Amid tears, he told me I was the best thing that ever happened to him in his life.
I left out the final paragraph at that point.
But in the final days when I could only hold his hand, or sit dazed and exhausted in the waiting room, life without him still seemed beyond imagining.
Now I am 60 and starting to see signs of my own mortality. An operation to fix something here. A little arthritis there.
I sometimes think back to that story from the waiting room of the man who fell ill when his bargain with God was fulfilled. And I wonder if there is some sort of a divine plan we can ascertain.
Part of the inner child that does not want to surpass the father even asks if it would be fair to live beyond the years he was given.
But the reality is that I did not smoke two packs of cigarettes a day my entire adult life. And I have learned a thing or two about humility over the years, along with the importance of loving yourself and your neighbor in equal measure.
And the truth is our connection has never really been broken.
He has been dead nearly 34 years, and I still think of him all the time.
I mean, how many Los Angeles Dodger fans are there in places I have worked and lived— Buffalo, Cleveland, Nashville, or even New York? Each day, I wake up and look at the box scores and feel just a little bit happier when they win, as if in some mystical way it continues to be a shared experience.
And I can see my father’s influence in every major decision I have made, from leaving a prestigious job for one that allowed me more time to be a better husband and father, to following my dream in my mid-50s to work with my global colleagues to create an organization where we can learn from one another in mutual respect and dignity. The International Association of Religion Journalists now has some 600 members from 90 nations.
That request that I prayed for in my father’s last days? It was answered. I have kept my faith, and it continues to be a source of peace and love.
That is probably not so surprising given the wealth of sociological evidence on the influence of religious parents, including how they shape a child’s image of God.
In the letter to my father, I spoke of our walk to church during the snowstorm. But I told him the lesson he taught me about faith “came from seeing you live your life. You genuinely loved everyone.”
My father was born into poverty, lived a humble life, and died in bleak, spare surroundings reserved for veterans with limited resources. His was a Christmas and Easter story combined, testifying that true happiness lies within us.
So what do I want to do with the rest of my life? I want to be like my father.
And try to be a decent, humble human being.
David Briggs, a former national writer for the Associated Press who holds a master’s degree from Yale Divinity School, writes the Ahead of the Trend column on new developments in religion research for the Association of Religion Data Archives.