My father was 41 years old when he died after having lung cancer for only six months. I was one month short of 17 when he passed. This week, I turn 59 and because it was just Father’s day and the preacher this morning talked about his dad in such loving detail, I started thinking about my own dad.
I have now been alive for 42 years after his death. That is longer than he was alive. But years don’t matter all that much–what matters is how much life and love we squeeze into those years. And my dad did love me.
I won’t rehearse the problems my dad had in life. Suffice to say that he struggled with addiction all the years I knew him. But he was a friendly guy who never had problems getting along with others. He could be hard on my brother, sister and me. He expected a lot and he didn’t do a lot to help us work through our problems. However, one time he did help me changed my life.
As a boy, I was easily talked into mischief. One summer afternoon, three of my friends proposed a game I had never played before. We went to the end of our alley and looked out into the busy street. Cars whipped by us going 40 MPH. That’s when my friend Derek explained the rules of the game. Each of us would pick up a rock. We would wait until a passing car came close to us. Then we would throw the rock across the road. The one who came closest to hitting a car–without hitting one of course–was the winner.
The other three guys went before me. Each of them threw their rocks across the road with lots of time to spare. I figured I could easily beat them all. When my car came, I’m not sure what happened. I don’t know if he sped up, if I hesitated out of fear, or if my young brain miscalculated.
But my rock went through the side window of the passing car. At that moment, all of us scattered like shrapnel from a grenade. I hoped the man who slammed on his brakes couldn’t figure out who threw the rock as he saw boys running every which way. But when I looked behind me down the alley, I was the only one he was chasing. He had figured it out. I ran into our backyard, past the babysitter and up the back stairs. As I went by her, I shouted out,
“There’s a man chasing me who wants to hurt me!”
I admit, I left a few details out of that description. The babysitter sopped up her courage and refused to let the man into the house. I watched from my bedroom window to see if he was coming in. The two of them talked for a long time. Then, the man wrote some things down on a piece of paper and gave it to my babysitter. I may not have been that old, but I knew he had written a note for my father.
And just as decidedly, I knew I would suffer severe consequences.
So I hid in the basement. There was an alcove cut out of the wall behind the furnace and it just fit my tiny body. I hid there and waited until dad came home. When he finally did, I sat quietly, listening for the inevitable explosion. After about five minutes, I began to hear the rumble. Dad was tearing apart every room looking for me. He didn’t know my secret hiding spot, so all he could do was search, yell, and voice threats. The more he described what was going to happen to me, the more I decided to say nothing and stay hidden.
At one point, things got quiet. Then my mother started pleading with me to come out. She even began to cry softly. I couldn’t take it any more, so I slithered out of my hole and slowly went upstairs. I won’t describe the initial scene as my parents saw me come out of the basement door. It was complicated.
I went to bed early, without my dad punishing me as he promised. But the next morning, he got me out of bed at 6:30 a.m. This was strange: He never got up early, and this was summer vacation. I never got up any earlier than I had to. But dad told me I had to make a decision. I needed lots of time depending on what decision I made.
Dad had called the man whose window I had broken the night before. He had already paid the man for the window and now it was time for my payback. I was sure a spanking with the belt was involved, but that is not what happened.
My dad just looked sad. He told me how disappointed he was with me. He had expected so much more out of me than I had shown. I cried. I was steeled with resolve to withstand a beating. i never expected this.
Then dad explained my choice. I could pay for the window one of three ways:
- I could give up allowance for the rest of the year.
- I could do 20 hours of work in the yard over the weekend. This involved back-breaking labor (dad took delight describing all I would do).
- I could go over to this man’s house and work for him for as long as he wanted.
I chose number two because I wanted my allowance and I was afraid of this other man. So dad started me in right away with the work. That Saturday, I must have put in 12 straight hours of work. I was so tired, I didn’t even eat dinner. The next morning at 6:30, dad got me up and worked me again. The second day was even harder than the first.
Then something happened after lunch. Dad came out with his work clothes on and began to help me. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. So I asked him.
“Didn’t you say I had to do all this work myself?”
“Yes, I did. But this is my punishment and my rules. I can help you if I want to.” For the next two hours, dad helped me do all the chores I had left. Then, when we were done, he told me to have a bath and put on some good jeans and a shirt. When I came out, dad told me we were going for dinner; just me and him.
He took me to a diner across the street from his work. It was great food and we had a fantastic time together. He told me about all the things he got in trouble for as a boy . He warned me never to tell my siblings or my mother about that conversation.
At the end of dinner, we just sat in silence for a while. Then dad looked at me and said, “I’m proud of you son. This was worth the broken window to see you work like a man.”
I cannot think back to that day and not feel the weight of his love. It still sits on my shoulders.