I was born on my father’s 41st birthday. I was an “oops” baby. My mother was 37 at the time and had already raised a family. My brother was 18 years older than me. My older sister was 15 years older than me. And, my younger sister was only ten years older than me. But, my parents were convinced they were done building their family. My mother was convinced she was going through the “change in life”. In a way, she was!
My father would have been 103 years old on June 13th. He almost made it. He passed away at the age of 98 after a fall from his scooter. He fell asleep waiting for someone he was concerned about. He wanted to escort her out to her car and see that she made it safely. Concerned about her safety and not his own, he fell asleep and tumbled off his scooter. A week later he was dead from swelling of the brain from what is called “the walking dead” syndrome of brain trauma.
When I think of my father, I hardly conjure up images of a loving, hugging, cuddling father figure. His generation did not show their emotions. My father worked for the post office as a mail sorter and spent many long, hard hours in the main post office building in Shreveport, Louisiana. He started that job during World War II and worked right up through the mid 1970’s. His greatest desire was to be a farmer and he tried his best to do just that with our farm in Blanchard and later, his garden in Saline, Louisiana. Even after moving into assisted living, he raised some of the sweetest tomatoes on his patio in barrels cut in two with his own secret mixture of potting soil and cow manure.
My mother, particularly during the Christmas holidays, told me many times not to “bother you father when he gets home”. He had worked long, hard hours especially during the holidays. My father was never one to play games with me. I don’t think he ever threw a ball for me to catch. But, he took me fishing and hunting and he taught me all of his secrets of growing a garden. I have a picture he took of me shortly before I graduated from medical school. He had planted an acre of potatoes. When they were ready, he plowed up the furrows and I would have to walk behind the tractor and toss dirty potatoes into a bag. It was exhausting and very hot work in the central Louisiana summer sun. I sat in the black soil, covered with dirt and potato vines and asked him to take a picture. “When I get done with medical school, you will never see me doing this again!” I proudly proclaimed. Looking back, I probably hurt his feelings. And, I kept that promise.
My wife is the gardener. Not me. I have no desire to sink my hands into the loamy soil. For her it is therapy. For me, it is drudgery. But, I must confess the thing I miss most about those gardens are the fresh vegetables. And, I have discovered that as I grow older, my parents grow smarter. I would give anything to be sitting in the soil with my father, watching him beam so proudly over an acre of his own hand grown potatoes!
He taught me hard work. He taught me humility. He taught me the need to show my love and approval to my own children. In his latter years after my mother passed away, those inhibitions from his upbringing melted away. He told me time and time again “I love you.” And, he would hug me every time we parted. Some old dogs can be taught new tricks. Although, it is not so much new tricks, but a new awareness of the brevity of our existence in this foreign country; our dawning awareness as we mature that other people are so many times more important than ourselves. As Rick Warren said, “It’s not about me.”
My father, in addition to being a hard working farmer and post office employee was a bi-vocational music minister. When he stepped behind the pulpit, he transformed! A beaming smile came over his face, his countenance glowed, and his deep, rich voice bellowed out hymns in a fashion that rivaled Tennessee Ernie Ford or George Beverly Shea. I recall so painfully having to move him from his house to assisted living. He fought us because he was afraid he would not have any friends there. But, once he arrived, he became the song leader for worship services. He found there were many men and women in their waning years lost in their dwindling memories who would perk up and return to the world of reality whenever he would sing for them. He found a latter day mission more meaningful and more powerful than any he had known in life.
When we had to move him into the nursing home end of things, he cried. “I will lose my identity.” He said. We made him a name tag so everyone would know him. But, what he soon realized was how he could continue to use his gift of music to minister to those in the other end of the facility. To the day he passed away, he sang hymns and songs to those around him. And, his compassion and concern for others may have led to his ultimate demise. But, what a way to leave this world for the next! I often joked that “When Daddy gets to heaven, Momma’s gonna give him hell.” Because of all the women he serenaded and ministered to.
You see at his funeral, he had five women honorary pallbearers. And, he sang at his own funeral. He had recorded one of his favorite songs, “There is Coming a Day” to be played at his funeral. It was fitting. It was perfect. It was my Daddy.
As June 13th, our birthday, comes and goes and Father Day approaches, I recall my father with the mixed feelings that any son would have for his father. Our fathers were not perfect. And, neither are we! But, I can say that my father left me with a powerful legacy of the appreciation for nature; the appreciating for helping others; and the appreciation of a good song that exists solely to praise our Lord and lift the hearts of the hurting around us.