Sweet Sorrow: How I Learned the Value of Father’s Day
The morning sun was shining into the hotel gym as I jumped off the elliptical, checking my cell phone once more.
Okay, two minutes. One more quick set of triceps, I thought. But before I could even visit the weight rack, my phone started buzzing.
It just had to be my wife. We were visiting Sioux Falls, SD, and we were determined to secure housing. Our first appointment was at 8:30, so she wanted me back in the hotel room at 8. The clock on my phone read 7:58.
It would be typical for Tasha to call two minutes early to make sure I was on my way. But when I looked down and it was someone I didn’t expect at all.
“Hello,” I answered, my voice already shaking.
Earlier in the workout I remembered a text message from Dad from the previous night. Father’s Day had just passed, and we’d sent him a Starbucks gift card. A few days late. Not that he minded. “Thanks for the gift,” he wrote in the text. “Surely I won’t have any trouble using this.”
I rarely reply to text messages on the spot. My response is better if it simmers, like a stew. So I put it aside, not forgetting but taking my sweet time, and then I finally wrote him back. Dad and I couldn’t have been much more opposite in this. Every time I called him, I’d get an answer. Every text message I sent, he’d immediately shoot one back.
I will always regret delaying this response, because it was too late. Mom had called to break the news to me.
“Matthew,” she said. “Your father passed away this morning.”
The world began to melt away. On my way out of the gym and to the elevator the floor felt uneven. The lighting was bad and the walls didn’t look quite real. It was like I was on a cheap movie set.
My system was in shock.
There I was, tears rolling down my face, waiting an eternity for the elevator doors to open so I could run upstairs and tell my wife. The inevitable domino effect of my new hard reality was starting whether I liked it or not. June 25, 2015.
Such Sweet Sorrow
June 21, 2015, Father’s Day, was the last time I heard his voice.
“Hello,” he said, answering the phone.
“Happy Father’s Day!” my wife and I both yelled.
“Why, thank you.”
We asked what he’d been doing to celebrate, though we already knew the answer.
“Oh, nothing much. Just been working on the yard a little. Mowed the lawn, trimmed the hedges. Came inside to cool down and watched a little bit of a movie, even. Been a pretty good day.”
“No special outing?” we asked.
“No. Nothing too out of the ordinary.”
This was how every Father’s Day conversation went. And every birthday call. He was a modest man.
After a couple minutes of chit-chat he said Mom was making a face at him. “I’d fear for my life if I don’t give the phone to her,” he said, with a chuckle. Heard that 100 times, too.
Everything was going according to script except one thing. Dad, an old-fashioned German who specialized in acts of service much more than words of affirmation, never ended a phone conversation with “love you,” but rather “so long now.” I could count on one hand the number of times he ended a phone conversation with a “love you.” Even if I’d lost a couple fingers in a wood chipper.
This was one of those extremely rare times.
“Well, I love you both very much,” he said with a strong voice. My wife and I both looked at each other. We wondered aloud if he took in some fumes from the lawnmower.
He died four days later. I have thanked God so many times for such a sweet parting gift.
The Rhythm of Life
I was walking through Target today when I saw a stand of Father’s Day greeting cards. At first I wanted to knock the stand over and yell something like “corporate holiday!” but I wisely chose not to. It was mostly out of personal angst rather than a true philosophical stance (like, say, Valentine’s Day?). And it turns out there really is something to Father’s Day.
There is a rhythm to life, whether we like it or not. There are things we count on, both in the people and the world around us.
That is why I’ll miss our phone conversation the most this Father’s Day. I could press play on my memory’s tape recorder and hear it from front to back, yet another reminder of how reliable Dad was. Sure, there were times his predictable nature would drive me a little crazy, but that’s how it often goes, right? That which drives us crazy becomes the thing we miss the most.
Father’s Day, like every holiday, is reliable, too. We know when it’s coming. We know who will gather, what food will be served, what jokes will be told. Should it be any other way? It’s established to honor an institution that is reliable and predictable.
Good fathers are like jaw-dropping pieces of art hanging on the wall – visitors marvel while owners just shrug their shoulders because they see it every day. Likewise, Of course Dad spent his evening trying to figure out what was wrong with my vacuum cleaner, that’s Dad.
If it weren’t for Father’s Day, we wouldn’t take the time to notice the painting. We’d walk right past it. And if it weren’t for Father’s Day, I wouldn’t have taken the time to call him, and I would never have received that beautiful gift of his final “love you.”
This is a bittersweet holiday, but that certainly helps it be more sweet than bitter.
Thank God for his saving grace.