It happened the Tuesday before Thanksgiving 21 years ago. I can never recall the specific date, but the timing was inexpugnable. The sun wasn’t up. The day had barely begun.
I was awoken to the rap-it-tap-tap of my mom’s acrylic nails falling on my bedroom door. To this day, I cannot stand the sound of someone drumming their long fingernails on a table.
I don’t remember her words, but I remembered the weight they carried. I rushed from the bed to find my dad unconscious in the bed. He passed away in his sleep.
It was somewhat unexpected though he had many health issues towards the latter part of his life. The whole week before I sensed something impending related to Dad, but I never spoke a word of it to anyone. It was as if God was preparing me in some way for the shock of that day.
I remember calling my brother’s phone over and over again that morning until he woke up.
I remember calling my best friend in Auburn way before college kids should be awake.
I remember her mom coming as soon as she received the news and silently cleaning the house. It is one of the most remarkable acts of love I’ve ever witnessed even to this day.
I remember my mom sitting at the breakfast table talking on the phone to family trying to figure out what to do next. Her strength has always astounded me but more so on that day.
I know there were preparations, and bags packed, and a drive going back to Decatur to bury him.
I remember eating Whit’s BBQ for 3 days straight at my grandmother’s house and being ever so grateful for something to eat that wasn’t in a casserole form.
I remember getting a phone call from another dear friend who broke away from coaching a college soccer game to call.
That Thanksgiving went by in a blur of faces and tears. It was the night of his visitation.
I remember people talking all around me, but looking back, they seemed muffled and far away.
I remember being touched by the people who came. Many I did not know. I don’t remember their words, but their presence said more than words ever could.
I remember the sweet and comforting presence of friendly faces from Birmingham who made the drive to share their condolences.
We buried him the next day. After that, the holidays were never the same. And for many years, I hated them. They represented a profound loss that changed me forever.
It took almost two decades to get through this day without deep sorrow. And as the years drift by and wisdom comes, I remember the good things.
I remember that Auburn won that year. And he was the biggest Auburn fan around.
I remember playing Trivial Pursuit after that game – something we NEVER did.
I remember the laughter, and I remember feeling like an idiot because that is why Trivial Pursuit was designed. I even remember one of the questions from that day. My dad was a teacher not by trade but at heart. Everything…and I mean….everything was a chance to teach something no matter how small. I knew the reasoning behind car tag numbers in Alabama, how mile markers could help you figure out how far you had to go (and when you would get there), and how the interstates were numbered by their direction (odd numbers run North & South; even numbers run East & West) at a fairly young age. I also knew exactly when Easter fell every year. And that was the Trivial Pursuit question my dad asked me that night: When does Easter fall? I was able to look this great man in the face and say exuberantly, “Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the equinox.” It was probably the only answer I got right.
It is a small memory but it represents so much of what I learned from my dad and the parts of him I carry with me each day.
I have his squinty eyes that vanish when I laugh, his steadfastness, and his calves.
I have his quick wit and his unwavering devotion for those I love.
I have his tender heart and his penchant for getting choked up.
I have his love for learning and his uncanny wisdom.
I have his ability to forgive quickly and completely.
He wasn’t perfect. He had his demons and down falls, his disappointments and regrets.
His death made me strong and sympathetic. It brought wisdom like only loss can bring. It taught me the fleeting nature of life on this earth, and the importance of living a life marked by love.
I never realized until recently the impact my earthly father’s love impacted my view of God’s. My dad loved and encouraged me. Though at times I disappointed him, he was always for me. He was always proud. He disciplined me when I didn’t meet the mark, but it was part of loving me well, and he quickly forgave. And this, to my benefit, allows me to see God’s love in a similar light. It was a shadow of something greater that not everyone experiences.
I had a good father, and though flawed in many ways, his love for me was undoubtable, unmistakeable, tender, kind, protective, and life-giving, and somehow, it made everything better. And so today, as I pause to reflect on this man whose life and death forever left his mark on me, I smile, and my heart is full of thanksgiving. I’m grateful for his life and love not only because I experienced it on this earth, but because it shaped my understanding of a Greater Father. I’m grateful for his example, and the legacy he left behind that continues far after his passing.