Recently my father composed and posted a letter to his seven scattered children, a formal letter containing the sort of news that makes common relationships suddenly formal, that strikes life itself with a grave formality and contemplation.
I read the letter. I learned his news. I did not deny the news, but allowed myself to experience it. I suffered the news to consume me with its implications. And in the end—precisely because of that news—I realized what a genuine, holy, consoling gift my father had been bequeathing me all the days of my life, though I had not known the gift nor its perdurable power until that letter, this news, and this, the forty-third year of my maturity.
My father had been setting me free.
He is nearly 70. Threescore years and ten. He is “Walter,” as was his father before him—as am I, the oldest of his children. And I sign myself a “junior” always, in every public place, to honor our common name. “There are two of us,” I say with my signature. “When you see me, you see evidence of him; and I shall, however long he lives, however long I live thereafter, be his junior.”
When he was much younger he used to brush his hair into a peculiar swirl at the peak of his forehead—a brown cone fixed front like a miner’s lamp. For me that swirl was as needful and as comforting as a nightlight, because it was ever the first sign of my father’s presence. There were summer afternoons when he would take me shopping, when I would lose myself among the comic books, lose all sense of time, and then look up to find my father gone. My heart would begin to buzz like a bee in a bottle and my limbs go limp with panic. I would stare down the aisles of the alien store, struggling not to cry. I would scan the top of the crowd, the heads of the shoppers—their hair.
There were Sunday evenings when my mother and I would drive to the airport to meet my father after a week away, when we would pass down long halls loud with belligerent sound, bright with a bloodless, fluorescent light, brutal with herds of stampeding strangers, and I would diminish in such an unfamiliar place. I would grow smaller and smaller and ever more fearful—until my mother squeezed my hand the harder and whispered, “There. There he is. There’s Dad.” And then I would stand tiptoe and scan the top of the crowd, the heads, searching for that peculiar swirl of hair.
When suddenly I recognized it (five miles away), the whole world changed in an instant, became kindly and familiar, and I would let go my mother’s hand and run.
The sight of my father’s curl set me free in an airport. Or I would race up the aisles of strange department stores, as bold as any citizen, because I had seen the sign of my father. That cone of hair consoled me, that looping curl alone. Where it was, he was. Where he was, I was home.
But in the years of my childhood my father was often gone indeed. He traveled for days and weeks at a time—and then I knew the intensity of my longing for him by an odd trick of the air of our house, a trick I fell for every time. His study lied to me, and I believed the lie. Whether he was working at his desk, or whether he was absent altogether, Dad kept the door to his study closed; that, perhaps, abetted my deception.
I would be involved in some common thing, playing in the living room, descending the staircase that ended at his study door, eating lunch as blithe as a child, and busy. It would be morning and sunlit. The house would be murmuring sounds of active contentment, I unconscious at my business—when all at once, as clear as a radio, I heard my name called: “Wally!” This was my father’s voice. It came directly from his study. It named me just once—“Wally!”—as though he needed me. And I would rise without another thought but that my dad had called. I ran.
I thumped the study door and entered the room, and found it empty. Always, the room was terribly neat and terribly still and vacant. But someone had called me in my father’s voice. No, no one had called me. I would stand in front of his desk, adjusting to the silence, and like a pragmatic adult would school myself in the truth that, no, my father was gone. My father was traveling. Something else—the study, the air, or my own desire—deceived me. Nobody had called my name. Merely: I missed him.
We lived in an enormous house, in those days, as dark in its depths as a cave.
But on another day my mother would say, “Dad’s coming home today,” and that day would snap into a perfect pattern, and I had a job to do.
“When is he coming?”
“I don’t know, Wally. This afternoon.”
In fact, the time didn’t matter. On such a day, the whole day through, I would enact my infant loyalty, my absolute faith in my father, my love, and my reason for being.
Straight from breakfast I shot outside to the street in front of our house and took up a position on the curb, from which I could keep the length of the street in surveillance. I sat, and I stayed there. I stayed there while the sun went from my back to the front of me. I stayed there full of happiness and hope, stayed there like a junior gargoyle fixed to the concrete. And this is what I did: I grinned and waved at every car that passed—but watched for one in particular.
I gathered bouquets of waves in return: all the world must have known who drove not far behind. I classified the various kinds of waves that humans could produce. I showed an astonished patience, but that came of the faith that Dad was on his way in a green Chevy station wagon; and until that car turned onto Reeves Drive, I was content to be nowhere but there, where I would be the first to see him.
When it did, finally, nose underneath the gracious trees, the reflections of leaves slipping up its windshield, neither patience nor chains could keep me seated, but I leaped and ran into the street and peered through the coming window and recognized among the leaves that signal swirl of hair and then the smiling face below, and I was glad. Dad was home.
Silly memories. A boy clasping his hands like prayer and bowing and laughing in the middle of the street. A boy like exhaust smoke trailing a Chevy up the driveway. A boy demanding that his father immediately be seated in a chair at a desk, that the boy might only gaze on him in that place, and on his hair.
Dad and I are older now, the both of us. My sisters and brothers, his children, are so far scattered round the world that he had to send his formal letter to the Sudan in Africa and to Tombstone, Arizona; to Denver in Colorado and Clearwater, Florida, and here, to Evansville, Indiana, the house on the corner of Chandler and Bedford.
