Stories

Anyone who met my dad has a story about him. And he met a lot of people. He saw lots of people on a regular basis. But he also made friends with people he knew for a short time. He nearly always went away from the interaction with a story about the person’s life, a bit of news, or an odd connection he’d discover about something or someone they had in common. My dad was always searching for and collecting stories, connecting the dots.

(I sometimes wonder what stories people who had short encounters with him took with them, and what they shared with others. Like the guy outside Macy’s in Manhattan. Did he go to work and say, “I had the strangest conversation today with a country boy who was standing outside Macy’s while his wife and daughter shopped. He looked completely out of place but acted as if him being there and saying hi to people as they rushed by was absolutely normal.”)

For as much as he talked and shared stories, he listened well. He had absorbed a lot of information throughout his life. Like all of us, some of it was probably useless, but I was often surprised at how what I thought was a useless fact, brought up at just the right time, resonated with someone just enough to make a connection.

Maybe that was the point: connections. Dad rarely started a conversation out of the blue. He listened for springboards, bouncing off what someone else would say. People remember him because of his stories, but the stories stuck because he engaged people. He went along with the flow of the conversation, not trying to force it but simply using it to journey with someone, whether it was outside a department store in New York City, during biweekly treatments, or over coffee before the sun was up.

People were important to him. People often listened, because he listened to others. He collected stories, then wove them into others’ stories. If he was in a crowd with someone who seemed to be talking just to hear herself/himself, he wouldn’t engage. (In fact, you might even catch him rolling his eyes and moving his hands as if to say, “Blah, blah, blah. Will this chatter ever stop?”) Dad shared lots of words, but if the words themselves were the goal, he was out. If the interaction between two people was the goal, he was in.

Too often, we have an agenda to sharing our stories and knowledge. We want other people to know what we know. We want to share what’s going on in our lives. But the best way to do that is to listen to what’s going on with others. That’s when the dots begin to show up, the dots that are similar to our own, the dots we can connect.

And if we can’t connect the dots with others, what’s the point?

If we don’t connect the dots, it’s just a lot of “blah, blah, blah.”

From the Mouth of a Babe

There was a morning not long after my dad died that grief wrestled me to the ground. I was home by myself, had just taken a long, warm shower, and reality hit me like a 2×4. I dropped to the floor and tried to catch my breath.

I texted my best friends an S.O.S.: “Having a really hard time. Please pray.”

Tracie, who was out of town (or she probably would have immediately driven to my house), texted back, “Want me to call and pray with you?”

“Yes, but I won’t be able to talk. All I can do is cry.”

She replied, “That’s okay. I’ll probably just cry, too.”

She called. I cried. She cried. She prayed.

Then I heard a faint knock through the phone, and a small voice say, “Mommy, are you okay?”

Tracie has one of the sweetest (and energetic) little girls ever, and apparently Tracie had gone into the hotel bathroom for a moment of privacy. If you’re a parent, you know bathroom privacy doesn’t last long.

Tracie assured Lea she was alright, opened the door for her, and reminded her that I was sad and needed some prayers to help me smile. Well, Lea didn’t hesitate. She wanted to help, too. Tracie gave her the phone, and Lea reminded me that she loves me and wants me to smile and that everything will be okay.

And I smiled. And laughed through my tears, because how could I do anything else? From the mouth of a babe, truth came. I was loved. I could smile through the tears. And everything would be okay, even if I didn’t know when or how.

I just needed a child to remind me.

 

Cancer

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The Early Bird

My dad liked mornings. He went to the coffee shop before daylight. He always planned an early start during vacations. He got up and got moving, and he was perplexed by anyone who didn’t. He halfway expected the rest of the world to be up and productive when he was, and he seemed genuinely surprised when he found out someone wasn’t.

I can’t count the number of mornings I’d get a phone call between 6 and 6:30 a.m.

“This is Dad. Are you up?”

Most the time I lied and told him “Yes” because I’d heard his response to “Um, no, Dad, I am not up, because it is early!”:

“Well, you should be. The sun is up.”

I’m a morning person, too. As soon as I’m awake, I’m ready to start the day and be productive, but especially when my girls were young, I saw no reason to intentionally get up if everyone was sleeping and I could rest for a little while longer.

I don’t remember a single time he called early in the morning to tell me something life-changing. He usually had a silly joke ready to tell, or a “Did you hear?” fact about a local event or bit of news. He usually learned the tidbits on early morning radio or at the coffee shop, so of course, I hadn’t heard them yet. I was still in bed. Being lazy and unproductive. And comfortable.

Yet as annoying as those early calls were, I sort of enjoyed them. I might have groaned, but I usually also smiled. After all, my dad called me, and I liked that. So what if he interrupted my sleep? The phone conversations never lasted long, and I don’t go back to sleep once I’m awake in the morning, but in the the big scheme of things, it was fine. I got to start the day by talking to my dad.

Many times, interruptions are worthwhile.

Celebrating Dad’s Life

A year ago, I spoke at my dad’s celebration of life.

