Daddy

2015-09-21 12.20.48We’re in the thick of Fall birthday season at my house. With the exception of me, the other four immediate members of my family have birthdays within a three and a half week time span. It makes for a fairly harried Fall season when you also factor in back to school, Fall activities, and church activities.

Of course, when you have multiple children, you begin to learn some lessons the first and second time around so that by the time you get to the third time, you’ve stockpiled some tips and wisdom, enough to help you through.

My wife and I learned after the first two kids that pre-school birthday parties can easily be described as “herding cats.” If there’s ever a time for someone to spike the punch bowl, it’s probably the one that the parents are drinking from at a pre-school birthday party.

To be honest, my wife is the one who drives this train, I’m just along for the ride. That’s mostly because she knows what she’s doing, or at least gives the illusion that she does. She finds ways to make things simpler and I simply stand in awe of how she manages to pull all of these ideas together to actually make birthday parties…..dare I say…..fun?!?

We celebrated my daughter’s birthday party the other day and my wife had the brilliant idea of having it at the playground in our neighborhood right after pre-school. We ordered some pizzas, she made cupcakes, we prayed that the rain would hold off just long enough, and then we jumped in.

Early in the party, my daughter and her friends (there were only four others, because we’re just a little crazy, not stupid) decided that they wanted to play on the monkey bars.

Now, we’ve already endured one cast on a broken arm for our middle child and I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of having to endure my little princess/drama queen with a cast. So, I ran over to the monkey bars to help my daughter across.

As I grabbed her legs and let her grab onto the bars above, she said to her friends, “Look! My daddy won’t let me go, he’ll hold on to me!”

I stopped in my tracks for a second as I thought about that for a moment…..

What incredible trust!

She had full confidence that I wouldn’t let her go, that I wouldn’t drop her.

At that moment, I kind of panicked and thought to myself, “That’s an awful lot of pressure to endure.” But I kept holding on and avoided any disaster. One of her friends even trusted me enough to let me do the same for him.

I couldn’t help but think of Jesus’ words in Matthew 18 when he said, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

I stopped in my tracks because I wondered how recklessly I trusted my Father. I wondered how often I had put myself so fully and wholly into his hands and trusted that he had me. I wondered how childlike I was and had been in my faith and trust.

What a lesson for me, to be trusted and to learn to trust. I don’t think I’ll ever look at monkey bars the same way again!

Happy Birthday, Dad

My dad would have turned 71 today.  He’s not experiencing the way that I thought that he would.Dad - college

In the nearly 71 years that my father lived on this earth, he experienced a lot of hardships.  He was raised in Brooklyn, New York by his mother after his alcoholic father left him, his mother, and his brother.  He experienced a different kind of prejudice as people expected him to be a juvenile delinquent because of the absence of his father.  He struggled to learn.  He struggled in ministry.  He struggled in pleasing his mother.  He struggled to change.

Yes, he lived until he was almost 71, but the last few years might not easily be considered living.  He was a shell of who he had once been.  He was battered, beaten, and bruised.  He was lonely.  He was broken.  He missed my mom.  He missed the church that he had given his life to.  He missed the place where he had spent nearly 40 years.  He missed being the man he had once been and couldn’t fully accept the man that he was becoming.

Dad never asked for much for his birthday.  He was pretty content with what he had.  He never wanted any big ticket items.  One year, my brother, my mom, and I bought him a banjo.  That was probably the biggest thing I ever got him.  For years, it was ties, shirts sweaters, and other stuff with no emotional significance at all.  He was always kind and accepting, never once complaining about what he got, regardless of whether or not he needed it.

In some ways, I guess he’s having the best birthday ever today.  He’s not experiencing pain.  His emptiness is gone.  He is not alone.  He has been completed, fully changed, he will not change again.  The struggles of the past are just a distant memory to him as he stands in the presence of the One whom he served.

I know that those are the right things to say and I believe them, but I would be lying to say that I didn’t miss him.  I still keep a bottle of his cologne on my bathroom sink.  Once in a while, I pick it up and take a good, long sniff.  It’s amazing how I can conjure up his face in my mind with just a simple smell.  I miss his smile.  I miss his wisdom.  I miss his love.  I just miss him.

Happy birthday, Dad.  I know you’re having a great day.  One day, I’ll celebrate with you again.  Until then, I guess I’ll just settle for the pictures in my head, the aroma of your scent, and the love that you gave and showed me.  I love you!

