A Memorial to a Restored Relationship
When I was fourteen or fifteen, I used to fantasize about a day far in the future when my father would be old…possibly in a wheelchair. In my fantasy, I would take a baseball bat and beat him with it until he finally felt the way he had made me feel all my young life: weak, helpless, and terrified every day. Growing up, we were not what you would call “close”. In fact, by the age of five, I had learned to keep my distance from him. By the age of fifteen, I often said in my heart, almost like an inner vow, that I may have a father (someone who provided the genetic material for my life) but I never had a dad. I had rejected my father because rejection was all I ever felt from him.
Throughout my childhood, I always felt that my father was ashamed of me. I wasn’t the tough, rugged, manly kind of kid who would tear up the football field and bring home trophies. I was a sensitive, artistic boy who went through a “chubby phase” from age 9 until age 16; who was probably more comfortable talking with a group of girls than with a group of guys; who enjoyed thinking deep thoughts, writing stories, and smelling scented candles. Those were not the kind of “accomplishments” that a man like my dad, who grew up in a poor family with 16 siblings and had to fight for everything he ever had, could trot out with pride before his friends and brothers.
To this day I remember the smacks to the head, the “boot in the rear” that would literally lift me off my feet, and the words…the devastating, berating words that cut to my heart, made me ashamed of myself, and ashamed to be alive.
We had our tussles. Even now I remember vividly one evening when I was twelve, lying on the floor and watching TV. As my father walked by, he dragged his foot over my neck in a way that made me feel very humiliated (you had to be there). I snapped. I lunged directly at him like an animal, grabbed him by the shins, and tried with everything I had to bring him down. He put his boot in my stomach, shoved me back three feet, got in my face and screamed intimidating threats, none of which I remember, but they all added up to one conclusion: that I had better never do anything like that again.
Those are sad memories. But, those are not the memories I carry with me today about my dad. Years later, I came to love my dad (and actually liked him). I enjoyed his personality. I understood him. The restoration was gradual in one sense, and happened almost overnight in another sense.
In 1994, I was in a church meeting where a man named Bobby Martz, a long time missionary and preacher, was speaking. Bobby had a long track record of praying for people and seeing them healed. I even heard tales at the time of “angelic visitations” that would occur at some of his meetings. Bobby was not your stereotypical evangelist in a $1,000 suit, Ronald Reagan hair, and extended hand (awaiting your dollar). He was quiet, humble, and quirky.
Bobby delivered his sermon, prayed for people, and was just about to close the meeting when he suddenly stopped and said he felt the Lord wanted him to pray for people who needed healing in relationship with their fathers. By this point, I had worked my way to the back of the room and was chatting with a friend. But, when I heard his words, my head snapped left and I knew I needed to go up front and have him pray for me. There was no emotion in my heart. No sense of loss or sentimentality that was getting tapped by Bobby’s words. I had long since gone cold on the subject of my father and, frankly, could not have cared any less. But, in that moment, I had the vivid realization that he was talking about me and I needed to go forward. So, I walked to the front, presented myself before him, and said matter-of-factly, “I need you to pray for me to have restoration with my father.”
Bobby laid his hand on my shoulder to pray, and immediately I began to weep from deep inside. I stood there hunched over, sobbing, tears pouring down my face, and never heard a word that he prayed. He moved on and I continued to sit in the front row, bent over in tears. To this day, I mark that moment as the beginning of restoration.
A few months later, my sister told me that my father had been having minor strokes. She was trying to get him to incorporate some natural, nutritional methods for physical healing, but he was resistant. Typical. One evening, I sat alone on the couch thinking about my father and wrestling inside. I felt like God wanted me to call him, encourage him to listen to my sister, and tell him I love him. The idea repulsed me. Nothing in me wanted to do that and, to be honest, in my heart I wanted him to die. But, God kept after me for the next hour. So I called. The conversation wasn’t long. But, I told him that I knew about the strokes, that he needed to listen to my sister, and that I loved him. We ended the conversation, and I went back to my evening with a greater sense of peace.
