Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Honoring My Father

I am four years old. I am outside in the bright spring sun, sitting on the back steps of my home. It is still comfortable as it is not yet that time of the year when the sun bakes the Texas earth. The grass is the bright green of an early spring. My father is here to visit me. He is in the backyard, too. My sister's dog, Frisky, is chasing my father, nipping at my father's heels as my father runs to escape him. My father yells, "Someone get this damn dog off of me" to my mother and sister, who are inside the house. This is the sole memory of my father that I will have to hold onto for twenty years. Within weeks of this visit, my father will leave Texas and return to his family in Mississippi. He will remarry and remain in Mississippi until his death at age 59.

In the years between this last visit from my father and my first visit to his home in Mississippi Thanksgiving of 1999, he will occasionally call me to talk. My mother will tell me that he only calls to find out information that will allow him to reduce the amount of child support that he gives. I will cling to the belief that he calls me because he loves me. I need to believe this, need to believe that I am worth loving. My mother does not understand this.

Over the years, I hear many things about my father and his family from my mother. The words are bitter and harsh, the words of a woman who has been deeply hurt and has not forgotten the pain. She does tell me some good things. She tells me about his patience with me when I was a baby, how he would bounce me on his knees for hours until I fell asleep. She tells me that he called me Ladybug. I cling to these things as proof that my father loved me in spite of all the things he did wrong.

When I am 10, he will mail me a Christmas card. It is the only thing he ever sends me in the mail. It is something he drew himself. The card has Santa Claus on the front putting presents in stockings hung from a chimney. I am impressed with the art work, even if it is not perfect. My mother criticizes it, telling me that it is my father's brother who has the real art talent in the family. I am hurt by her criticism, but I say nothing.

At 15, my teacher assigns me a genealogy project. It causes me great anxiety. I know very little about my father's side of the family. My mother knows where his family lives, but she refuses to help me find him. She tells me he might try to come and kidnap us. She tells me when I am 18, if I still want to know, she will tell me then. My secret fear that my father will not want me, that he will not love me, grows over the next three years. I do not ask for the information again.

Two weeks before my 20th birthday, I give birth to my son. I do not want my son to grow up without family, as I have done. I want him to know who he is, to know where he comes from. I gather my courage together, not for my own sake, but for the sake of my son. I seek out my father and his family. My first call is to his mother, and I am surprised at the joy with which I am greeted. They tell me they did not contact me because they felt I was better off with my mother and they did not want to cause me grief. My grandmother and I have many things in common. I feel as if a missing piece of myself has been found. She tells me how to contact my father.

I call him with trembling hands, not knowing what to expect. Again, I am surprised at the joy with which I am received. He assures me of his love. So begins a conversation between us. He calls me every once in a while, and I call him when I can. I get to know the family that has been hidden from me - not from my mother's mouth this time but from experience. I begin to understand more about myself as I learn about them.

I am 24. Things are not going well in my marriage or in my life. My husband has not worked in three years and I want him to leave but he will not. He has made friends online and these friends tell him that there are many jobs to be had in Mississippi. They offer to allow him to stay with him while he looks for work there. I convince him to go and promise him that Eddie and I will follow him once he has a job. I am confident that he will not find a job and we will not follow through on this.

It takes me three weeks to realize that this is not what God really wants for us. I decide to give our marriage one more try, but I know that fixing a relationship from 1200 miles apart is extraordinarily difficult. I pack everything that truly matters into 7 suitcases and leave the rest behind. I get on a bus with my three year old son and travel to Mississippi to meet up with my husband. The closest bus stop is in Jackson, a three hour trip from where my husband and his friends live.

We arrive at the bus stop very early in the morning on Sunday. My husband and his friends are not there. I begin to worry. Three hours later, I am in a near panic. I do not know the names of his friends, nor the address. I do not even have a phone number to call. I feel helpless. I call my father for help. He reassures me, and promises that if my husband and his friends have not shown up in another hour he will come to get me and help me work things out. 45 minutes later, my husband and his friends arrive.

After three weeks of living with my husbands friends, things are not working out. We decide to leave, even though we do not have a place to go. We make plans to stop at my father's house in Lexington for Thanksgiving and decide what to do after that. For the first time in 20 years, I am reunited with my father. My stepmother and I get along well, and I meet their daughter Miranda for the first time. My father tells me that we can stay if we want to, but that he does not encourage it. Lexington is not a good town for a child to live, and it will be hard going if we do. We decide to go back to Texas and my father takes us to the bus station, helps us with a little bit of money to make it through. The next July, I find out that my father has had a stroke. His personality completely changes. I am glad to have been able to see him again while he was himself.

I keep in touch over the years. I am there when they call to tell me that he has been hospitalized again because his wife tried to kill him. I am there when they release him from the VA hospital into her care again. I am there when his mother dies. I go to her funeral, and stop on the way home to visit my father for a few hours. He and his wife are friendly enough, but they tell us we cannot stay there (we didn't ask).

In May 2009, I feel the Holy Spirit warn me that my father is in trouble. I throw caution to the wind and, accompanied by my mother and little sister, visit him. My stepmother is hardly recognizable and very hostile. My father is clearly ill and unkempt, but though it is clear his body is not well his true personality has returned. I know things are wrong, but he will not allow us to help him. We leave after a few hours. I do not know this will be the last time I will see him alive.

In December 2009, I am unable to reach my father by phone for several weeks. I call the sheriff's office and beg them to check on him. They do. The phone has been pulled out of the wall. They reconnect it and I speak to my father for an hour on the phone. It is the last time I will speak to him, but I do not know this.

It is the middle of March. I am in adoration. I hear the Lord tell me that my father is dying and I need to call him. I need also to be sure that my siblings call him before he dies. I do try to call my father, but I do not get an answer. I begin trying to call my little sister and my aunt to see if they have been able to reach him. No one has heard from them. I do not call the sheriff's office this time. I do not tell my siblings what I was told, I do not want them to think I am crazy.

It is April 6th, 2010. My aunt calls me as I am leaving work. She tells me that my father has been found dead. His wife locked him in a bedroom where there were prison bars on the window and starved him to death. The phones were pulled out of the walls and he was unable to reach out for help. No one is sure exactly when he died, but it is probable he has been dead at least 10 days. Had I have listened to the Lord, I might yet have been able to stop this from happening.

On the 11th, my mother, my sister Miranda - my stepmother and father's daughter, Miranda's boyfriend, and I all leave for Mississippi to attend the funeral the next morning. My father is a veteran of the Vietnam war, but he is buried on the grounds of the Church that he helped to build. He receives a flag, but no other honors. The pastor speaks of my father and how he was always willing to go out of his way to help anyone he knew that was in need. I cannot help but wonder why they did not do anything to help my father when he was in need, yet I remind myself that I was his daughter and did not do all that I could to stop it. I am as guilty as they are in failing to love as much as I should have.

My father was not a perfect man. He made many mistakes in his life, and he failed many times. Yet as I look back on my life, I see that when I honored my father in spite of his imperfections and in spite of his failures, I received blessings. When I failed to honor him, when I failed to keep in touch, when I failed to care for him as I should have it caused me pain and grief. Honoring our father and our mother is a commandment that can be difficult to live, but it is not something to ignore. My father will forever be a part of me, and if I reject him then I reject a portion of myself. I am the better for having gotten to know my father. I am the better for having allowed him to be part of my life.

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