My father died 19 years ago today, on Nov. 23rd, 1996. I try not to take note of the anniversary of his passing every year (don’t know why, really, but I think I’m trying to not be guilty of not moving on). This year, however, is a significant one. As of today, from my perspective, he’s been gone as many years as he was here. That feels like a big deal, though it’s just math.
I was 19-years-old and ten months into my two-year, full time work as a missionary. I hadn’t seen Dad since he dropped me off at the training center in Utah. My last words to him in person were an optimistic “See you later.”
Elder Vaughn and I came home early that night. On the answering machine we shared Weldon and Suggs was a message from our Mission President to call him immediately. He told Elder Vaughn to be there for me as I was about to receive some pretty terrible news from my grandfather.
Grandpa told me Dad had been shot in a robbery, again (more on that in a bit), but no one knew how bad it was yet. He told me to pray. I knew Dad was dead.
I prayed anyway. I prayed that God would spare my father, that the pain would not be too great and that the feeling in my gut that he was gone was just youthful, useless cynicism. I prayed in vain. I prayed anyway. For the next 45 minutes my knees didn’t leave the carpet.
Mom called to tell me the news. Dad had died almost instantly, moments after a loud BANG cut their telephone conversation short and he ordered her to “Call the cops, Jill!”
Two shots to the heart. One to the stomach. He went quickly, just like he always wanted.
Dad knew he was going to die relatively young. He talked about it often. In his own, what-seemed-to-us-pessimistic way, he prepared us well for the inevitable. What seemed a cruel and unpleasant joke when he was alive gave comfort once he was gone. There’s an order to things, a structure. Some of us are gifted with peeks at the plans, and always for a reason.
I’ve never thought it unfair that my father died when he did. Maybe because, as the oldest of four brothers, I had the longest time with Dad before he went. Logan, McKay, and Tyler all experienced this particular, mirror image anniversary a long time ago, and, of the four of us, only I ever knew him as an adult. But I don’t think that’s it. Now matter how much time you get with a parent or a loved one, it’s never enough.
I’ve never thought it unfair and I’ve never asked why my father had to die because Dad taught me better than that. He taught me, more than anyone, about having the proper perspective. This life is but a moment. There’s so much that’s grander just ahead. If the next life is Disneyland, then we’re in the car, maybe in the backseat, on our way right now. Who gripes about the car ride when you know you’re gonna end up in Disneyland?
I never thought it unfair and I never asked why. Maybe that’s why I got an answer anyway.
The next morning, after meeting with my compassionate, supportive Mission President and his wife, I left the mission field to return home for five days to be with my family, help get my dad’s affairs in order, and organize the funeral. I spoke at the funeral, which was one of the hardest–and easiest–things I ever had to do. A wise man, a spiritual leader I respect very much, pulled my family aside shortly afterwards and told us that it was his distinct impression, for whatever it’s worth, that Dad had to move on so my brothers and I could become the men we needed and ought to be.
That’s a bold thing to say. In the wrong context or to the wrong ear, that can be a cruel thing to say, but in that moment I understood perfectly what he meant. My brothers and I had a responsibility to take who our dad was and what he taught us and really add it all up. We had to see in a way we couldn’t see when he was alive just who he was, good and bad, and make some decisions about who we wanted to be. Our identities are wrapped up in who we belong to. We didn’t belong to Dad, the strongest man who ever lived, anymore. Strength now had to come from within. Not our old, weak strength that failed us and made us come running to Dad for help, but a new strength. A suspiciously, gentically familiar strength, but our own strength.
In the past 19 years I’ve done my best to nurture that strength, though I do fail. I fall. Dad failed a lot, too, but he always got back up again. I think, ultimately, that was his biggest strength. He knew how to fall and get back up again and keep going like no one I’ve ever met. Or will likely meet again.
19 years. He hasn’t been there to catch me in a long, long time, but he doesn’t need to now. I figured out how to get back up on my own.
(This video is part one of Dad’s biggest fall. The circumstances in this first shooting were exactly the same as the ones that killed him. The only differences were: 1) he was shot thirteen times, not three, and 2) He lived. In my house, we call that a miracle.)