Living

On our last day, I knew something was askew with you. You were quieter. You didn’t tell as many jokes and stories. You didn’t make eye contact as often. You didn’t even wrestle the kids.

I couldn’t pinpoint the problem. Maybe you felt left out of our chitchat. Maybe you had more trouble hearing. Maybe your blood pressure was off. But something wasn’t the same, and I sensed it.

1902804_575539837252_9182746001814487753_n

With my best dad

Other parts of our last day were perfect.

 

We drank a glass of red wine together. We always did that. You commented on your failure to perfect the gravy’s consistency, and I insisted it was perfect already. I always insisted your cooking was great (it was). I scooped up a huge spoonful of succotash and claimed I loved it. I didn’t. But you made it, and you loved making it, and I loved you.

Our last day was the day after Thanksgiving, but it was our celebration of the holiday. For me, lover of gratitude and all things gushy inside, what greater gift than for our last day together to be a day of giving thanks?

I carried my coffee outside. I couldn’t stop yawning; it’s easy to relax at your house. The two of us were observers during the family baseball game, sitting on the sidelines, cheering for the kids and heckling the grown-ups. When the boys argued over taking turns at bat, and my little Maggie became distraught, you distracted her by inviting her to sit on the porch swing. You always had a way of making peace in a tense situation without sticking your nose where it didn’t belong, smoothing out hurt feelings like a delicate linen dress, nice and slow.

183746_512939668492_3010471_n

In our woods, 2011

While you sat on the porch swing, rocking gently in the shadows of the late autumn sun, I regretted forgetting my camera, knowing my smartphone would never capture movement and light and real moments. I watched you whisper to Maggie, wondering what you were saying, so lucky to have a grandpa like you, something I never had.

 

When I left, I leaned in close so you could hear me, and said, “Happy Thanksgiving. Thank you. I love you.”

I didn’t take any pictures of our last day together.

But we lived it, the same way you lived 69 years of your life, dodging bullets in Vietnam, driving your truck home down dark highways to make ends meet, crooning radio tunes in your bride’s ear with your big hands around her waist, casting bait into the White River, tossing your little girl up in the air and smoothing her long brown hair at bedtime, heaving two shotguns over your strong shoulder before your son could carry his own up the long hill when you taught him to be a man.

Maggie has asked what you are doing in heaven. She asks if she can talk to you.

Of course she can, we tell her. We tell her she can talk to you any time she likes.

scan_20161204-2We tell her you are fishing with your new fishing reel and taking care of her two cats and baby white chicken. She loves seeing this in her mind before she drifts off to sleep.

Many people, when they pass on unexpectedly, might have regrets. I imagine you have none.

You lived.

Red lights

red lightI’ve been doing it for as long as I can remember. Even as a little girl in the back of my mom’s banana-colored Cutlass Supreme, I remember the 30-second daydreams at every red light.

When our car came to a halt, along with countless other cars at the four corners at every intersection with a traffic light, I glanced around at the other cars—not because I am fascinated with automobiles, but because I am fascinated with people.

What did that woman with curly blonde hair, sunglasses, and a cigarette think about at night when she went to bed? Did she have children at home, or was she living the single life? Did she lie on her couch and eat bon bons and watch soap operas all day long while wearing pink mumus? Did she work in a factory, or did she teach elementary school?

And what about the old man in the big blue pick-up truck? Did he have any grandchildren? Did they come visit him, or after his morning paper and coffee and chat with his former farmer friends at the café, did he return home to an empty, quiet house and sip sweet tea on the porch with his basset hound? Was he cold-hearted, and as a result, had no contact with his family? Or was he loving and affectionate, giving them gifts and sharing his war stories and teaching them how to fish?

It might have been my creative side preparing itself to write in the future. It might have been my tendency to stick my nose in other people’s business rearing its unattractive head. It might have been my big fat heart protruding itself through the pane glass of the car window, wondering and wandering at the vast amount of life at every street corner every day.

Sitting on our front porch, my husband and I often watch the sunset together with our daughter in the evening. This spring, the insects reappeared and began buzzing and hovering and clouding the horizon. Being the anti-bug advocate in the family, I reached for the repellant and fly swatter. Being the wildlife biologist in the family, my husband sat and gazed at the swarm of gnats illuminated by the sunlight.

Sunset view from our front porch, June 2013

Sunset view from our front porch, June 2013

“There’s a lot of life right there. A lot of life.”

I may not be able to muster up a similar sense of wonder regarding the flies on our porch, but I still find myself fascinated by the human lives around me today. Only it’s amplified now. After having my daughter, I don’t just gaze around in curiosity. I feel a crushing awareness in my heart that each of the people surrounding me, everywhere I go, have souls. They all have eternity ahead of them, either with or without Christ. They are all who they are today because of who the people in their lives were way back when.

