Life is messy and complicated and full of contradictions. It is both joyful and painful, characterized by equal parts laughter and tears. This past week has brought pictures of the ugly reality of death, disease and suffering swirling in the same space in my mind as the equally real moments of great love, simple beauty, astounding grace…in the end, or at least at this point in my journey, the precious snapshots of the latter far outweigh the haunting reminders of the former.
The ugly truth is that my father finally succeeded in drinking himself to death after 30+ years of trying. That is the heart-breaking reality. My handsome, intelligent, outgoing, funny, generous, loving father was an alcoholic who, despite multiple treatments for his illness, could never conquer the demons that haunted him and ultimately killed him. That is the truth, but only part of the truth. In addition to that truth, it seems that it is also true that my father spent the last 18 months of his life as happy as he had been in a very, very long time. He was part of a loving church community who celebrated his life with us on Saturday. Through his recent marriage, he was a part of an unbelievably loving extended family who looked up to him, respected him, leaned on him and loved him unconditionally, in spite of his illness. He was adored by his young, beautiful, funny wife who was with him when he died. After years of watching my father repeatedly choose self-destruction over more life-affirming options, hearing these good things about his most recent months felt like a miracle…and a gift….and a confirmation that God never gave up on him, even when he had once again given up on himself. We heard again and again that we, his three children, were the absolute pride and joy of his life and that he talked about us and his grandkids all the time. As my brother said, Daddy went out on a comparative “high note” and for that I choose to be grateful.
In the midst of the complicated mess of feelings over the loss of my daddy, I have been enveloped by the love of God through His people in a way that has brought me to my knees. When I found it difficult to pray myself during the last week, I physically felt the prayers of my dear ones as I experienced the “peace that passes understanding.” Phone calls, emails, blog comments, cards, meals for my family and four precious friends who drove to North Carolina and back in one day to attend the memorial service of a man they hardly knew or didn’t know at all, just so they could “lift up my arms” (Exodus 17) while I tried to say goodbye to my daddy. As I attempted to praise God by singing at my dad’s funeral, I knew that my friends, along with my family, were praying me through it, unleashing the Holy Spirit to take over and make a “joyful noise.” Daddy, who was predictably biased and unabashedly proud of everything I or my siblings did, would have absolutely loved it. I felt heaven smiling down on me from both of my Fathers.
I know I have a long way to go on this journey called grief. His death has opened up a renewed look back at the journey that I have traveled with my dad; the good, the bad and the ugly. Although God, in His grace, has already brought about much healing through the years, this has definitely ripped the scab off those wounds that are still a bit tender. I am sad that he is gone, I am angry that he kept hurting himself, I am grateful that he is finally free and healed, and I am relieved that the struggle is over. And those are just the feelings on the surface. Messy, complicated, real.
Some of the pictures of God’s grace that I will hold in my heart from the past week include many moments spent with others who loved my dad. I started to write about them all, but realized that they probably won’t mean anything to anyone else who reads this. One very special moment was witnessing my mother and my dad’s wife embrace, meeting for the first time and sharing without words their mutual heartache for the man that they had both loved…one at the beginning of his life and one at the end of his life. God’s grace just dripping all over it. The memorial service in a traditional black church, with all the glory and celebration that implies, for my Southern white father born in a time when black folks and white folks didn’t often go to church together. It was the most beautiful service of celebration that I have ever attended….something that wouldn’t have happened had God not brought my dad’s new bride into his life when He did. Again, God’s grace in action. I could go on and on, but you get the picture. Out of extreme brokenness, hurt and loss, God brought redemption, healing and celebration. Through the eyes and testimony of his new church family and in-laws, we remembered who Daddy really was underneath the layers of broken trust and disappointment. Without pretending, we could celebrate his life and say goodbye to the reality of this complicated, wonderful, infuriating, endearing, frustrating, loving, exasperating, broken man. God’s grace at its finest. God’s love at its most unconditional. God’s healing at its most miraculous.
Thank you to all of you who have been praying for me and my family this past week. Please continue to pray for all of us, but particularly for Daddy’s wife (she is only two years older than me….I just can’t call her my step-mom!!) and for my grandmother. One of the things I loved most about my dad was his devotion to his mom. He has been her primary caregiver for a number of years and she is understandably devastated by his death. Pray for her peace and safety as decisions are made about her future care. Thank you for reading my cathartic musings…it’s cheaper than therapy!