|At our elder son's high school graduation this June. (His|
name is also John; that is not a coincidence.)
Dad's last days were not easy. The pain had been under control medically (thanks, Big Drugs). He seemed to feel little hunger, though he had eaten almost nothing for a month. (A few bites, some of which he regretted, a little grape juice. One of the last things it seems he ate was a tiny piece of the 50-pound king salmon my brother Steve recently caught by his home on the Columbia River. He said, "That smells really good.")
I spent Tuesday night and Wednesday morning at their home, helping in the middle of the night when needed. Dad was seldom fully conscious, and seldom fully unconscious. He felt increasingly nauseous. Not everything he said could be understood: he lacked the strength to speak clearly, and he may have seen a few things that weren't there, though it was hard to tell for sure. (He mentioned Paris to me, I don't know why. "You mean in France?" "Yes.") He repeatedly told Mom, "I want to go home." He told me Steve had been offered a job near his home (he commutes on a weekly basis to patrol Seattle's subway for King County, now), and it turned out this was true. He also said, "This is the worst I've felt in all my life." I said, "You're a tough man, Dad." He answered, "I don't feel tough." But he also thanked me for what little I could do to help.
Other people filtered into the house, and I left to give them time, and keep the crowd to a minimum.
When I got ready to leave, I went into Dad's bedroom and said goodbye, and "I love you." He raised his hand to say goodbye. But people were outside the bedroom talking, and I couldn't leave right away. I went back into his room. He grasped my hand with surprising strength. I said, "God be with you, Dad." He said clearly, forcefully, "The Lord be with you."
I left with that blessing ringing in my ears, as it will for a long time, I think.
Dad died that evening about 7:40, with my brother Peter attending him, just a few minutes after we had prayed over dinner back home for a peaceful outcome.
I will share a poem below, that will tell you what you need to know about Dad. But first, a few superficial facts:
Dad served in the Army during the Korean War, in what is now Eritrea, and was then part of Ethiopia. He long displayed the head of a gazelle from Africa that he and his friends got hunting, on the wall. Though he didn't go hunting often, he treasured his two years in Africa, and often spoke of those hunting trips. (Along with his later moose hunting trip near Yakutat, when we lived in Alaska.)
Dad built houses and, occasionally, apartments. He specialized in building new homes on steep slopes, surrounded by trees, which he tried to save. During the economic downturn in Seattle after the Vietnam War ended, we moved to Alaska for five years, where there were plenty of slopes and trees, but also lots of cold rain and mosquitoes. We enjoyed the slopes; Dad endured the rain and the snow, when it came, working outside in a cold-weather parka. (Construction is most difficult when it is raining, winding, and snowing just above freezing, which it often is in Juneau, then again with a bitter cold wind well below zero, as it sometimes was in Skagway).
Dad was a Presbyterian elder and one of those Calvinists who actually reads Calvin. He loved gardening, even just a week ago picking over the tomatoes I brought in from his last garden, and putting some on the window sill, though he couldn't eat them. He was a Seahawks fan, the kind who watches to the end even when they were behind by three touchdowns. (Though he might have missed last week's come-from-behind victory over New England -- he saw the first part of the game.) He was a Republican and strong Mitt Romney supporter. I even remember a Richard Nixon bumper sticker on the wall of the basement bedroom we three boys shared, growing up, by the window.
Much of what I am, comes from Dad: my love of the mountains, of gardening, of sports, my political interests.
I'm not a Calvinist, but I also treasure our Presbyterian heritage, a sane, book-loving, politically-involved, historically-informed subculture. Dad and Mom met at Westside Presbyterian in West Seattle, left that church for a while, then spent the last twenty years or so at it again, deeply involved in many ways. West Side is what they call in the evangelical community a "missions-minded church," which in practice means they have lots of interesting people from around the world come in and go out. (Maybe that also helps explain me.) One of the pastors, Ron Rice, builds wheelchairs for polio victims in Nigeria, for instance, and also helps develop Christian Ed curriculum for parts of that country. The great mission physicians, Dr. Paul and Margaret Brand, "retired" to a third or fourth life of service at West Side, as did Don and Martha Wilson from Thailand: these were among my parents' close friends.
But so are a lot of other people, including many who had no claim to fame at all.
Thus we come to my poem.
I cheated, as you'll see. Someone else wrote the first draft:
Even though I read classical Chinese or programming languages for Microsoft editor, but have no love, I am noisy as a Heavy Medal Thrash band, or a jackhammer on 35th. Even if can forecast an El Nino winter, and have faith to put a Republican in the White House or pay off the National Debt, without love, I am nothing. Even if I pay for AIDS drugs in Mozambique, preach to New Atheists on the Internet, or chain myself to Old Growth Douglas fir to save it from being murdered by Big Timber, but lack love, it does me no good at all.
Love puts up with lawyers from Family Court, without losing its temper. Love does not shout guests down at the Thanksgiving dinner table. You find love with a cheerful face and a "Good morning" on the couch in the living room at 6 AM, with an open Bible. Love picks people up at the airport. It does not count apple pie slices or put greedy guests on its Enemies List. Love refurbishes boats, cleans out houses, fixes leaks, builds garages. It loves the truth. It bares tough news without wallowing in self-pity, even by affecting a phony Stoicism. Love holds to faith without giving up, hopes under dire circumstances, -- even when the Mariners lose their star right fielder, or a Little League team loses its tenth straight game 16 to 1 – and does not lose hope during losing streaks in real life, either.
Love never fails. As for MA and PhD degrees, they are just piles of paper. As for bank accounts, they drain like leaky pipes before you call the apartment manager. As for languages, they will lose out to Google translator. As for books, Kindle is conquering the world, unfortunately. For our research is fragmentary, and our grasp on empirical data uncertain and incomplete. But when the real manifests itself, the psyche-enhancing memorabilia we cling to scatter like "epistles of straw" in the wind.
When I was a child, Captain Kirk was my hero. When I became a man, I put away childish things, including the childish need to be grownup. I still enjoy Star Trek, but have found better heroes. Now, we see what really matters indistinctly, like trying to shave without glasses. Then we will see face to face. Now we know in part, and most of what we think we know needs to be fact-checked. But then we shall understand as we are now understood.
Just three things stay with us, in the end: faith, hope, and love, no more than these. But the greatest of these is love.
Though hope is pretty awesome, too.
Thanks, Dad, for helping us see the things that count.