Thursday, January 23, 2014

Under the Jacaranda tree.

Did you ever need a second chance?  A chance to heal a desperately broken part of your heart?

It's a rare thing in life to get those chances. 

My father was a working man.  Blue collar.  He thought in terms of pay checks and not career.  I am my father's only son, his last child after three daughters.  I was closer to my mother.  I never really got to know my father while growing up and I didn't understand him or love him until two years ago when I turned fifty years old.  That was about twenty-six years after his death in a hospital bed.  The night my father died my exhausted mother reluctantly took her first break away from his bedside and went to my sister's for rest.  His only son, twenty-six, sun-tanned from a ski resort in Colorado and dragged away from the party life I was living in Malibu, was now home and just down the street from the hospital sitting in a movie theatre completely numb in denial.  I wasn't much farther than a few blocks away, I might just as well have been in the darkest part of the galaxy.

The year I turned fifty God's grace and mercy poured out on my life and my heart began to break under His heavy hand.  At that time His work in my soul was terrifying and relentless.  It was a sense of burning, a searing, without any remedy except to wait in hope for God's divine pardon and forgiveness.  It was serious correction and the pain in that correction was a constant part of my life for about eighteen months.  It was my personal terror that I might die in that state of: agony, hopelessness, isolation, sorrow and dread.  I wasn't in hell though, I was in correction.  I do not want to imagine a place without the hope of God's loving mercy finally coming to pardon a soul.  To suffer in torment knowing you failed in every way and now do not have the mercy of God to deliver you, that is hell.

I had many things to review about my life in that precious time and I was given the grace to carefully examine my life .  The failings that came to mind were tremendous.  It was then I remembered my father in his hospital bed.  My relationship with my father, my thoughts and beliefs about him as a person, my wrong understanding of his heart towards me and how damaged my life was lived out, in part because I did not have a bond with my father, was brought into the light.  In that light, I wept for my father.  I missed him.  I wanted to thank him for his love and talk to him.  I wanted his pardon.

My father was a WWII veteran and was almost killed on the coast of North Africa.  He was wounded in action and received the Purple Heart.  His Naval assignment was bringing troops to the shore in a landing craft.  When the doors opened to his craft there was carnage and death waiting for many young men and my father witnessed it, peering straight into the eye of an inferno.  He was eighteen when he entered the war and twenty-years old when he was wounded in action.  My grandfather died when my father was only five years old.  My dad grew up without his father.  It was my grandmother who would sign papers for him to enlist because he was too young to sign the papers without her permission.  He entered the war a very sensitive but troubled young man who would be turned into a commando.  He wanted the adventure and the privilege of serving his country while leaving his small hometown in New Hampshire.  He wanted to become a man.  He could not have imagined what he would experience in just a few short years and how those years would affect his life.  He went from a quiet town in New England, to a beach in North Africa, in a landing craft under enemy fire in a little over a year.  Not a lot of transition time.  He shared some of his stories with me as a teenager, stories of spilled brains and guts, body parts and vomit, the crying and dying of young men my own age by then but I couldn't hear him so he gave up telling me.  He was trying to share his pain but I tuned him out.  I only wanted to deal with my teenage angst, not knowing the intrinsic connection.

He carried his war's visions and sounds the rest of his life. My father no doubt had PTSD but he didn't realise it and we didn't realise it. He got through his days and his family got through their own.  Now we know about PTSD from all the broken men and families from so many wars since WWII and that has helped my family and I understand so much about our father.  My father returned home from his war and his injuries with nightmares that would cause him to jump up from sleep with terror in his eyes.  The softness of my dad's eyes were replaced with pure adrenaline, ready for what I cannot begin to imagine.  He tried to manage his life, marriage and children doing what he thought was right but he struggled through his life with a broken piece that was never restored and never talked out past a few war stories.  The sad irony is the war didn't make my father a man, it kept him frozen in that time of his life emotionally and rationally.
He died, more or less, a sixty-four year old teenager. 

