Friday, May 27, 2011

An Epistle to Dad

An Epistle to Dad

Hey, dad, it was just forty-eight hours ago, that your youngest son, my brother Lance, sent me a text message, stating, “He’s at home with the Lord.” The Apostle Paul, writing about the moment of death, describes it as an experience of “departing and being with Christ,” and that to be “absent from the body” is to be “present with the Lord.” So, my brother’s words were right-on. I can’t tell you how the last two days have been, only that they have not been what I expected. Some of my theological mentors and friends believe that the doctrine of the “communion of the saints” means, in part, that departed saints have some sense of what the not-yet-departed saints are up to. Believing that is probably true at some level, I just thought I’d write and tell you some things. Some of this I have told you before, but not all of it. The last time I saw you I told you “goodbye,” and, though I think you thought I meant, “see you later,” I had a deep sense then that it was really “Goodbye!”

I got that text message from Lance while I was sitting on the beach with Tina. I had only found out that morning that you had been in the hospital for several days, and that the afternoon before you had gone into coronary arrest. Our family did not want to alarm me to what might just be another in a long line of medical episodes spanning over ten years, especially since we were on vacation, a much-needed vacation for both Tina and me. So they had told me nothing till that morning. But coronary arrest is not just “another episode,” is it, dad? They had to bring you back and put you on a ventilator. I also found out from G (you know, your only daughter) that the preliminary tests after the episode did not look good. BP was down, blood sugar elevated, kidneys shut down, all those bad things that they explain in terms of numbers, as if numbers on a chart, read out to us clinically by a man or woman wearing a white smock, really say anything about what we are going through. The words from G were pretty grim.

We understand grim, don’t we, dad? You had your first heart attack at age twenty-four, bypass at forty-five (that has lasted thirty-one years, not bad!), and over the last years, aneurism, blocked carotids, diabetes, and then, to top it all off, dementia. I can’t tell you how much I have hated your dementia. Much of the last five or six years was lost to you, even though there would be moments of clarity and lucidity. (Sorry for that word, dad, I know you always told me to speak plainly so that every-day folk like you could understand. You were right about that, I have tried hard not to parade my PhD. You will be proud to know that I sometimes tell people it only means, “Piled higher and deeper.”) But I hated your dementia. I did not hate you, I hated it. I even invented names for it, but since mom might see what I am writing here, I will keep those to myself. I know you hated it, too. One day a year or so ago, though I am sure you forgot saying it within a few moments, you looked at G and said, “I am losing my mind, aren’t I?” No grammar check here—that was about as plain as you could put it.

So, here we are. I want to say some things to you, and so, in the hope that maybe you will be able to know that, I am going to write them here. Some of this is hard to say, and if you were still in this age, you might get a little angry with me, but now you have changed, since the Book tells us, “When we see Him we shall be like Him for we will see Him as He is.” Wow! That means more to me now than ever! Since you are no longer a man subject to temptation, I am sure you will be nodding your head, saying, “Yes, let’s get it out. Maybe somebody will be helped.”

I love you, dad, and I have always loved you, as long as I can remember. You taught me how to fish and shoot. I remember when you made me practice in the backyard, casting a rubber plug with my cheap Zebco fishing pole until I could make the plug land inside an old tire halfway across the yard before you would take me fishing. I spent an entire afternoon casting that rubber plug until I got it in nearly every time. Even today I am pretty good with a spinning reel and a fly-rod, and I thank you for that. You taught me how to shoot, and though I never got as good as you, I still love to do it. I suppose one of these days my brothers and I will decide who is going to get which of your many weapons that you have left behind. I don’t know that I am ready to do that anytime soon. As far as I am concerned, they are still yours, dad.

As you of course are fully aware, I am your oldest. I made you a teenage dad by just one week, so we were pretty close in age, in comparison to many fathers and sons. Sometimes oldest sons and their fathers have conflict, and that was true of us. I never liked it, but it happened. You expected a lot out of me as the oldest, and sometimes I lived up to your expectations and sometimes I did not. There were times I wished I had been born third in place of Mike, who came along two years after G and often asked me, “Why do you and dad fight so much,” or Lance, born last, and the least serious of all of us when he was a kid. (Sorry, bro, but it’s true, though you have turned out pretty well in your ‘forties and ‘fifties.) But I was first, and I was first in your line of sight. Yeah, that weapon analogy again.

