Still processing, but here’s my dad with my daughters a few years ago. He died this morning, in his home, with my mother and sister with him … sort of. The story is they walked away to let the Hospice nurse in the door and then he was gone.
Here’s what I wrote a few days ago, unable to sleep in the pre-dawn morning. I offered it to my mom and sibs as “what I might say, if I say anything.” I’ll probably write something entirely else between now and then, but I like it enough to share here:
It’s hard to think of your father as anything but your father. He isn’t a man out on the street corner holding a peace sign, or the man who championed poor people, working hard to provide them with a voice and a place to educate their children. He’s the guy sitting at the head of the table after dinner, elbows on the table, hands clasped together, propping up a lit cigarette that emits smoke that wafts around his head like a dirty halo. Your dad is the guy who made funny noises at his grand- and great-grandchildren, and told them stories of his own childhood that makes you wonder how he survived his own mischief and rebelliousness.
But it is good to hear other people talk about your father, to tell their stories of who he is, to learn about him anew and from a different angle.
My father was hardly a reverent fellow, despite—or perhaps because of—his being a reverend. As I get deeper into my own church experience, I have some fun telling people that my father was an ordained minister, even though I grew up unchurched and with only a passing knowledge of Bible stories. Dad’s estrangement from the church was his own story, one I had asked him about and heard pieces of, but not one I feel compelled to share, even if I could. His life has borne out, however, that one can leave the church and still retain the values, still retain the desire to work for “the least of these.”
One of my early memories was of riding on my father’s shoulders while we, as a family, took part in a march. Since I was riding on Dad’s shoulders, I’m thinking it must have been a civil rights march, but it may very well have been an anti-war march, as our government ramped up the number of troops in Southeast Asia. It was night, and I don’t remember being cold but I do remember being a little scared as Dad pointed to a vehicle along the road and said “See that van? There’s someone in there taking a photo of us right now and the FBI is going to start a file on you right now.”
Maybe there was someone in the van and maybe I do have a government file that started when I was small enough to ride on my father’s shoulder. I’ll never know. But this story represents to me a great deal of who my father was: someone who never backed down from what was right, no matter who was taking photos, and someone who was certain his children needed to be exposed to and involved in that fight for right, however clumsily and less-than-age-appropriately he might have done so.
As any of you who have fathers know, it is hard to speak at times as these not only because emotion is deep and high, but because it is hard to reconcile the public man with the private man, hard to speak loftily and lovingly and also acknowledge the real man, the human man, the man who, though he lived a life devoted to lifting up strangers, sometimes had the exact opposite effect on those closest to him.
I’m grateful I got to know my father as an adult, as a perfectly imperfect parent, myself. My mother has often said that the last 27 years of my father’s life were a gift to her, after his first heart-attack. I was 18 when he had that first attack and in my first year at UCLA. I think if he had died then, I might never have forgiven him for being exactly who he is: human, with human faults and human emotions and all the mess that goes along with all of that.
Earlier, I mentioned how I picture my father from those teenage years when I was still living in their house. This is picture I get in my mind when I think of my dad, of him sitting at the head of the table at the Sutherland house; the plates have been cleared and he is telling a story while smoking one of those God-awful More cigarettes. His hands are clasped together, as if in prayer, while the smoke wafts up and around him. I mentioned the dirty halo and I’ll do so again, as I think this is an apt metaphor for my father’s life, nay for many a life. I celebrate, with you, that life—that perfectly, imperfect life of a man with a prophetic vision for how the world ought to be and how we all ought to be to each other within it.
There is one thing I’d like to lift up today, however, that my father did do well, if not perfectly. I’ve heard it said that the best gift a man can give to his children is to love their mother, and if this is so, my siblings and I are greatly blessed. What a gift it was to be raised by two people that truly loved each other, deeply and wholly, an even greater gift to watch my mother walk this last walk with him, always with his comfort and dignity in mind.
Recently, my daughters were squawking about Brian and I exchanging touches in public. “No PDA!” they yelled (which, to those of you who don’t speak in acronyms means No Public Display of Affection). This was the day after I came “home” from being home, helping mom while she brought dad home to die. I told those squawking girls that I used to do the same thing, but now and for years, the other memory of my parents I hold—and I know my sisters do, too—is of my parents exchanging hugs and kisses and even of them patting each other on the butt.
Again, what better gift to give your children than a daily reminder that they came from love. And for that, I will forever be grateful to my father.