Thanks, Dad!

Dear Dad,

I thought I would write you just to follow up on the conversation we had the other day.  I told you how much I loved you and how thankful that I was for you.  I also told you how I couldn’t have asked for a better father.  I meant everything that I said, but even though I knew that you were leaving, I guess it always comes sooner than we expect, and that’s just what happened.  So, let me say a little more that I didn’t get to say the other day.

Thanks for being a model of a man of integrity to me.  You always showed me to be consistent and to always live as the child of God that I claim to be.  You were always honest and truthful, even when it wasn’t the easiest thing.  People might have looked at you funny when you showed that integrity, but I was looking too, and you showed me a lot.  Thanks for standing up for your convictions.  While we didn’t always agree, I am thankful that you stood for things and that you did it with grace and integrity.

Thanks for caring for Mom.  I know that you always struggled to find the right words to say, but your words were more right than you r3 Generations of Gibsonsealized.  You relied on cards and letters to say things that you felt like you couldn’t say face to face, and Steve and I have found more and more examples of just how much you loved Mom.  Thanks for always striving to be a better husband and for admitting your shortfalls.  I know that things at the end were hard, but you had been through an awful lot and I don’t fault you for being tired.

Thanks for showing me that my call to ministry was from God and that people’s opinions of me shouldn’t sway that.  You never considered yourself an eloquent preacher yet you preached with determination and focus.  You never considered yourself a brilliant man, but the size of your heart made anyone forget that (even though I don’t think it was very true…..Dr.!).  You pressed on despite the many obstacles that you faced all along the way.  Over the course of 40+ years in ministry, you took your fair share of licks, but you continued to press on.  Over the course of 9 years in ministry, I’ve taken my own share, but I am constantly reminded of you and it helps me to push on.

Thanks for being transparent.  You were always honest with me about what you saw as your shortfalls.  That’s not something that you encounter every day and I have done my best to use you as a model.  While I never idealized you, I always thought that you were pretty special.  I remember the compassion that you showed when Grandma was sick and you broke down at the kitchen table because it reminded you of all that you had been through with your own mother.  Thanks for not hiding your tears, they spoke to me in volumes that have left an indelible mark on my life.  In fact, when we said “good-bye” to you at the cemetery, your grandsons and your other son came around me when I shed tears of my own.  Thanks for giving me permission to cry in life’s difficult situations.

Thanks for being forgiving.  I remember when I hit the house with the car on my 15th birthday.  When I confessed that it was me and not Steve’s friend, you simply said, “You’re a jerk, go to bed.”  That line has gone down in our family folklore and I expect it will continue.  I also remember when someone bought tainted grape juice from the CVS next to your church and some people got sick during communion.  Police investigations finally  discovered that the bottle was tainted by a disgruntled employee.  Instead of meting out justice on him, you offered him the same forgiveness that we have received through Jesus Christ, even calling the employee’s mother and offering words of comfort and encouragement to her.  You were forgiving to a fault sometimes, even when Mom thought that you should have spoken up more, you took the same approach that Jesus did, humbly receiving what was thrown at you without opening your mouth in defense.

Last week, I read a note that you had written to me just a few months after my first son was born.  You said that you hoped that I would avoid some of the mistakes that you had made.  Considering all that you came from and all that you had been through, I think that you did a pretty good job.  Like I said to you, I could not have asked for a better dad.  You always showed mejon tony - wedding day unconditional love and, even though it was slightly embarrassing, thanks for kissing me good-bye every time that you dropped me off at school, even into middle school and high school.  I can only hope that my boys allow me the same luxury.  I am so thankful that I never wondered whether or not you loved me.

Well, I could probably write a whole lot more, but I’m going to close now.  Thanks again for all that you did.  I look forward to telling my kids all about their grandpa and how much he meant in my life.  I did my best to always tell you how much you meant and you did the same thing for me.  Thanks for always telling me how thankful you were for what I did for you, especially towards the end.  I always wished that I could do more, but I thank you for understanding.

I will miss you until I see you again.  I’m glad to know where you are, but it’s hard not picking up the phone to call you, hard to not be able to hear your voice.  I’ve got a few voicemails from you that will have to suffice for now.

Enjoy the rewards that you have earned and the gift that you have received by grace.  Give Mom and everyone else hugs for me.  I’ll look forward to the day when I can tell you all of this face to face.