This unavoidable awareness makes me less likely to judge people at red lights, people on the sidewalk, people at the health office, or people in Wal-Mart. They all have lives. Complicated, painful, tumultuous lives. They all have multiple relationships, and their choices affect other people every day. They might be in excellent health, or they might be a few days from taking their last breaths. They might be in touch with their families and feel loved and appreciated. Or they might be alone in the world with no one to call and no one to hold. They might be using drugs, or they might be sober. They might have three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and running water to call home. Or they might sleep under the bridge near Polk Bayou. They might have been abused and mistreated their whole lives, or they might have the simplest, most pain-free lives imaginable.

My precious baby, June 2013

My precious baby, June 2013. Photo by Jessie Covington.

Regardless, all the people I encounter were once just tiny babies. They were innocent, small, helpless, dependent babies. They all made adorable facial expressions, learned to clap for the first time, cried for their mamas when they were tired and cranky, and laughed at the amazing new world around them.  Just like my little girl, they were bursting with hope, promise, and potential.

And like all babies, they grew up. Some of them might have been as lucky as my little girl, having two parents living in the same house who love each other and love her unconditionally. But I know that some of them weren’t as lucky. Some of them cried themselves to sleep too many times. Some of them weren’t held and carried but were hit and ignored or abandoned. When I look into the eyes of people I meet and see nothing but pain, emptiness, or rage, I know that something must have gone terribly wrong at some point. Maybe they were hurt by others. Maybe they’ve hurt others, too.

I will never know the stories of all the grown-up babies I encounter. But when I see them, I remind myself that just as God loves me as His child, and sees me as His precious creation even though I have repeatedly screwed up, He sees all the grown-up babies as His children. Some of them know Him as their Daddy. Some of them don’t. But He loves them all anyway.

And that’s what He’s asked me to do. Just love His babies.

Father envy

I think eye rolling in church might be inappropriate.

But I’ve done it my whole life—if not outwardly, inwardly.

With Kay and John Egan, circa 2000

With Kay and John Egan, circa 2000

Confession: Until recently, the two concepts of “God” and “Father” did not mesh well in my mind. A local preacher I know used to—and perhaps still does, but thankfully I don’t know—insert “dear Fathuh” every 12-15 words during his prayers, or maybe “Fathuh God.”

Ugh.

Why the disdain? There are plenty of references in the Bible to God as our Father. Of course, there are multiple other analogies and metaphors as well, but why should this one feel so ingratiating?

It’s hard to explain to people who have dads like John Egan, a family friend of ours who passed away a few years ago. He was the ultimate family man. Served on the school board. Always there for his family. Cracked jokes in his recliner, complimented his beautiful wife often, and barked at anyone who called the house after 9 p.m. Would definitely have taken a bullet for anyone in his family on any occasion. Took care of business.

George Woolf and his daughters

George Woolf and his daughters

Or take George Woolf, for instance, who also moved on to heaven a few years ago. Best hugger in the world. Spiritual in a quiet, no-frills kind of way. Fun to the core. Always up for a new adventure with his wife and three daughters. Not afraid to take risks, and not afraid to deviate from the status quo if it meant being happy.

Mickey Jones, photo by Sandra Stroud

Mickey Jones, photo by Sandra Stroud

Or Mickey Jones, maybe. Married to the love of his life for several decades. Leads musical worship in a way that makes me cry every single time I’m lucky enough to be part of it. Passed on his passion for God to his two daughters, who are passing it on to their five children. Pays the bills, but more importantly, prays, laughs, and leads.

My dad wasn’t much like John Egan, George Woolf, or Mickey Jones. He struggled with addiction almost all of my life. He either wasn’t around or was temporarily a whirlwind of fun. The problem was that I never knew when That Fun Guy was going to disappear again. I wasted a lot of wishes on chicken bones over my dad, hoping he’d rejoin our family. I hosted many pity parties for myself because he never did.

To sit in church and have GOD, the Creator of everything beautiful, the Lover of my soul, the Redeemer of my life, the Light that cut through the blackest darkness to find me, the Peace that replaced quarter sacks of weed—to have that God compared to “father” felt a little sacrilegious to me.

Let me make myself clear—I have a wonderful stepdad, and as the years go by, we continue to

grow closer. He wasn’t very emotionally available when I was growing up, but as a former stepmom myself, I can cut him some slack for that now. Step parenting is tough—anyone who’s done it is nodding in agreement while reading this. And my dad was not the worst dad ever. My dad never abused me. My dad always told me he loved me and still does. His addiction just kept him from being the kind of dad I know he could have been. And it left me with a cynical perspective when it came to the father/God comparison.

I wanted a John Egan dad. I wanted a George Woolf dad. I wanted a Mickey Jones dad.

But God knew better.

He gave me just what I needed. He knows me, and He knows that due to my stubborn, controlling, and independent nature, He’d need to take the Father role into his own hands. Maybe He held back what He knew I’d never find in Him if He gave it to me any other way. Maybe He knew that someday, I’d need two dads in my life who have been total wrecks from time to time because I am often a total wreck, too. He might have known that I’d need to watch Him give them both countless chances at redemption because I’d someday need multiple opportunities to get it right myself. Maybe He knew that if I watched them grow into strong, spiritual people, I’d believe in His ability to carry me when I floundered, felt like I could not continue, and take me where I needed to go safely.

He is my Dad, after all. That’s what dads do.