Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. Exodus 20:12
By BENJAMIN PRATT
I am exactly the same age my father was when he died in 1985.
There is something quite poignant and sobering about facing this life marker. I suspect it is reason enough to explain my recent pondering of life with my father—the sweet and bitter, the tough and tender, the proud and shameful.
“My mother told me never to go near the water until I learned how to swim.” That was my father’s humorous, yet character-revealing, risk-averse response each time I asked him to go swimming with us in Lake Erie. Or maybe it was wisdom, considering how polluted Lake Erie was at the time.
He loved to laugh, tell and hear funny stories and drop in one- liners. As he aged his favorite line was, “I get stiff in all the wrong places.”
My father covered his pain with humor, tender presence and hard manual work. The woman he dearly loved became chronically ill with my birth. We watched her steady, painful decline as if we were sitting on a thin limb that might break any moment—helpless, tenuous, restless. My father was a tender man who absorbed my mother’s rants as pain and loss consumed her vitality, bent her frame and distorted all her joints. He taught me compassionate presence in the face of limitations and frailty.
As the worm turns, Dad would not have been considered a successful man. As an auto mechanic he never made enough money for us to have our own home until I was in high school. Instead, we lived with grandparents.
Growing up on a farm he never completed a high school education. Yet, I remember many nights he schooled me in math until solid geometry defeated both of us.
He taught me the fine art of pitching baseballs—throw the ball from my full height and bring the pitch in just above the knees, or swing the ball from a sweeping sidearm that swoops in low across the plate. He was a patient, persistent coach, never yelling but always guiding.
We loved each other but rarely displayed physical warmth. I was and am proud of him.
We visited my mother’s grave a year after her death in 1980. We stood quietly together for some time when he softly said, “You’ve noticed that one side of this cemetery is filled with large, ornate tombstones. Your mother and I have markers that are flush with the ground. We chose this side because everyone is equal over here.”
Perhaps my most significant learning came after a scene that still haunts me. I was probably in the ninth grade at the time. The newspaper boy knocked on the door of my grandparents’ house to collect for the daily paper he delivered each morning, a total for the month of $2.35. I had answered the door and called my father to come. My father rifled through his pocket and found only a small amount of change. He turned to me and asked to borrow the money. I made a very smart mouthed comment about his need to pay me back since I had made the money mowing yards. His face was in pain as I left the room to get the money. He never scolded me. Maybe his shame was even greater than mine. I ached for days about what I had said. His silence stunned and taught me a lesson I may not have learned any other way.
Somehow I made the choice to accept this man I loved just as he was. I didn’t need or want him to be more than, at the core, he was. I look back and thrill with gratitude that I didn’t get locked into a struggle to make him someone else.
This feels like the completion of love, the acceptance of the other as the person he was. Professionally, I spent a lot of time counseling people who expended enormous energy trying to remake their parents, their spouse, their children, rather than accepting them with their gifts, graces and limitations.
As I cross this threshold of age at which my father died, I am grateful for the gifts this humble man gave me.
I’m reminded of Reinhold Niebuhr’s prayer. Perhaps you may want to share it, as well, this week.
Father, give us courage to change what must be altered,
serenity to accept what cannot be helped,
and the insight to know the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.