"Precious in your sight, O Lord, is the death of your servants." (Psalm 116:15)
I have on my desk here at the church, not in any sort of frame, but just on the top of a stack of photos that have gathered for one reason or another, a picture taken from on the day of my baptism - April something, 1977. It's one of the few pictures of my father that I see on regular basis. My parents divorced just a few years later, right about the time I turned 4. We kept up a relationship with my dad, every other weekends, 2 weeks in the summer, a week after Christmas, and often Spring Break when we lived close, then most of the usual school breaks when we moved a few states away, then a chunk of summer and a week at Christmas when he moved an ocean away. When I went to college relatively close to him, we visited once a semester or so, and I took advantage of his proximity to Washington DC for some weekend getaways with girlfriends or a hockey game with my boyfriend. After that when locations weren't quite as convenient (although only a 6 hour drive from him to where I lived in seminary) we didn't see each other as much. I think it was 3 years between visits from my graduation from college to my ordination in my first call. he came back to see me a year later at my wedding.
The next time I saw him was 2 years later when he was dying in a hospital room, and I was 36 weeks pregnant. I had flown back east on the last possible day the airlines would let me travel to say my goodbyes. He died 4 weeks later, the night before I delivered my first child.
I don't keep a lot of pictures of him around really because I never did before either, and it hasn't occcurred to me too much to do it now. There were a lot of rough years in my late teens and twenties when I just didn't like the way he chose to be a father. I wasn't upset about the geographical distance, but his dislike of phones as a method of communication seemed to be a stupid excuse for not keeping in touch with your own children to me. I spend a lot of time earlier trying to force our relationship to be something I had idealized in my head, and finally in college and seminary I accepted it just would always be something different. I took the pressure off myself to make it perfect and just let it lie wherever it fell.
Since there were such long stretches between our visits and even in our contacts in those last few years, sometimes, even those it's now been almost 5 years since he died, I forget that he died. I forget to think about him at all. It's strange.
Then something will happen to bring the subject up. My daughter will find my baby book and ask who that man is. Or I'll tell a story about something that happened when I was a child with him, and she'll mix up the man she knows as her grandfather (my step-father since I was 7) with my dad. Or she'll ask her dad who his "first dad" was since she seems to sort of get I had a first then a second dad. There is also this blank part (well, one of many, but that's another story altogether) in the kids' baby books in the family tree section because I still haven't decided who to put on the maternal grandfather side. (They really need to update those formats for really goofy families!) Someday I'll need to explain it all a little further to her, but not yet. It doesn't seem worth it to tell her that families don't always stay together if the issue hasn't confronted her yet.
But when I do, I think I know what I'll say. People have relationships in different ways. People show love in different ways. It took me a long time to realize that even though he didn't like to talk on the phone, and even though he didn't accept invitations to come to the biggest orchestra concerts of my life, and even though he wouldn't make the drive to visit me unless there was a really good golf course nearby, he loved me in his own way, the only way he knew how. Unfortunately for me that was a very silent way, and it took me a long time to figure it out, but I know it now, and I believe it.
I also love what I got from him and shared with him. I know I got my love for off the beaten path travel. I don't necessarily mean major adventures, but travel that stays out of the big tourist cities and finds a small village and a gasthaus and shares a few (or more) beers with the locals. I love getting to know people in a new place, not just seeing their sites. I love that my dad was comfortable wherever he went and made friends anywhere. He had no worries about whether he was hanging with the 4 star general or the waitress at his favorite bar. He had was blind to social status in an admirable way. He could walk into a bar (there's a bar in just about every story of my father, but again, that's a story for another day) knowing not one soul and come out with a friend, a golf date, or in his later years a promise for another game of darts on another afternoon. I love that about him. There was no pretension, no concern if this person was the kind with whom he should be seen, or that person looked sort of weird and should be avoided. He was street smart, for sure, but that didn't mean he was closed of and overly-cautious. I love that I can see all of that now, and I hope I can grow into that part of who he was.
God, in life and in death, I belong to you. I don't know what kind of faith my father did or didn't have. I don't know what was in his head or his heart. At the same time, I know it doesn't matter what I know. I trust that you care for all of your children, especially those who struggled and suffered with inner demons of their own. Thank you for the ways my father influenced my life. Thank you for the struggles that made me stronger and showed me how I want to be a parent. Thank you for the positive impressions he left in my life. In the name of your son, I pray. Amen.
(About the picture - - As a young boy my father lived in Austria, just after WWII, in the original Von Trapp family mansion. By that time it had been divided into a few different apartments and was occupied by military families like his. One of my FAVORITE memories from when he lived in Germany during my elementary and junior high years was going on a trip to Austria to see Salzburg and the surrounding areas. As a HUGE The Sound of Music fan even as a child, I was bursting with excitement to see their (and his home) and climb in those mountains with the edelweiss. I was devastated to find it is illegal to pick them, but have never forgotten the sight of them in the grass. The memory is probably better than the dead flower in a book anyway. This picture was just found on a random website with no copyright info anywhere to be found, as with just about all the pictures I use here.)