Today is a bit of a melancholic day for me. December 8 always is. It used to be that I would remember as soon as I woke up but now, ten years later, I am sorry to say that it takes me a bit to realize it is actually December 8 until much later in the day.
Today is my father’s birthday.
Trying to explain my relationship with my now-deceased father is a weird one that often evokes the response of “ohhh…” (long and drawn out with a tongue click). The man faced some serious demons and while I don’t know when exactly things got so complicated for him, I do know that the most pivotal life event for him started when his father had an unexpected heart attack (I guess all heart attacks are unexpected but I don’t think anyone knew Grandpa Burl had any heart trouble at all) while the entire family was in the kitchen of their small Indiana home. The story that has been shared with me was that Grandpa Burl fell into the arms of my 15 year old father and the scene, of course, was pure heartache.
Grandpa Burl didn’t make it, leaving behind a young family to be raised without a daddy. As was typical of that time, this life-altering event was simply “swept under the rug.” Truthfully, I think my dear Gramsey was shell-shocked and simply trying to survive while dealing with her grief and trying to stay strong while continuing to raise her three children. Regardless, that was the beginning of a string of events that drove my father to drink. His pain was so deep and so undealt with that I personally believe he self-medicated to the point where he no longer could remember and couldn’t feel the pain anymore.
Unfortunately for him, it seemed as though he also had a predilection to alcoholism and it was a fierce one. He seemed to be your typical Good-Time-Joe frat boy in college – known as Bilko because of his natural golfing ability, he was the life of the party. But when everyone else grew up and moved on, Bilko was still partying. And partying. My mother married that high school/college sweetheart of hers and signed on for a few years of heartache, unbeknownst to her.
It was soon after my birth that things got out of hand.
It’s when I began finding drinks hidden behind plants and remember hearing arguments between my mom and dad that I just didn’t get. We had a NuTone sound system throughout the house, which was a luxury at the time, but a happy home it was not.
Needless to say, mom and dad divorced. She couldn’t do it any longer and I can’t say that I blame her. Until my father’s death, I believe he still loved her something fierce. As my life went on and I continued to be raised by a mother who, like Gramsey, was dealing with her own grief, dad went through bouts of sobriety. Invariably, he fell off he wagon – sometimes after a few months, sometimes after a few years. My memories of him during my childhood are fleeting – sometimes he was around, sometimes he was not. Once in a while he would pull up into our driveway on a random motorcycle (truthfully, it’s amazing my father lived as long as he did – an alcoholic on a motorcycle? Death-wish.) or take me to a movie.
I could see the heartbreak in his eyes when he looked at me a fleeting moment too long with the pain of knowing he was hurting me and missing out on an irreplaceable part of my life.
He tried. The man tried.
Sometimes the demons we fight are ones we cannot fight alone. My father didn’t know of a God that was loving and all-powerful. He knew of a God and saw that same God doing great things for other people but my suspicion is that dad mistakenly believed he was exempt from God’s love. In his alcohol-infested brain, God chose to do good for others and not for him. He just didn’t seem to understand that there is absolutely nothing he could have done that was too horrible for God to handle; however, in dad’s eyes, there were just too many things that he could not forgive of himself.
God could forgive him but I’m not sure he was ever able to forgive himself. I once heard someone say that “God loves you right where you are at this moment but he loves you too much to let you stay there.” Dad was loved as he was having a seizure in an Indianapolis drugstore and he was loved when he finally sobered himself up a few years later. But it must also be said that God’s love would have extended to dad even if he had not turned his life around because the number one thing I love about our God is that he is not conditional or performance-based. There is nothing we can do to make Him love us anymore or any less.
Luckily, dad finally fought his last bout with alcohol six years before his death. Prior to this, I was a college student living a very carefree life at a state university that offered it all. On the surface, I was your girl that “had it all.” But there was that one missing piece – a piece that was the fact that I had not heard from or seen my father in years.
I vividly remember getting the call on a fall day of my sophomore year. My father had been found at the Wheeler Mission in downtown Indianapolis.
He was homeless.
He lived at the mission until he began to slowly start putting the pieces of the puzzle of his life back together again.
The doctors told him if he were to take another drink, he would most certainly kill himself. Though he had been told this before, for some reason, this time stuck. Wheeler Mission, and the help of a local businessman who knew my father from his “good days” and was willing to give him another chance, allowed him to get back on his feet.
He finally looked this horrible disease in the eyes and said “No more.”
His life was never the opulent one he had dreamed of – money was always a struggle and he declared bankruptcy a few times. However, these things aside, he was sober.
Each day he could say this made him the richest man around. His personal life was not what he had planned but I think dad finally saw that maybe, just maybe, God did find him to be precious. Because he was. And if my father were to teach us all something valuable, it would be that you are God’s precious child. He gave us his son over 2,000 years ago for a reason – He knew we couldn’t do it alone.
It is never too late. Never.
Ironically, dad died unexpectedly and quickly from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). This is a lung disease which results from heavy smoking for many years and eventually causes those infected to suffocate. I forgot to mention that dad was a two to three pack a day smoker. He traded the drinking addiction in for smoking and ultimately, the latter is the one that took him from us. I can’t even begin to go into the details of his death at this time but this I know is true: this gentle, sober, loving man who loved a good laugh and was the most conservative man on the planet, would have loved, LOVED, his grandchildren.
When I see my boys wrestling around on the floor together I can hear his laughter. When Sarah is twirling in her ballet skirt, I can feel his heart melting. I have daydreamed of holidays spent with us while my babies called him “Grandpa.” Because he is their grandpa. Just not one they have known on this earth. I have always envisioned a big rocking chair up in heaven in which dad sat rocking my babies until it was time for them to come to me. I like to think he knew them before I did because in the end, I know that my father believed in Jesus. Knowing this comforts me because I know that he is now there. With Him.
Without the pain that consumed most of his earthly life. Without the need for alcohol or cigarettes. He is just at peace with the Father who created him.
This is enough for me to know. This is enough.
Happy 65th Birthday, Dad. You are missed. You are loved. But I am so happy you are where you are and the pain is now gone.