who I told prior to gaining a testimony was my sister, and once I gained one, I felt no need to share that part of myself because I thought I would overcome it. Dad never knew. I always wonder how he would have responded to my coming out and to my relationship with Jonah. I suspect he would have been accepting and supportive. He may have reacted the way my brother initially did, which was not approving, but still loving and supportive. I think Dad would like Jonah.
I think Dad would be proud of who I've become. I hope so anyway. Some of my best qualities came from my dad's example. I know Dad would be very pleased at how I've tried to take care of Mom (and by the way, Dad's health problems helped better prepare me for how to more patiently and lovingly deal with Mom's, so thanks, Dad.).
I miss Dad. He was a truly great guy. I don't know anybody who ever had a bad word to say about my father. I admired him a lot. Actually, there is a lot of my dad in my brother (who I greatly admire as well).
Sometimes little things remind me of him. If I hear a country song like "Elvira" or a folk song like "Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley," I think of him. When I see old pictures of him, I think of him. Sometimes I'll run across an item of his in my mom's house like an old briefcase or his tool box, and I think of him. Or when I glance at whoever happens to be the ward clerk (a position my dad held for many years), I think of him.
I loved him. Still do. Happy Late Father's Day, Dad! Thanks for your example. It has helped make me who I am. I hope you're proud of me.
[Side note: When I re-listened to some of my farewell, I was struck by yet another example of my unorthodox nature: I had long hair at my farewell. Quite long. I had put it in a pony tail, if I recall, to make it look more "missionary-like," but I was doing a play shortly after my farewell, and I was required to have long hair for the part. But I am pleased I had long hair at my missionary farewell because that really describes the kind of person I am.
I was also struck by the fact that my bishop at the time was struck down later by some terrible health issues which eventually caused his death. The last time I saw him was in the hospital, and it reminded me so much of my dad.
I also was a bit nostalgic for how much sharper and "with it" my mom was than she is now.
I also thought it funny that my best friend at the time, with whom I sang a duet (a pretty good one at that) has also since come out of the closet. Unlike me, I don't think he attends church anymore, although I don't think he has any hard feelings toward the LDS Church either.
Finally, I was struck by how young I am. I've matured a lot, I think. But I am also impressed with how fervent and absolutely full of the Spirit I seemed to be. And, boy, is my voice nasally (something I became more aware of in Speech class in graduate school).]