July 11, 1988. 16 days before my 16th birthday. The day my father went to heaven. Good grief, that was 31 years ago! Sounds like a long time when you say it out loud, but that day — that day still seems like it was this week. I remember what I was wearing when I found him. I remember what I did as soon as I knew: I ran out the back door of the house and into the back yard, screaming obscenities, trying to make myself cry. I don’t really recall a lot after that; the days that followed, or even the funeral.
Those memories play back like scenes from television reruns. Bits and pieces seem clear, but most of the dialogue is paraphrased, muffled, or blurred.
I do remember his mustache – he had a great Tom Selleck mustache that would disappear into his coffee cup, and it stung my face when he kissed me goodnight or gave me a “zerbert” before school. I remember his laugh. And I remember his eyes. He had happy eyes.
As I grow older, the more and more thankful I am for my Dad and the influence he had on my childhood. But I think I am most thankful for the impact he has had on me since he’s been gone. Let me explain: After people die we tend to remember the best of them. And as time passes, memories play back like a “Best of…” highlight reel.
Not many people sit and ponder the douchey things their dead relatives did. And even then, there’s a kindness and fondness to the memory. My memories of my father are all good ones. I’m sure he yelled sometimes, but I don’t remember, and I bet he had a good reason if he did.
Probably my sister.
I’m sure he had annoying habits and flaws that bothered me and others. I’m sure he smelled bad from time to time. But I can’t recall.
I just remember him being there. At practices, games, performances, church and the dinner table. I remember his smile. I remember playing football, wrestling, skipping rocks and skipping church to watch John McEnroe defeat Bjorn Borg in the 1981 Wimbledon championship. I was nine.
He sounded kind of like a seal being eaten by a larger seal when he laughed. He’d listen so intently as I recounted silly stories or made-up jokes and then he’d belly laugh as if I were the funniest 14-year-old on the planet.
I don’t remember a single time when he was disappointed or angry. I don’t remember him telling me to get my shoes out of the middle of the room or to go make my bed. Of course he did all of those things, but that’s not who he was. He was the guy who taught me how to juggle by tossing around pieces of my grandmother’s fine china. The man who threw me flailing through the air at the swimming pool, and then again and again, because, “I think I can get you farther out there this time.” He was the one who let me ride on his shoulders while climbing Stone Mountain. The guy who sweated through telling about how men and women are different and how babies are made when those “differences” bump into each other.
I remember throwing the football with him. Once, maybe. We played a lot of football, but I only really remember that one time, in the front yard. I remember the Willow Tree that we'd established as the end zone. Maybe it was a Dogwood.
I remember that my dad ran a lot. He was a marathon runner, actually. But I don’t have a clear memory of him actually running. Not a single one.
My dad loved Jesus, and he loved to tell people about how God had changed his life. After he got sick, he was even more excited and vocal about God’s love and grace. I remember getting frustrated about that. I was a healthy, confused, and pissed off teenager, and he was about to die with those happy eyes. I didn’t get it back then. I do now.
My story — like all stories — is full of major and minor characters that have impacted me in one way or another. Like the lady I saw in the checkout line at Wal-Mart this weekend. She was a minor character. True, I will not soon forget the chain she had connected to rings in her ear and her nose, but she simply made an impression.
My father, on the other hand, was a major character. Someone around whom the plot of my story has been cast. He helped shape me, mold me, guide me, and direct me to where my story will ultimately lead.
I’m getting to a point, I promise.
We all have a unique opportunity to help shape the people around us. Every day we’re here. The things we do and the memories we create – no matter how faded or heightened they become over time – can make a real, meaningful, and forever-difference in the stories of folks we love. And here’s the really great part: We don’t have to do great, big things to make a difference.
I got cut from my school’s basketball team in eighth grade, and I was devastated. Truth be told, I should have been cut because I wasn’t very good. But my dad knew I was upset, and he ached with me. Later on that day, he proceeded to give me one of the the single, greatest gifts he ever gave me. That night, after I had gone to bed, he wrote me a note. It was scribbled, and hard to make out because he had to write it with his left hand. He was born right-handed, but the disease he had rendered his right arm useless. So, he sat down at the kitchen table that night and wrote this with his left:
Today is going to be a great day.
It’s your day. No one and nothing can make your day anything other than what you want it to be. If the weather calls for rain, decide now that you will enjoy being wet. If the test score is low, work hard to make sure the next one is higher. If treated unfairly for something, smile and be thankful for the many things you’ve not been caught for.
Attitude is everything. Today is not yet anything. Fill it with laughter.
I kept that note for a long time. Somewhere along the way, I lost the original, but the idea of that note – and the words he wrote – have stuck with me. Hardly a week goes by that I don’t think about him and what he must’ve been going through when he took the time to encourage me and reveal some truth about what really matters.
It was such a simple act, but the mark it made on me is indelible.
Now, I may not remember all the details of my relationship with the man I called “Dad,” but I hope that the life he helped shape can become a meaningful character in the story of others.
What about your day today will be remembered? More important, what about your life today will shape the people around you?