I needed a father so badly but there was such a divide.  He failed me as a boy when I really needed him to help me.  He let me down and my heart broke.  It was an event at school and he didn't come through, he never knew it but I dismissed him after that.  I had no relationship with my father again, only a difficult distance.  I felt loss and a gnawing loneliness and it settled into my life.  I was only ten years old and that pain would remain and materialise in different ways for over forty years.  A foreign ache came into my heart when my dad let me down and that would send me on a search for healing.  For years I tried to escape the lies and pain that insisted my father didn't love me.  Despondency cut me and distorted my world.  I was sullen and moody and found peace by various escapes but the pain grew and got more tangled up.  I couldn't forget that pain and bitterness and selfish pride filled me like poison.  He tried to connect with me at times but he didn't have the skills and he didn't have time.  Things were coming at him in his own life and he wasn't prepared or able, he had enough on his plate just to get through his own day.  He did the best he could but I didn't understand so many complicated things in his life.  I just knew that he made a promise to me that I begged him to not forget and he let me down.  My pain was in the way of our relationship.

As I grew older I flailed around looking for direction.  Bitter and proud, I rejected most of his views on life and we argued constantly or sat in silence.  Eventually I left home breaking away from my parents, then miserable attempts at college, multiple disasters in relationships and failings in lists of other areas throughout my life. I was angry and it came out in various shades of self destruction.  My father was a loving, kind and gentle man but all that translated differently to me, I just saw his limitations and felt a divide.  I had no concept of his pain that made him check out as my father, I felt forgotten, and worse, awkward.  Being awkward with someone you should be connected with is so much worse than total separation.  Awkwardness causes confusion, distance and longing, questions and feelings that need to be sorted out.  Suffering and other emotional dregs fills the gaps instead of relationship.

As he was dying of cancer I was swinging like a pendulum on a chairlift caught in a war going on in me to continue to hide in a ski resort or to return home and try to connect somehow.  I pushed it all away with denial and postponed my decision until the last few days of his life.  I had no bonding with him to fall back on and no character in my life to rise up to the challenge.  I had no love.  I had feelings though, tons of them, but feelings and love do not necessarily intersect.  I skied and beached away my inner fears of losing my father far away from him and home and kept my oblivion going.  In my time of correction with God I began to vaguely understand love and how shallow my concept was.  In that time with my heart laid bare before God and myself, I began to understand my father and my broken relationship with him; I also began to fall deeply in love with him.

In the middle of that time of examination I went home to spend some time with my family and my mother.  A few days before I left she mentioned some things that were my dad's that I should see. In a drawer I found his wallet with all that he carried until he died.  The first thing I saw inside was his license.  He looked tired and worried.  At the time of his photograph he had gone through the first part of his cancer treatments and surgery.  Pictures, even drivers licenses, don't lie, my dad was scared.  I noticed the expiration date on his licence and realised he never lived long enough to renew it.  Did he know he would never renew his license?  That kept my thoughts for a while and then I found a buried photo of myself that I had never seen.  I froze.  I looked into my own eyes and saw a time of my life that was forgotten. I was probably about fourteen.  A mixture of compassion and regret filled me, I loved that person I was looking at now.  I didn't loathe him.  I was fifty-years-old and I was comforting a part of my teenage life that was afraid, lonely and hurting but trying to find something to go forward and not lose hope.  I remembered learning to ski and how that changed my life and opened up a way for my future.  A future that was now remembering it's process,  "Yes, there are going to be very hard and sad days as you move through your life but there are going to be amazing people, powerful moments and events in your future that you cannot imagine right now.  You are going to set out to see the world and almost get consumed by darkness and excess, sensuality and vanities but you will meet God, and incredibly, God will not let you go.
He will call you back to Him by grace."

When I saw that forgotten photo buried in my father's wallet and knew that he carried it with him all of those years I was overwhelmed.  Then I found my ski-instructor business card.  I had to sit down for a minute.  He loved me and he was proud of me. The grace of God was revealing something to me I never knew.  A little later, my mother quietly came in and handed me some of his letters before he went overseas for war.