I never told you this (remember that I said there were some things in my Epistle that you probably didn’t know), but when I was a kid, maybe through Junior High years, when you would get on me about something—whatever it might be, most of the details have escaped my memory by now—I would just take it and be quiet. I would slip off to my room and read, and think about what I would say to you if I had the courage to say it. I thought a lot during those years, because we had a lot of conflicts, you and me. Looking back, I am sure I deserved much of that, but at the time I usually thought that you had gone too far, said too much, expected too highly. So, I just thought about it. “If I had been criticizing me, how would I have done it differently?” “Rather than saying this, I think he should have said that.” Here’s something really interesting, dad. That developed a pattern and a habit in my life of going down deep inside and pondering over almost every issue I faced, “How could I say that differently?” “What is the more correct and communicable way of stating this problem?” As you know, dad, I am a teacher. Many of my students think I am pretty good at it. What I have never told any of them, what I have only shared with the two women most important in my life (and you know who they are) is that my dad made me a good communicator. Well, along with the Lord! You made me go deep inside and to labor for clarity and accuracy in all I say and do. That has never left me in all these years. Maybe the method could have been different, but we all have our ways of learning! Now, here, if you can find a way to read this, I am telling you, “Thank you!” You and the Lord made me what I am in this area, along with some help from my mentor, Tom Pratt.

Oh, yeah, I just mentioned reading in that last paragraph. I know that neither you nor mom made it through the tenth grade, but both of you inspired me to be a reader. Night after night I would watch the two of you read. You read Popular Science magazine and mom read the Bible, that old red leather Scofield Bible that looked like it had been run over by a Mac truck, but only because she wore it out in reading! You read. Of course, through elementary and into Junior High years you read because we rarely had a television that worked. We had one, it just didn’t work. There it sat in the living room with Rabbit Ears on top and a Pepsi bottle perched beside it. But it did not get any TV! You would buy them at second-hand stores and we would be all excited because we were going to be able to watch the whole season of Star Trek or Gilligan’s Island, but then about the seventh or eighth episode I would come home and the TV was out, and then we would not have one for another six months until you found another used one at a garage sale or some other cheap venue. A part me hated that, but what it did was it sent me to Jules Verne and Herman Melville and Zane Grey and Arthur Conan Doyle and Spiderman. (I didn’t say it was all high-culture reading.) And it also sent me to Tolkien when I was fourteen and we were in one of those “The TV is busted” periods. As much as anything besides God’s Word, Tolkien changed my life. Of course, at times you were frustrated with my addiction to reading, as was mom, who might find me in the morning under the covers with a flashlight and extra batteries, having spent the entire night reading through “Mysterious Island.” So, though you put up with a lot of complaining from me and the other three over the TV, and you griped at me often as not for my reading habits, you changed my life again. It happened as an “unintended consequence,” but it happened.

By the time I was in high school and afterwards, I started using some of the speeches toward you that I would work out in my head lying in bed at night. Dad, I guess that we have been “toe-to-toe” at least as often as we saw “eye-to-eye.” We had some doozies! Mom, saint that she is, often would speak to me afterward and say, “Now you just have to understand, your dad grew up in the Depression, and that’s why he is the way he is.” Or, “You know your dad’s father abandoned him and his sister and his mom when your dad was four, and that has left a mark on him.” It was all true. Of course, you were adopted by your maternal grandmother and her second husband when your mother said she could not raise you and your sister. That is why my name is Chad Owen Brand rather than Chad Owen Snyder. (Kind of glad on that one, no bad thoughts toward “Snyders.”) I am glad you were adopted by Charles Oscar Brand. Your birth mother was a real wildcat! When she got mad she would ring the heads off of baby chicks! We did not look forward to going to “Grandma’s house,” and I guess if you inherited some of her temperament, then our battles were understandable. I remember you telling me as a kid that you were your own uncle, and when I figured the whole adoption thing, I guessed you were right. If I had only had some entrepreneurial spirit and better rhyming ability we might have come up with a hit country song, though, “I’m my own Uncle” does not have the same ring to it as “I’m my own Grandpa.”

That reminds me, I probably have you to thank for my love for Western films and Country music. When we did have a TV, it was usually on a channel showing a Western film, or Gunsmoke, or Bonanza. I grew up loving the Duke, Johnny Cash and Hank Williams (the real one), and still rank Shane as one of my top-five favorite films. I remember the night you introduced me to that movie, claiming it was one of your all-time favorites. I also remember that I felt closer to you that night than I ever had before. When I started having kids, introducing them to my favorite movies was one of my favorite things to do, and now they are passing on that heritage to their own children, Tashia with Katelynn, Madison, and Cora, Owen with Buck, and Cassie with Keira and Kameron. Thanks for that, dad.

