How to start this post?
Today, it has been five years since my father passed away—suddenly, from a fast relapse into an aggressive leukemia that took him at age 47. Next week Tom and I will celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary, so even if you didn’t know me then, you can sense how difficult this week was, five years ago. And how it’s still tough five years later, and will be in five more, and fifty more.
Last night I was thinking about this anniversary, of sorts, and wishing I went to the kind of church that lit candles in remembrance of our dead. He is my only “dead”—I have all four grandparents, still, and all other relatives.
What I can do now, five years later, with less pain, is remember all of the things that I can see that I inherited from him. I didn’t inherit anything material from my father. He didn’t have much, and he didn’t live long enough to acquire much in the way of heirlooms, and the things of value he had—his guitars, mostly—went to my little brother, and I’m glad for that, because he plays guitar like a rockstar.
So when I think about my inheritance from my father, I think about the things I learned from him, the things that shaped me into who I am. Most of them weren’t things he said to me: they were things he embodied, things he lived and practiced in front of me.
From Dad, I learned that fathers are good. Last year at the Glen Workshop, I workshopped a long essay about this very week. Several of the participants said they’d read the first two pages and thought, Oh no. Another story about a horrible father. And then they were surprised to discover it was about a wonderful father. Our culture is saturated with stories of bad fathers, and not for naught: there are many, and they have destroyed many lives. But my father was good, and he was good despite growing up in a home without a father. He struggled and didn’t know how to do it right a lot of the time, but he tried his best, and from him, I learned that our past does not dictate our future, and that calling God my Father would be something I could do and be glad about.
I learned to delight in creation and culture. Creation, in the real “nature” sense: Dad loved thunderstorms. He’d pop popcorn and sit on the back porch, like it was God’s cinema. This week, as the hurricane blew by and I realized with gratitude that at least for us, the effects would be minimal, I allowed myself to think about how excited he would have been to sit and watch the lightning and the wind and the rain. And culture, in the real “human” sense: Though Dad never put words to it, I first learned about common grace by sitting in his van as he drove me to some choir practice or another, listening to Prairie Home Companion or Nickel Creek or talking about a movie we’d seen.
I learned to love the church. And not some idealized version of the church, either, but the real thing, the kind made up of broken people who love one another. Dad’s life was the church, though he never worked in traditional full-time ministry. But there was nothing he cared about more, outside his family, than the people in the church. You could barely get him out the door before everyone was gone; the pastor’s kids would have gone home before we did. And he stuck it out at a very specific local church through some really bad times, and really good times, and from him I learned what it was to commit.
I learned to love learning. Dad only took a few college classes and I don’t think he was at school much in high school, either. He drove long, long hours for work and didn’t have much time for reading. But he checked books on tape out of the library and learned everything from basic Russian to Civil War history, and he knew the strangest random facts about everything from science and math to history and literature. I remember studying for the GRE and being staggered at his vocabulary. He never stopped learning and loving new information. So I learned, too, that learning doesn’t stop after graduation. (Or in my case, graduation, and graduation, and graduation . . . )
I learned to love coffee. Which probably means I owe every one of my accomplishments to him.
I knew, beyond any shadow of any doubt, that he was proud of me. They say when you lose someone, it’s a little like losing a limb: you keep going to scratch it and it takes a long time for the itch to finally disappear. Well, I no longer expect to see him when I go home, but I will say this: every time I write something and it’s published, every time I get asked to do something exciting to me, every time I’ve started some new pursuit and done well at it, my first impulse, still, is to call him. (The same holds for every time I discover a new band I think he’d like.)
It’s no small thing for a girl to have a father who knows her and loves her unconditionally, and makes that fact known to her. It’s the rarest of gifts, and it’s the sort of gift that gives a girl confidence to go out and chase down a dream. It’s the sort of gift that makes a girl have high standards for the other men in her life. It’s the sort of gift for which I am grateful, every year, on August 30, and every other day, too.