In incomplete letters, and in handwriting similar to my own, he told her stories about the fear and frustration of "some of the fellahs" and their crazy indoctrinations into their new military world.  He talked about his dreams past the war, to learn to cook and open a restaurant, and he asked her to say hi to some of his friends and family.  It was written in pencil on U.S. Navy stationary with the date of 1943.  I could hear my father's voice as I read his brief notes back home. I heard him and somehow I understood my father's life.  They were written long before I was born and read long after he was dead but time and history dissolved as I continued reading and hearing the dreams of my young father.  It was a time travel sensation, an other-worldly meeting, a reunion of a broken father and a hurting son.  As I understood him more through those letters, I was free of so much childhood confusion and pain I had carried my whole life.  A few days later I stopped by his grave that I had only been to once in twenty-six years and paid my honest respects to my father.

There was still a hole in my heart for how I never got the chance to thank him at his bedside.  
The chance to heal was in my future, orchestrated by the goodness and mercy of God who knows all things ahead of time.

My father and I never had the chance to speak to each other before he died.  I waited too long to come home.  When I finally got home I immediately left for the hospital frustrated with the gloom everyone was under.  "He is going to be fine!"  I was angry that I had to stop my life for what I was certain was going to be just a hospital stay.  In complete denial I imagined my dad in his hospital bed with a game on and a can of beer at his bedside talking to the guy next to him.  My oldest sister drove me to the hospital and didn't say a word as I went on about all the family drama.  When we got to his floor it was late and the lights were dimmed way down.  I marched down the long, dark hall passing many rooms of dying men expecting to find my father sitting up and walked right past his room.  My sister gently grabbed my sleeve and pulled me back.
"This is dad's room."
I peered into the dark and saw my father from the light of the hallway, his bed was closest to the door.  He was lying completely still.  His thick grey hair was almost gone and his skin was as pale and smooth as porcelain.  He was almost gone. I  took two steps towards his bed and crumpled to the floor in a heap of agony, shame and fear.  On my knees I reached for his hand and sobbed. He had lost so much weight his wedding band was only dangling on his finger.  He never spoke to me, he just sighed and slowly shook his head.  I got up from the floor and tried to speak to him but only managed to cry.  My sister waited patiently without intruding.  My face was buried on my dying father's chest but he was so frail he didn't have the strength to lift a hand to comfort me.  His skin smelled like chemicals and body powder because I had waited so long to come to him even his smell was gone.  We drove back home that evening in silence.  If my sister spoke to me I didn't hear her.

In the few days I had with him I could see it in his eyes that he was struggling with all of his strength to remember who this young man was at his bedside.  He only looked at me and shook his head.  And I was too afraid to talk to him.  I grasped at my Bible but I had zero understanding.  I had no refuge and no comfort from anyone.  I was losing my father.  After painful visits to the hospital I would go to my parents home at night and try to find solace in a bedroom that I had left behind; slowly coming out of my total denial, my body would fold up in a pain that felt like I was being broken in half.

My father died on a night when I went to a movie with a friend and decided to go home afterward and not to the hospital.  It was a horrible decision not to stop and be with my father.  He died alone.  The phone rang at home and I picked it up in our kitchen.  After I knew he was gone I sat alone at a table scratching a fuzzy memory into a journal that I would eventually lose somewhere in my life.  I was past tears as I wrote that night, I only felt shock.  The next morning I went to pick out his casket and the shock continued so my brother-in-law made the transaction.  Later that day a pastor would come over to meet the unfamiliar family he was going to represent over a man he never met.  My father had faith in Christ but it never led to church attendance.  I think it would have been a good conversation between them.  A generous and kind man, the pastor asked us questions and we were thankful for his company.  At some point I asked the pastor if he would care for a drink and he suggested that he would have what we were having. A tough call for me, I hesitated for a moment and then I poured him a stiff vodka and orange juice.  He took a sip and left the rest of the glass untouched.  After conversations and some prayers he left and my mom and my sisters would laugh when I told them what I offered him.  It was the first laugh for everyone in a long while.  It's one of those nervous laughs that is happening even though you are in pain.  A life can be lived out like that.  Things are happening, pleasurable things, necessary things, your life is being lived out but just under all of it there is this tragic, untouched pain that needs to be resolved.