He is threescore years and ten. Not so old, though, that he no longer works. On Sundays my father still preaches in rural congregations that lack their own pastors. Do they know the treasure they are getting? He brings to these little parishes the garnered wisdom of a long career; for he has been, in his time, a college president, an editor of Christian educational books, a professor of theology, the founder of a liberal arts college in Hong Kong, a pastor. Do they know the gift he offers them? Well, I think so. Because all his wisdom, all his experience is nothing without the thing that sustained his career from the beginning, the thing he gave his son even in the early days. About this thing my father has never been coy or secretive.
He brings to the little parishes his core self, his holy, sweet stability—his faith. They cannot mistake it. Perhaps he uses a different language now than he did in the past. Long experience will surely enrich the words. And perhaps, since the people he preaches to are farmers and ranchers, while I was just a kid when I listened, I wouldn’t recognize the images of his present homiletics. But I would certainly recognize the flash in his eye and the intensity of his tone—just as the farmers see the flash and the ranchers hear the tone. Because this thing remains the same today as first I saw it in his fatherhood and in my childhood: that he trusts absolutely in the Cross of Jesus Christ, the forgiveness and the promise of that Cross. This caused his career in the first place. This he gave to me. And this he brings to 30 people in a rural pew with as much commitment, dash, and preparation as though they were 3,000 in an auditorium: Liberty!
He brings them his faith.
What he no longer brings is the swirl of hair by which his son once spied him in a crowd. He has developed a very high forehead, now; and the few hairs left above it he combs straight back. They are white. And the sides of his head, they are snow white.
In his formal letter to the seven scattered children, my father wrote that he had passed a kidney stone; that the physician was moved, in this event, to examine other parts of his person; that his prostate gland was found to be enlarged; and that a biopsy of the gland revealed a malignancy. Dad has cancer of the prostate.
What, then, shall I do? Shall I in any manner deny my father’s age? Shall I assume the sunny disposition that asserts with grim grins only good things, nothing bad? All Will Be Well. You’ll be fine, Dad. This is an easy cancer to treat. I can name a happy host of men who lived years and years behind this piddling sort of tumor. You will not die. You will never die. My father shall never not come home again. Shall I prison myself in even the kindly lie?
What shall I do? Shall I shrink from the specter that promises to turn me into a little child again? Shall I shrink from death? From the certainty of my father’s death—and the possibility, now, that it could be sooner than later?
Even at this distance, death makes me the boy who heard his name called from an empty study: “Wally!” I need you. I will run into his room, but he won’t be there and his desk will be too terribly neat. Death makes me a curb sitter, a watcher on the street forever, waving at every car that passes, except the one that isn’t coming. What shall I do? Shall I reject these feelings and deny the incipient stabs of missing him? Shall I turn away from the truth of my father’s present condition, and the truth of my father’s future, soon or late? Well, if I do that, I turn away from my father as well, since this is who he is now. I divorce me from him. I prison out love in my own deceptions, and I become for him a fraud, no healer and no help at all.
Then what shall I do?
Why, now, when death has taken a face and found a foothold in his body—now especially—I will invoke the gift my father has given me all along. I will act in liberty, free from the need to lie, free from fear. I will myself benefit from my father’s abiding, unhidden faith in the promises of Christ: that is his chiefest gift to me, most practical right now, empowering me to benefit him.
For 43 years, consciously or not—it doesn’t matter—my father has been preparing me for this crisis; and it is right to plead with every Christian parent: Please, never make a secret of your faith! For the sake of your children, against the day when you will surely die, in order to transfigure then their grief into something more healing than destroying, assure them with cheerful conviction, even in the good, green days of their childhood, that you live and you shall die in the arms of Jesus, in whose love is life and everlasting life. Let them know that you know. Your knowledge shall be their precious gift. Their freedom.
Walter Wangerin, Senior, clings like an infant, simple and unashamed, to Jesus Christ. Walter Wangerin, Junior, has always known that. For the son, then, there are no final terrors in his father’s death, and he may gaze at the approach with clear eyes, undeceived and undenying. This is the gift, revealed in my reaction to a formal letter. The son need not shrink backward, but may companion his father even in this trip—to the door if not through the door.
All my father’s wisdom falls away, all his successes and his accolades. His long career becomes a dust, none of it a consolation now. And the swirl of hair is gone; it cannot comfort me. He is reduced, whenever his end shall come, whether sooner or later, to the flash in his eye, the intensity of his tone, and the joy with which he looks to meeting Jesus face to face. This excites him still: that God will touch the tears from his cheeks. This faith endures. This is the sign of my father now, infinitely kinder than a looping curl of hair.
I believe his believing. If his dying doesn’t destroy him, it doesn’t destroy me either. If it is for him a beginning, it can be for me a passage and a patience. I can sit on the curb a long, long time. I can sit till the kingdom itself turns onto Reeves Drive in the shape of a Chevy. Hope keeps me there. Hope has a marvelous staying power.
I don’t mean, in any of this, to sound unrealistic: I will mourn my father when he dies. I will miss him grievously, and the empty air will wound me, calling “Wally!” when no one is there. I will cry. I know how to cry. But I will not grieve as those who have no hope, which is the killing grief, which is despair.
And this is the evidence of our common, hopeful, liberating faith: that I am writing to you now, my father, my senior, this letter fully as formal as the letter you sent to us, fully as honest and unafraid as yours. On behalf of the seven scattered round the world, I send you our thanksgiving. Whenever it must be, dear Father, go in peace. You leave behind a tremendous inheritance, and sons and daughters still unscarred. Go, Dad. We will surely follow after you.
Walter Wangerin, Jr., is the author of the award-winning novel The Book of the Dun Cow (Harper & Row). His latest books include As for Me and My House (Thomas Nelson) and a collection of poetry, The Miniature Cathedral (Harper & Row).
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