It was a strange blessing to get the curt e-mail from my dad announcing his pancreatic cancer. I always expected a somber call from the hospital telling of a sudden, massive heart attack. This way, there was still time. Maybe six months to a year, I thought.
That was overly optimistic. My dad was even more positive. He figured after a little chemo, some radiation and a quick operation, he would be back on the golf course.
Soon after the announcement, the boys and I made the 16-hour door-to-door trek from Boone to his home near Phoenix, Arizona - my wife and daughter went later. He was as thin as a rail and had trouble keeping food down - living essentially on cans of liquid nutritional supplements.
Our last conversations took place in two-hour increments. He would tire easily. The boys and I, with notebook in hand, would delve into the past. What did he really do during World War II and the 28 years at Hughes Aircraft? How did he meet mom and why her - not all the others? What did he talk about with his dad in the warm steam engine room inside the shuttle on Hudson Bay?
God came up as he often does in last conversations. Religion was a difficult subject for dad. He wanted to be a Rabbi at one time. Another time, he claimed to be an atheist. When, through the years I brought up religion, dad became angry and shut down communication. He took a comparative religions course once in college, he bellowed with authority. He knew all about it. It was clearly not a matter of facts, but emotions that formed his reaction.
Why the explosive emotions? Dad opened a small portal in telling of his Bar Mitzvah. The synagogue scheduled the celebration for his Jewish rite of passage on a weekend after he came of age. At the last minute, his ceremony was bumped to a Wednesday night in favor of the son of a wealthy family. Dad was hurt and proclaimed that if his Bar Mitzvah did not happen on that weekend, it would not happen at all. It never happened.
I wondered if that was a small glimpse of a series of wrongs - whether real or perceived - that caused him to drop his strict orthodoxy, marry a Catholic and cling to a religious perspective that had little theological depth other than “we ought to keep the Ten Commandments”.
In the last conversations, dad was willing to talk of God. He was less combative, more resigned. My son asked him who he thought Jesus was.
“He is the king of the Jews,” replied dad though I wondered what that meant to him practically.
My mind drifted to the mid-seventies during the height of the Jesus Movement. I summoned the courage to wear a “Jesus” pin home from school. Dad never said anything. Nevertheless, I felt embarrassed and ashamed as if I had joined the Ku Klux Klan. Mom considered herself a Catholic but stopped going to church because she didn’t like the Pope’s view on birth control. With dad, you just never talked about religion.
It was this spiritual void that was instrumental in my shifting from my family’s non-religion to a radical Christian group that cultivated almost cult-like devotion - meetings every night of the week, all day on Sunday, Bible seminars and activities on every major holiday. Our group lived together, worked together, and spent all of our free time together. For twelve years, this band of believers became my family as I drifted away from my natural one, operating on the premise that Jesus would approve of my giving absolute priority to God’s appointments over religiously lukewarm backsliders. After all, did not Jesus say that those who love father and mother more than him are not worthy of him?
Back in Arizona, my son probed further. “Do you believe Jesus died for your sins?” he asked taking a cue from many Sunday school lessons.
My dad paused thoughtfully. “Well, yes,” he said thoughtfully, “someone had to do that.”
My son was pleased with the answer. Nevertheless, I knew that last conversations had to be more than right words and proper answers. One must deal with the emotional barriers of the heart lest the doctrine of reconciliation is merely a useless phylactery worn upon a Pharisee’s head.
“Dad,” I said, “I know for years I was involved in a religious group that took me away from the family. I know that it robbed us and took away what could have been. I wanted to apologize for my role in taking away from the family. I’m sorry for causing us to drift apart.”
Silence filled the room as this Veteran WWII sailor took in the frank apology. I had never in my 42 years seen him show deep emotion, yet a tear began to run down his face.
“I was waiting for many years to hear that,” he said with voice cracking, “I wanted to hear something like that for a long time.”
I called dad a month later, the day after he moved into hospice. On his move day, he had said that he was going to hospice to die, yet he seemed to be in relatively good condition.
He was not doing well on that day. His breathing was labored and he was having difficulty talking.
“Dad? How are you doing, dad?” I asked
“I have no idea,” he heaved, “I have no idea.”
“Do they have you drugged up? Are you in pain?”
“No. No pain. No pain,” he said and then, “I have to say goodbye.” He hung up.
Two hours later, I received an email informing me he was gone. The conversations were over.