The morning of his funeral I woke up to the sound of a dove loudly cooing on my bedroom window sill and I remembered God's love to me and His great compassion, "God is close to the brokenhearted."  I got through those first few days but it would take decades to heal my shame and the horrible life choices I would make after his body was lowered into the ground.

I often talk about God's intervention in my life.  I have experienced a love, tenderness and a mercy that silences me in awe.  A God of love so rich in grace, I can believe why it will take eternities to thank Him for His many comforts and kindnesses to those He saves.  He has sewn my heart together over and over again with His love.  In His timing and patience, as I floundered through my life, God moved me to Portugal to live with my wife's family where I would love her amazing father.  I was on a course of healing and I did not know it.  Chapters of my walk with God would be written in a strange country, with a different language, far from my own family.  My father-in-law would be a significant character in those chapters.

My father-in-law was Hollywood handsome with a very sharp mind.  There are photos of him throughout his life in Africa where he worked as an assistant-scientist.  Sepia toned photos of a celebrity look-a-like carrying a rifle in the Bush or behind a microscope lay in drawers around the house I moved into. The photos are portraits worthy of a LIFE magazine story of his days in the 1940's and 50's.  He was married to his only wife, an Ava Gardner double, and eventually moved to Portugal with their five  children.  For years the huge house was filled with parties and entertaining.  Their mother loved plants and flowers and they gushed out like fountains running along the drive-way and down staircases and throughout two gardens.  She filled that house with a great big personality and love but she died unexpectedly and tragically on a New Year's Eve and the family suffered an irreplaceable loss.  What I understand about pain now is that it can devour everything in our lives and we have to look for avenues of healing that do not make our pain much worse.  It can be a very treacherous journey and we must be extremely conscious and careful with our choices.  After she died the house caved in to sorrow and loss.  The parties were never as full again.  The flowers would fade away.

Before moving to Portugal from the States I had an encounter with God that was so powerful I assumed I should attend Bible school somewhere and I prayed for the opportunity.  I imagined classrooms and chalkboards as I prayed about this.  Clean shirts and maybe a tie?  God had perspiration in mind.  I would go to the house of my father-in-law and clean up a drive-way and clear dead gardens contaminated by a decade of dog waste.  I would empty out and paint rooms covered in mildew and chaos.  Wash floors and dishes.  Clean toilets.  For over two years I would wrestle day and night in a spiritual war against pain and sorrow that hung over the house like a damp blanket.  Even the Portuguese sun couldn't get deep enough into the house to cut the darkness.  Eventually my wife and I moved into our own home but my mission was partially completed and I knew it with regret and unsatisfactory justifications.  When God began to correct me in my time of terror I went back to that house and to my abandoned Bible school.  Almost seven years of my life had quickly passed me by.

Under the flowers of a Jacaranda tree and surrounded by it's fragrance that I will never forget, I was on my knees pulling up weeds in the drive-way.  The weeds were always a menace in that yard.  In a deep quiet I began to understand my years at that house and my wife's family through different eyes.  My anger, self-righteousness and sense of failure began to wash away and healing came in.  I was filled with gratitude for all that I learned there in those difficult years.  It was a precious time of learning and growth but I was too angry and spiritually immature to appreciate it.  My mission wasn't ever to be about the house, it was about the people who lived under it's roof.  As I cleaned the familiar drive-way again I reflected on my time there, and my heart and mouth.  God was teaching me things I missed there and missed in my life.  I once again thought of my own father and his love for people.  His love for gardens and planting.   His love for flowers.  I remembered the sweat on his face with a rake in his hand.  I begged God to forgive me for despising my father's labor; his gardens, his dirty work boots and his garden tools.  As I stood in the yard with my hands covered with dirt I remembered his compassion for poorer people than my family and his gift of understanding broken hearts.  I remembered his laughter and his many sacrifices for his family, even in his deep emotional pain.  I remembered his hidden love for his only son.  I asked God to forgive me for how I treated my father at the end of his life and how I responded to my failure in later years.  I believe He forgave me but there was a deep wound in me.
Twenty-six years had not been able to heal it.
Time sometimes heals nothing.
We need a second chance.