One of the things that I think about with pride toward you is that you were not unwilling to change. Notice how I put that. I did not say you were “willing to change,” only that you were “not unwilling to change.” The thing that comes first to mind is the race issue. You grew up south of the Mason-Dixon line, and when I was a teenager, that was obvious. I remember the debate at the dinner table that day in April, 1968, after MLK was assassinated. I defended the great man, and you denigrated him. We fought that battle for a long time, and not just that night. I grew up, left home, and raised my own family. Then one day about eight or ten years ago, my daughter Cassie told me she was going on a date. When the young man came to pick her up, I discovered that it was a young black man that she was going out with. I had to look myself in the mirror after they left and ask myself, “Did I mean all that stuff that I used to say to my dad when I was a kid?” I decided that I did, and before the second date, I had a long and direct conversation with him about my daughter and my expectations of him, but it was the same conversation I had had with the young men who had dated my older daughter Tashia several years before. I did not change it because he was a young black man. But here is the point, dad. Two years ago I brought my daughter and her black husband and children to meet you, and you treated him the same as you treated any of the spouses of my kids. That’s not necessarily a compliment, you understand! But you were not the Edd Brand of 1968, and I knew that the Lord was real!

But I realize now that I kind of moved too quickly away from the issue of conflict. I have to come back to that, dad, because there was one awful day, and it was not when I was a kid. It was when I was a man, a professor of theology, and a pastor. It was about seven years ago, and, though I am sure you had forgotten about it some time in the last few years, you will recall it if you see these words, since now you are healed of all hurts and sins. It was a day when we were at your house, helping you with some things that needed to be done. In the middle of it, you became very angry with me. We knew that you were changing at the time, but did not know how deep the dementia was working in your mind. But you became angry with me. You said some of the most hurtful things to me that you had ever said. Years of frustration welled up in me, and after listening to you speak, I looked at you and said, “I will never forgive you, and I will never speak to you again.” Mom came up to me and said, “You don’t mean that.” “Yes I do, I replied.” And I left.

I flew back to Kentucky, and over the next days, and even weeks, I thought about what I had said, what I had done. I read the words of Jesus, “If you do not forgive others, then your Father in heaven will not forgive you.” I brooded and waited, and delayed responding to what I knew was the right thing to do. Then one day I looked at myself in the mirror, literally, and the Spirit of God spoke to me and said, “If you do not reconcile with your father, you can never teach another class, you can never preach another sermon, because you are living a lie!”

I know you remember this now. I called you and between sobs and cries I asked you to forgive me for what I had said, to forgive me for my unforgiving spirit. You cried also and begged me to forgive you for what you had said to me that day. Maybe I just have bad memory, but I thought at the time that it was the first time you had ever asked me to forgive you. The next time I saw you, some months later, I think you had forgotten all about that exchange, since the dementia was working its effect on you. But I did not forget, and I will never forget the incredible healing power of repentance and forgiveness. If anyone should have known that, it should have been me. It is ever before me now, and I can’t help but be moved by it in these short two days since you have been gone.

I said earlier in my little note to you that these hours of reflection are not what I had thought they might be. I haven’t been able to remember anything that I am mad at you about. I know they are there, but they don’t matter anymore. I have watched your grandchildren, who virtually worship the ground you walked on, grieve for you in incredible ways. Maybe that’s another sign of redemption, since your grandkids gave you another shot at parenting, and the Lord knows we all fail at that task at some level. You should look at the pictures Cassie posted of you and your grandkids on Facebook. You should have been at Tashia’s this afternoon and listened to what everyone said about you. Remember that Tashia called you “Butterfly” when she first met you, and yesterday her six-year-old Madison was walking around the farm looking for “hurt butterflies” so she could “help fix them.” And she did not even know that her mom called you, “Butterfly.” I walked with my son, Owen, this afternoon on the grounds of the farm in Tennessee, and said, “You know, life is complicated and is mixed with good and bad, but right now all that matters to me is the good.” I also told him that a day would come when he would walk the same ground and talk with his kids about me. It makes me want to be as good of a “Poppi” as you were a “Grandpa.”

Well, dad, it has been forty-eight hours since you left, no, now it has been about forty-nine. You are in heaven with the Lord, and if you get to read these words, know that I love you and am happy for you. I will join you one day, but even that will not be the end of it. Scripture tells us that one day there will be a shout, the voice of the archangel, and the trumpet of God will blow. Then the graves will open and the dead in Christ will rise. You will rise from Denver, I will probably rise from Kentucky. But let’s make a deal, right now. When that day comes, you lean East and I will lean West, and when you see me, grab my hand. With tears in your eyes, you will probably say, “I should have said I am sorry more often.” I will say, “I should have been a more dutiful son.” And then, we will forget all of that because we will have all eternity to enjoy sweet fellowship together in the Lord. “Even so, come Lord Jesus!”

Chad Owen Brand

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