I love you!

Jonathan

Missing Pieces

This past weekend, I celebrated my 40th birthday and my seminary graduation with friends and family.  It was actually a “split the difference” party as my birthday was almost 2 weeks ago and my seminary graduation is in a few weeks.  I technically graduated in December but they only do the graduation ceremony once a year.

My brother and I spoke throughout the week and he mentioned to me that this would probably be a hard week for me.  It was just 2 years ago that we spent our last Mother’s Day with my mom.  A few short months later, she succumbed to pancreatic cancer.  Just a few weeks ago, we lost my dad.  He never fully recovered the heartbreak that puzzle-pieces-3he had experienced that was capped off with losing my mom.  My brother figured that it would be a hard weekend for me since he knew it would be a hard weekend for him.

The thing about grief is that it’s not the same for everyone.  Just because I grieve a certain way is no guarantee that someone else will grieve the same way.  There are so many different factors that play into a person’s grief.  Stage of life.  Support system.  Job status.  Emotional status.  Spiritual well-being.  And on and on I could go.  To be honest, one of the biggest factors throughout this whole process has been my family, especially my wife and children.

I’ve not really held much back from my kids.  In the months leading up to my mother’s and father’s deaths, we didn’t reveal everything to my kids, but we certainly didn’t candycoat the situation either.  They knew what was going on and I wasn’t about to try to hide my own emotions regarding all that I was feeling.  I haven’t felt that I have had to perform or “be the strong one” for anyone.  I’ve been free to be who I need to be in the midst of all of this grief and my family has done nothing but support me.

So, this weekend, as much as there were big things for me to think about, it just didn’t seem to be as big my brother seemed to think they might be, at least for me.  I wasn’t panicking, I wasn’t overthinking things, I was simply going into all of the events with a realism that understood that there were missing pieces for the weekend.

It’s always interesting to me to come face to face with the things that set off my grief.  It’s more surprising than interesting, I guess.  That’s exactly what happened on Saturday.  As I was talking to friends during my party, I looked over to see my aunt, my mother’s sister, snapping pictures.  Her and my mom looked more alike than their other brothers and sisters.  So, in that split second, I felt a dull ache in my insides.  I realized that those missing pieces were staring me in the face.  It was times like this that I was supposed to take advantage of once my parents moved closer to me and my family.  In that moment, I simply hung my head as I thought about those missing pieces.

When one finds that there are pieces missing, there are a few approaches.  You can look for the pieces in hopes of finding them.  You can find replacement pieces, assuming that they’re out there to be had.  Or you can simply live with the holes that remain in the absence of those pieces.  Frankly, I don’t think that the first two can really work when you lose someone.  I can look for my parents, but I won’t literally find them.  But I can find them in the memories that I have of them, in the pictures around my house and in books, in the lives of all of those people who were touched by their lives, and in the faces of my children who represent the legacy that they have passed on through me.

Replacement pieces just seems a potentially dangerous road.  No one will ever take the place of my parents.  I can find other friends and build new relationships, but those relationships will never measure up to what I had with my parents, and that’s okay.  To try to find that or ask anyone else to measure up isn’t fair for them or me.  No one will ever measure up and if our expectation is that they will, we’re fooling ourselves.

Sometimes, we simply live with those holes.  When we look at them, they serve as a constant reminder that there used to be something there.  It’s not there, but when we see the surrounding pieces, we have a pretty good idea what those pieces looked like.  We can grieve the loss of those pieces, but refusing to move on past their loss isn’t a healthy thing.

There will be more times when I will feel the missing pieces in my life.  It’s inevitable.  I choose to envision them filling in the space that they once filled.  I choose to remember them, not replace them.  I choose to picture them through my memories, through my kids, and through any other way that seems to conjure them up in my mind.  They are gone, but I will see them again.  Missing pieces can always be found, it might just take is a little longer to find them, and when I do, everything might just look very different.

Relief

sigh of relief

Although not many people may talk about it, when a loved one dies after a long illness or battle, there is a sense of relief that comes for family members.  It may not be overwhelming and it certainly doesn’t lead to ecstatic feelings, but it’s relief nonetheless.