My father-in-law was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this past summer.  He began to show signs of illness before his birthday last January.  In less than a year he would become a man who could no longer get out of bed.  His stubborn independence and ability to take care of everyone was now confined to a bed or a chair.  For many months his head hung low toward his chest with his eyes closed, the ability to help his children and do what he always did was leaving him.  The end of his life was now about hospitals and bed care while still trying to give to his family somehow.  How he would give, however, was beyond his ability.  His life's end would be about his children coming together around him while they dealt with the realities and inadequacies we all face with a slow and certain death of a parent.  He was given some time and his grown children had a second chance to be there for each other in their loss this time.  That precious gift was stolen from them when their mother died so suddenly on a night the world parties together.  In the very similar scene of a hospital bed, twenty-six years later, a broken part of my heart and life would also be healed.  I was familiar of the landscape of a father dying with cancer and I was determined not to detach my heart this time.

I watched and prayed for my father-in-law and his children over the months as he slowly left this earth.  I watched them grow and struggle.  I watched them love each other.  I remembered my past failure and I was afraid I would not get the chance to thank my father-in-law for his love, that events somehow would cruelly prevent it.  Two nights before he died I went to his bedside and held his hand. He was awake and alert.  I spoke thanks into his ear for all of his love and his help to me and my family.  My past and present were simultaneous at that moment.  Tears that I never got to share with my own father rolled down my cheeks.  I held his warm hands and kissed him good-bye.

He told me he loved me and a desperate need for healing came into my heart.  They were precious words that I ached for years to hear.

The God of the Bible is the God of reconciliation.  He, a loving Father, gave His only Son Jesus for humanity.  That through the Son we would know the Father and we would know that we are loved and how much we need restoration in every way back to Him.  Lies, pain, pride, self and self-destruction gets in the way but grace is always reaching for us to return and know God alone as Father.  The Author of reconciliation uses grace, forgiveness and perfect truth.  The ingredients are always the same and the dosage is applied carefully.  He knows our pain and our needs individually and meets us personally.  Personally.  No one on this earth knows us like Him and no one can reach into our depths to satisfy us.  That place is reserved for God alone.

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet
Before the great and terrible day of the Lord, 
And he will turn
The hearts of the fathers to their children
And the hearts of the children to their fathers, 
Lest I come and strike the land with a curse.

Malachi 4:6

I am so thankful to God for His gift of mercy in my life.  I got a second chance to love a father that gave everything but was shy with his feelings of love.  I ran through the awkwardness this time and loved him.  I was as present as I could have been in his last days but there are emotional weights in our hearts that cannot be lifted until we stand before God and He wipes the tears from our eyes.

I love my father now.  I am so thankful for two excellent but imperfect fathers that God gave to my life; but more importantly than these earthbound graces, late in my life I learned about my Heavenly Father and how much I need Him.  I am finally discovering an intimate, patient and perfect Father who is willing to correct, forgive and bring us all through deep sorrows and lift great burdens.  A Father who teaches me who He is and that I am loved, even though I am nothing more than dust.  I have never been closer to the God I pray to than I am at this time in my life.  I missed so much of my life because of a lie I believed and the poison it caused and I want to renew my heart with truth.  I want to know things and do things that must be done but I have never done them.  I need my Father.  I do not cry to my dead father in my weaknesses and profound needs, I cry out to a Heavenly Father who is alive and present.  A Father that knew my grandfather's grandfathers and knew my father and saw me long before I was born.  In grace and truth He opened my blind eyes to show Himself as Father to me in a way I never knew Him.  He revealed my great need and opened my heart. I pray in desperation for His help and wisdom, and for everything He is willing to give me as a father and a husband, to help me love, and raise our own son so he will know that in spite of my own struggles, he will know that his father loves him.

The house of my father-in-law will be left vacant eventually.
And so will the gardens that I can only hope and pray I grew in.
Those chapters of my life are now over and I look ahead with hope.


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