It was one of the most difficult and easiest things I’ve done. Difficult, because I had to choose what to say. Easy, because I had a lot of options to choose from. Difficult, because I didn’t know if I could emotionally get through it. Easy, because I knew Dad would want me to speak.

I woke up that morning with two thoughts:

“It’s not everyday I get to speak about my dad’s life.”

And “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:13)

I realized I was wrong about the first thought. Yes, I’d only get one chance to speak about my dad’s life here on earth, but I get to speak about my heavenly Dad’s life every single day. And what I needed to say that day had to do with both. I had to honor both. I didn’t need to make it more spiritual or create a sermon. It needed to be authentic with doses of hope and laughter. I realized the words I’d say were way less important than the reasons I said them.

I couldn’t say them in my own wisdom or strength.

My dad had given me all the wisdom and strength he could while he was living. I still carry it with me.

And God continues to give me the wisdom and strength I need for every day and every situation.

On that day, I stood at the intersection where all that wisdom and strength collided.

What I said wasn’t perfect. Others could have done a better job. But that’s okay with me.

I celebrated dad’s life with the people who loved him the most. And as I looked at some of the faces in the church that day, I saw God’s love for me in the faces of people who love me. And I felt comfortably weak, because He is strong.

 

Pass the Baton

I had a lot of pets growing up. Dogs, cats, horses, calves…whatever I could pretend to take care of and give a name. And many of those pets died. The grief process is common on a farm. My parents tolerated a lot of memorial services. Dad dug quite a few graves and marked them with sticks, rocks, or whatever we could find at the time. He was usually the person to give the bad news about a dog that got hit by a car or a calf who was too sick to save.

He was who I called in a panic when I came home to find my dog bleeding. He suspected poison and told me he’d meet me at the vet’s office.  I was old enough to pay that bill. I had already paid a bit for the same dog who got hit by a car and had to be in a cast for a couple months. Then I left him at home with Mom and Dad when I went to graduate school.

Several months after I left home, my dog died. But Dad didn’t call me to break the news. He called my fiance (now husband). He passed the baton: “You’re the one who is going to have to start telling her tough news, so you might as well start now.” Of course, I was upset. But once I got over the initial shock, I chuckled at my dad’s passing of the baton of bad news.

I wondered if he was just avoiding dealing with me yet again.

In reality, he was good at passing the baton. He was good at being an example for others, but at some point, he said, “It’s your turn.” After all, if we never let go of the baton, how will anyone else run their race? It’s not all ours to run. We help people for a moment or for an extended time, but our help changes, and we loosen our grip to encourage them to continue. We let others help us for a moment or for a long time, but their help changes, and we tighten our grip as they encourage us to continue.

Need to Know

I was excited to get into accelerated math. It meant I started high school math a year early in the eighth grade, which meant I could either take less math in high school or take one or two math courses for college credit. I was pretty sure I’d just take less math. There were so many other courses available that I wanted to take way more than math.

My dad was less than thrilled when I told him. Both my sisters had taken the same path, and he and Mom had learned some lessons through their experiences. Dad’s number one complaint: I would miss an entire unit on percentages.

“Ugh. Percentages. Why do I even need to know percentages? When will I ever use that in everyday life?”

Hasn’t every kid said that about at least one subject at some point? And it usually has something to do with not liking or not doing well in that subject.

Math wasn’t my favorite.

Mom reminded me I needed to know percentages to compare prices and figure out how much sale items would cost me. Dad started spewing all sorts of farming applications for which percentages are paramount.

He lost me. I loved living on the farm, but I wasn’t going to do all that figuring to plant and harvest.

“Can’t I just use a calculator for all that?”

Wrong answer. Dad insisted I needed to know how to find a percentage. I showed him how I could set up an equation to find it. Not good enough. He wanted me to figure it in my head.

I don’t know how we settled it. All I know is I got to take accelerated math, I still stink at percentages in my head, and anytime the topic came up, Dad acted exasperated with me, and I egged it on.

To Dad, math was practical, and he wanted me to be able to do practical things. It’s why he taught me basic tips on cars, household fixes, animal care, and so on. He called those everyday skills common sense. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized those skills are much less common than I thought.

I still try to keep my gas tank above half, because “it’s just as easy to keep it in the top half as the bottom half.”

I still carry extra gloves, hat, extra socks, and a blanket in the van during the winter, “just in case you need to stand outside or get help.”

I still go through a mental checklist of storm preparation, including making sure flashlights work, phones are charged, and any supplies I might need in an emergency are in a central location, so I don’t have to gather them later.

There are enough times when we get caught off guard. Many times, if we’re paying attention, we get some warning signs. At the very least, we can use common sense to be as prepared as possible.

It’s great advice, Dad, and it usually helps, even through this grief process. I was as prepared as I could be when you died, but it still catches me off guard at times. It’s not an easy fix, like filling up a tank of gas or changing the batteries in my flashlight. I can’t tell you the percentage of heartache I have today compared to yesterday. But I can see the possibilities of tomorrow. I can use what sense and skills I have to get through today.

Thanks for the preparation and the reminder, Dad.