In the 2 weeks since my dad died, I have come to realize just how on edge I had been.  I was sleeping with my cell phone next to my bed.  I was like a cat in a room full of rocking chairs every morning as I waited for the phone to ring to tell me that Dad had fallen or, worse, that he was gone.  There was a constant anxiety of what to do, when to go see him again, of not being able to do enough.

In my trips back and forth to Williamsburg since Dad passed away, I have pondered about my state as I have driven.  Over the last 2 years, so many of the trips that I have taken over to Williamsburg have been taken in uncertainty.  I had no idea what I was going to face.  The times that I took Dad to the doctor or out to lunch, I wondered how engaged he would be.  As I drive over these days, there is none of that feeling, just a feeling of relieved emptiness.

The problem is that the process can’t be complete and finished for a while.  Now starts all of the legal affairs that need to be settled.  Set things up for the estate.  Settle all of the insurance.  Clean out the house and get it on the market.  It’s helping me to see some helpful things that I can do for my own family to simplify things for them.

A year ago this month, my father’s cardiologist told my aunt and I that he thought my dad had weeks.  That was a fairly difficult blow to me.  While I knew that he was not doing well, it hardly seemed so imminent.  I decided that I was going to do my best to simplify things.  So, as morbid as it sounds, I went over to the funeral home that we had used for my mom and pre-planned Dad’s funeral.  They made things fairly simple for me and I thought that it would be much better to do it all while I was not in the throes of grief.  I never told my dad.

I like closure.  I can’t handle too many unresolved things hanging around in my life.  I’ve gotten much more flexible as I have gotten older.  Being married and having kids has that impact on people.  2013 has been a “hanging” year for me.  There are a number of things that need resolution that might not come for some time.  I just have to live with them and make the most of what is before me.

That’s kind of the way life is though.  Does anyone ever feel as if there is a constant state of resolution and relief in their life?  I have a hard time projecting that and I think that it might be a pipe dream, so I won’t get my hopes up.  Roll with the changes, isn’t that what REO Speedwagon says?

Today is a new day.  2013 will come and go, but I can’t wish for it to end.  Wishing your life away is a surefire way of missing things, letting things pass you by.  I do not want to regret missed opportunities.  I don’t know what tomorrow brings, heck, I’m not even sure what will happen today, but does it matter?  My responsibility isn’t to know everything, it’s to trust the One who does.  If I really believe in the sovereignty of God, it’s time to put my money where my mouth is and live it out.

Letting Go – Part II

letting-go

The day that my father died, except for an hour or so for lunch, I was with him the whole day.  I knew things weren’t good and that it wouldn’t be long, but I had no idea what the timeline was.  I was numb and probably in disbelief.  It was hard for me to wrap my head around everything that the last few years had held for me and my family.

The pastors that I work with had driven me down to Williamsburg and my wife met us at the facility where dad had been.  She brought our daughter and stayed for a few hours.  After lunch, my fellow pastors left and I had the whole afternoon by myself.  I was expecting that someone might come to visit, but I remained there by myself.  I just continued to love on my father, reading Scripture to him, singing songs over him, and assuring him that we would be fine.  He had done a fine job of raising his two sons and he had fought long enough.  He needed to hear that it was all right to leave us.

Many times throughout that afternoon, I cradled his head in my hands and kissed his head.  I whispered that I loved him in his ear.  I told him how I couldn’t have asked for a better father.  Having been on morphine since that morning, I knew that his consciousness would most likely not return.

Taking a break from reading, singing, and speaking, I decided to write in my journal.  Little did I know how the words that I would write and the prayer that I would utter would come true.

“It’s hard to express how it feels to lose both of your parents before your 40th birthday.  I thought that I would have had so much more time with them, but God had other plans.  When Dad is gone, there will be a finality to things that is seemingly unbearable.  I know God gives strength, but I am taking it moment by moment right now.

It’s so hard because I feel like I’m reliving my life from 2 years ago.  Just watching Dad simply breathing in his bed is reminding me of Mom’s last days.  Lord, please take him quickly.”

It would seem that God answered my prayer as Dad passed within hours of my writing.  Part of me thought that I should have been more careful of what I asked for, but then I realized that this was better.  I didn’t want him to die, but I also didn’t want him to “live” a life like he had been living.  In actuality, what he was experiencing could hardly be called “living.”