My heart did not well up with love for my father that evening. But, it was a first step of faith and obedience that started me walking down a new path with my dad. He did listen to my sister, by the way, and the strokes ended.
As the years progressed, I looked forward to visiting my parents. We went to their place twice a month on average for almost ten of what my sister and I call “the Little Falls years” (the years they lived just under two hours away in Little Falls, MN). Those were great years filled with moments and memories that I will keep with me the rest of my life. My sons got to know their Grandpa Phil and he got to know them. Going to Little Falls to visit my parents became an escape from the rest of life, rather than being the place I needed to escape from.
I discovered my dad’s humor. I saw his tender side (especially with his grand kids). I saw how protective he was of his kids. I saw his humanity. The moments that stand out the most to me now are the simple ones: visiting Coborn’s Market on Saturday mornings to “go freeloading” (his term for walking around the store and getting free food samples from the numerous display stands); Christmas holidays, like the one when four of us all separately gave him a package of fudge as a gift; the Annual Craft Fair weekends; the time he gave me a plaque congratulating me for my 104 mile bike ride; the first time I asked his advice in business and genuinely wanted his opinion. (My mom later told me how happy he was that I asked for his advice).
I discovered who my dad really was during those years, and the shroud of darkness that overshadowed our relationship began to lift. The truth is, my dad loved me and he loved his family passionately. He always did. He made mistakes in the heat of the battles of life. He said and did things he can never take back. But then, so have I. During the Little Falls years, I came to appreciate him as the man he was, and not the monster I thought he was. I can’t say that my relationship with my dad was ever perfect. But it was good, and I truly enjoyed him.
In 2003, my dad sold his business and my parents returned to Missouri where my dad built a huge house near a beautiful pond. He had plans for those years and for that land. But, in May of 2004 he was diagnosed with cancer and died five months later. Eight years ago today, my father passed away. It all happened so quickly.
In the last month of his life, my sister and I traveled to Missouri to help my mother care for him in their new house. We each took a two week shift. During my two weeks, I found time to talk with my dad and spend so much quality time with him. We watched “The Price Is Right” every morning at 10:00am and “Wheel of Fortune” every night at 6:30pm. In between, I filled pages in my notebook as he gave me instructions on what to do with some of his possessions after he died. He shared stories of his days in the corporate world that I had never heard before. I gained more understanding of the pressures he was under during those painful years when our family was young.
During those final weeks, there came a point when Dad could no longer eat or drink virtually anything. Everything he tasted seemed to have a metallic flavor, which disgusted him. Strangely, the only thing that tasted good to him was Pepsi. He had purchased these cute, eight ounce cans of Pepsi, and we got in the habit of having a glass each morning as we watched “Price is Right”. It became a tradition. Every morning we did a “Pepsi toast”. And, every time someone came to visit, we did a “Pepsi toast” with them.
Those days in October of 2004 were intense. The experiences we all had in that new house my dad built less than a year earlier, established it as a new home in our hearts. And, my dad and I found a level of peace between us during that period that we had never had before.
My final, most important memory with my dad came a few nights before he died. I had gone back to my life in Minnesota for a week or so to attend to business and be with my family. My two older sisters took over Dad’s cares in Missouri. They called one evening and said the end was getting close. So, I packed up my wife and kids, and we returned to Missouri.
I walked into his bedroom that evening, alone, but he was not really conscious. Death was close and he was already transitioning into a different world. I took his hand and said, “Dad. I’m here. I just wanted you to know that. I love you, Dad.” The tears that filled my eyes were quiet, but full.
His eyes opened and he looked straight at me. Weakly, but clearly, he said, “I love you, Bud.” And then he slipped back into a semi-conscious, transitional state.
The final words my dad and I exchanged were “I love you.” Because of that, in spite of the years of anger and pain, in spite of all the things I wish could have been different, I can look back on everything and have no regrets. The healing that began with a simple prayer, a simple choice to open up to my dad, and the simple and powerful grace of a God who works harder toward redemption rather than judgment means I can now have joy when I remember my father’s life.
So now, each year on the anniversary of his death, I raise a glass to his memory and tell him I love him all over again.