Being There: A Farewell Tribute To My Dad For Always Showing Up
I just visited my small hometown of Charleston, Illinois. It is such a sweet, quiet, peaceful town of 20,000. I describe it to others as “a great place to take a nap.” And every visit there is wonderful, particularly during the warm weather months when the grass is thick and green. The neighborhood kids are riding their bikes. Everyone is wearing their St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs T-shirts and ball caps.
It is such a great place that it makes me wonder how I acquired a deep depression there. But I did.
And the times I hated to visit Charleston, those memories fade further and further into the distance. But I did. Everywhere I looked were sharp, prickly reminders of my poor choices. I couldn’t stop for milk without recognizing a disappointed face, which is one of the greatest downsides to a small town.
For a while I dreaded seeing my parents, too. Not because they treated me poorly, but quite the opposite. Because they were always willing to drop everything to be there for me when I needed it. Whether I needed to fill a moving truck or I needed advice for a squabble with my boss at work, they were always there for me, and that made me feel worse about my reckless abandon.
I praise God for pulling me close in late 2006 and taking me by the hand into a new life and forgiveness. It has also become clear that I didn’t have a problem with others as much as myself, and grace slowly opened the door to a new-found peace.
This is especially important because my father suddenly passed away 11 days ago, on June 25. Since stepping into God’s forgiveness I also spent the past nine years developing a wonderful relationship with my father. We enjoyed plentiful rich times together in that time span and built memories that will last a lifetime. I know for a fact that if it weren’t for that near-decade I would be wallowing in sorrow right now for the opportunities lost and my foolish heart. Thanks be to God for this grace, because missing him is bad enough.
I remember back when I was eight years old I badly wanted my father to throw a baseball with me. I was spending nearly every Summer afternoon watching Harry Caray and the Cubs on WGN, which only revved up my desire more to toss the ball with somebody. Growing up in a safe town like Charleston made it was easy to grab a ball and glove, knock on a neighbor’s door and head to a nearby diamond, but something always made me want to toss the ball with my pop.
However, getting Dad to toss the ball with me was no easy task. He always squirmed and sighed that he had a long day at work or his back wasn’t feeling up to it. This wasn’t in sync with the rest of his actions. If my Nintendo broke, he’d work on it that evening. If I wanted to go see the new ‘Police Academy’ movie, he was on it. So his reluctance made me scratch my head.
Of course it finally happened. One evening after Harry shouted “Cubs win! Cubs win!” I ran to Dad in the kitchen and Mom was there, too.
“Dad! Can we go throw the ball? Please?”
He squirmed and sighed and then dropped his shoulder. “Oh! My back, my back!” His smiling grimace showed he was cornered.
“Oh, Larry, just go on out there and throw the ball for a little bit. It won’t be so bad,” Mom said.
So I handed him his old ball glove and excitedly ran out the back door. He slowly followed.
We went into the front yard and separated by about 20 feet. I pulled back and threw the ball. My aim was a bit off, however his look of panic and awkward miscalculation of steps was far more severe. As a result it landed in the grass.
Dad had a scowl on his face as he walked over and picked it up. It’s true that his back was hurting, but that wasn’t the source of his scowl. It was already becoming apparent why this was a bad idea, but then it went to another level when he reached back to throw the ball.
I looked around hoping no one saw his herky jerky heave of the ball and how it dropped well in front of me, and this was the first time I ever pitied my dad. And the last time I asked him to throw a ball with me.
Tossing a baseball with his son just wasn’t his strength. And rather than vowing to prove the world wrong and fit the father-son mold Norman Rockwell painted, he played to his strengths. Years later, it honestly makes me admire him even more.
A dear friend sat across from me in the days after Dad’s funeral. He worked alongside my father on several projects at the church.
“The thing about Larry was, he was there,” my friend said. “He may not have always known what to do, but he was always there. You could count on him.”
Precisely. My father and I also didn’t line up completely in our emotional countenance. Let’s sum it up by saying he would never be writing a blog entry like this one. Yet, that didn’t stop him from reading every blog I wrote. When I interviewed author Jeff Goins for my podcast and held a contest for his best-selling book about career callings, guess who entered and won. It didn’t matter that Dad was happily retired and tied up with serving a term as Mayor of Charleston. It didn’t matter that I could probably count on one hand how many actual books I ever saw him read. His son was interviewing an author about a career book so he was going to invest himself in that.
So tears filled my eyes last weekend when I discovered found a copy of the book sitting on his desk. That’s just the way he loved.
Likewise, when I was going through my depression Dad didn’t sit me down and spill out a waterfall of condolences or advice. He didn’t put his arm around me to share a cry (good thing, too, because I was a jaded young man and would have pushed him away).
Rather, he made sure to keep doing what he did best. He was always there. As Woody Allen once said, “80 percent of success is just showing up,” and Dad passed that test with flying colors.
Soon after bipolar and depression first struck I stopped attending class and flunked out of college. I also partied a ton and gained a bunch of weight, mistreated women and did some pretty heinous things. To do this in a small town like Charleston is akin to tossing a grenade onto a family’s reputation. And on top of everything, around the family I had a permanent scowl on my face, much like one my father only wore when he threw a baseball.
And yet, in the midst of all this, I remember one evening I came over to do laundry. At the end of the evening both he and Mom were sitting on their recliners in the family room as I stood in the doorway. He looked over at me and said, “you know, Matthew, we are very proud of you.” Mom then chimed in, too, agreeing.
At the time I kept my head down and said thank you because it was the right thing to say, but on the inside anger was brewing. How in the world could they be proud of me after what I’d done to them? They must be full of it, I thought, just pulling lines from some parenting handbook.
And yet, there were plenty of clues he was being genuine. In 2004 the Charleston Chamber of Commerce named him the Outstanding Citizen of the Year and he invited me to join Mom and him at the banquet. I also went back to college and received my degree and he was there for every bit of the graduation ceremony. And when I got my first newspaper reporter position I couldn’t tell him about any of my articles without him saying “yea, I read that online.”
To be clear, there were certainly some dry times in our relationship. Like when I completely shut myself off from him and continued in my drudgery. Dad no doubt cried out to God, wondering if all his fatherhood devotion to me was in vain. I expect thoughts drifted through from time to time about cutting me out and saving himself the pain and heartache. But he didn’t. He kept showing up, and much more than 80 percent of the time.
And when Dad met his Heavenly Father I’m confident he heard seven beautiful words. Well done my good and faithful servant.