One of my prayers after my mom died and as my father’s health began to deteriorate was that Dad not die alone.  He felt so lost and alone when he left Connecticut.  Losing Mom just pushed him further into that darkness and it was hard for me to bear.  With a full-time job, 3 kids and a family, seminary studies, and various other things happening in my life, it was hard for me to spend as much time with Dad as I wanted.  I did what I could, but even when I wasn’t there, I couldn’t help but think about the sad picture in my mind of him being in there all alone.

I know that people die alone every day, but it seemed unbearable for me to think about that happening to Dad.  I couldn’t imagine one of the nurses walking in and finding that he was gone and yet not knowing exactly when he died.  That seemed so harsh, even though I knew it was possible.  But I held out hope that it wouldn’t happen.

When he finally went, it was all so painfully familiar to me.  Just as I had watched my mother’s neck for a sign of a pulse, I watched my father take his final breaths, wondering if each one would be the last one.  When that last breath came and went and I knew that he was gone, I simply sat there for a minute.  I don’t remember exactly what I did, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to think that I might have prayed a prayer of “thanks” to God.  Like I said, it wasn’t because I wanted Dad to die but because I didn’t want his suffering to continue.  Mom suffered for 6 months.  Dad had suffered for far longer.

While there is a sense of relief to me that his suffering is gone, the pain of dragging this out is so fresh.  It’s hard to let go.  It’s hard to break free of the numbness that I feel.  It’s hard to come to grips with the reality that is before me.  Yes, time heals all wounds, but the scars never go away.  They remain, reminding us of the pain that we have experienced, calling out, sometimes screaming, to us not to forget how they go there.

Right now, the bandages of loved ones and friends have covered up those scars, at least temporarily.  Each day, I lift the bandages to reveal what’s underneath.  Each day, I wish that I would lift the bandage and find that it has all been just a dream, but the scars remain.  Each day, I wish that I could just make that one phone call, but realizing that is impossible, I simply reach for my phone to listen to voicemails that I have saved.  Hearing the words “I love you” from both my mom and dad in the form of a voicemail recording will have to suffice for now.

In the meantime, I press on.  Life goes on, people forget, but I refuse to do so.  Mom and Dad have left indelible marks on my life and the lives of so many other people.  I am a living legacy, so may the mark that I leave be just as long-lasting as the ones left on me.

Letting Go – Part I

letting-go

The week before my dad died, I got a call from my aunt to let me know that he wasn’t doing well.  She felt like his breathing stopped while she was sitting with him in his room.  I wasn’t sure what to do.  We had been through so many false alarms before but my aunt is a nurse, and I trust her judgment.  I continued with a rehearsal that I had scheduled and then I had to cancel a meeting that I had.  After my rehearsal, I drove over to Williamsburg.

I got to the place where my dad was at about 9:30PM.  He was resting, so I just sat there.  When he opened his eyes, he didn’t seem as surprised as I thought he would that I was sitting next to his bed.  We engaged in some small talk and I told him that I had come to check on him because I was concerned.  He was in and out of sleep for most of the 3 hours that I was there.

My journal entry from that night reads:

“It’s 10:05PM and I’m sitting at my dad’s bedside.  My aunt called me earlier to say she didn’t think he had long.  It’s hard to say where he is in this process.  He’s certainly not doing well and I really don’t know how long he has.

With Mom, we always held out hope for a miracle.  With Dad, it almost feels like the miracle would be God mercifully taking him.

Hard to say goodbye when I feel like there’s so much else I need to say.  He has enough of his wits to have asked how Carrie and I were doing.

I’m supposed to sing at a funeral on Thursday but just don’t know if that will happen.  Have a backup plan.

I just wish Dad didn’t have to go like this.  Wish I had more time with him.  I selfishly want to talk to him more, but don’t want to keep him from resting.”

It was a long night, but time seems suspended when one is in the grips of situations like this.  I was so unsure what to do.  I didn’t know whether or not I should try to sleep in the chair or if I should get back in my car and drive the nearly 60 miles home.  In the end, I drove home, but I was glad that I had come.

I’ve mentioned before that my litmus test for going was whether or not I would regret it if something happened to him.  Those three hours weren’t filled with lots of talk but the gift of presence speaks volumes more than words.

I had no idea that I would lose Dad in a little more than a week, but based upon my journal entry, I was beginning to seek God’s grace in letting Dad cease his suffering.  He had been through enough and it didn’t make sense for him to continue as a shell of who he had once been.  The biggest question was whether or not I was ready to let him go.