Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Hold on to that and never lose it

I don't often participate in the "What are you thankful for?" trends that pop up on social media these days. It's not that I am not a thankful person. I guess it's more because we're all thankful, or should be, so why should my story be any different than the next person's?

But this year I am thankful that our daughter sent us searching for her lost Social Security card. God can have his hand in the littlest stuff and I think he was working last week when Kelsey texted and asked for our help.

But back to that in a minute.

When I can, I attend a men's group on Tuesday mornings down at the church. This morning when we finished watching our video the conversation turned to the people in our lives that had most shaped us. Now that I look back, it seems like it might have been a cleverly disguised conversation starter for a more appropriate topic for the day: "Who are you most thankful for in your life?" Not surprisingly, most of the men at the gathering pointed to their fathers.

When it came my turn, I had the opportunity to talk about my dad. I usually don't pass up that opportunity.

I didn't appreciate my dad as much when I was an immature kid as I do now. I suppose that's what happens when the passing of time joins with the onset of wisdom to forge a greater love for someone after it's, well, too late. It's a cruel twist but it's better than not feeling anything when you know you should.

My dad and mom brought me up Baptist and my sullen teenage self somehow convinced them to let me sit on the back row of the church every week, away from them. Most often they agreed. At the altar call every week, my father's eyes would well with tears as people walked to the front of the church. Even when no one walked down, dad still cried. Being a cranky and petulant teenager, I never got that. And so I hid from it by sitting in the back of the church.

My dad never took credit for anything. He never bragged about anything if he was involved in any way. He would brag about my brother and my sister and me and our mom all day long. But the conversation rarely if ever turned to him, certainly not at his encouragement. Maybe one day I will pick up that admirable trait, too.

I also had a moment this morning to talk about my brother. I consider my brother a role model and for him I am also thankful. I didn't always consider him a role model. I watched him come from a troubled man, hopelessly addicted to alcohol to someone who found God and now admirably leads a non-profit center in Dallas. When he signed on to be that agency's new director, he had been on its volunteer board for several years. But when the past director was fired for questionable financial practices, my brother stepped up and took the job. For nothing. No salary. For a year. It was at his suggestion. Giving away salaries of dollars in salary to your employee just to make sure the doors stay open and people can continue to be helped ... now, there's a lesson for you.

My brother has never been a touchy-feely or overly emotional person. He's been nothing like our father in that regard. Yet here's the interesting rest of that story: At the agency he directs, every day he oversees about 140 developmentally disadvantaged adults of all sizes, shapes and colors. The clients, as they are termed, are paid small wages for repetitive motion tasks. It gives many of them a sense of purpose and a reason to get up in the morning and a joy for living.

I have visited the center often. I have watched my brother physically embrace almost every one of these people and call each of them by name — without benefit of name tags. I have watched every one of the clients embrace my brother, and shout out his name from across the room when they see him walk through the door. He is making a profound difference in lives. That's what heroes do. I know I am thankful for being given the opportunity to watch him become what he has become in the last fifteen years or so.

Seeing how the people at the center love him would have been enough to bring tears to my father's eyes. Now it does the same thing to me. And I am no longer afraid to admit that.

Our dad left his three children an appreciation for different things. My brother picked up a sense of fairness and decency, and how to treat others. My sister has a love for the outdoors and great compassion for others thanks to our father, but she was formed, I think, more by our mother. And that is a very good thing, too. My father left me a love for baseball, books and Big Bend. I came along with the baseball appreciation early on, but it took me years to develop that love for books and the outdoors. 

Big Bend is a sacred place to me. Some people probably think I'm nuts when I say that, and that's fine. Maybe I am, but I go there to see God and hear dad. I was there with him just once before he died, even though he had tried many times over several years to get me to go with him. 

I was on a mountain pass when a rare cellphone signal enabled a call to come through to me in 2009, one of the few areas in Big Bend where there was a signal at the time. It was my sister. She called to tell me doctors had found a tumor on dad's kidney and he would need surgery.

The night before he went in to the hospital, he gathered the family in the living room and he read a paper our daughter Kelsey had written about someone in her life she considered to be a hero. Instead of making the evening all about him — even though given the circumstances he had every right to -- he turned the attention to his granddaughter and what she had written. And then he told her he was proud of her. And all of us. He went to bed, got up the next morning and packed a bag for what he thought would be a simple surgery. Twenty-five days later he was dead. He was 84.

When Kelsey called us last week to ask for help looking for her Social Security card, we never did find it. Instead, I found this in my same important paper box:

"Hold on to that and never lose it," both Kelsey and Karen told me when I showed them what I had found.

So yeah. That's what I'm thankful for this year. And every year.

-- jimmy

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