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Accepting grace is dad’s final lesson

By David Briggs*
June 19, 2009

The day I lost the ability to cry was in the spring of 1982. I heard a commotion in my parents’ bedroom and walked in to find my mother hitting my father, who was in a wheelchair in the aftermath of a stroke and in the final stages of lung cancer.

The author and his father. A UMNS photo courtesy
of David Briggs.

Seeing her strike this gentle, now defenseless man at the end of his life was a decisive moment. It hardly should have been surprising that an alcoholic, cared for all her life, would lash out in frustration at being placed in the role of caretaker.

Still, there were no more tears left as I separated her from my father. I was adopted, so in one sense I was abandoned once. With the imminent passing of a man who had been a source of strength and love, I would again be alone. Crying would do no more good now than it had as a child, mourning forgotten birthdays, ruined holidays and other events less pleasant to remember in a household with an unfortunate soul who spent much of her life passed out.

What I thought I was learning seeing my father’s shrunken body retreat from the drunken flailing of my mother was the need to be tough in this world. The strength my father had – to rise up from poverty, to work six or more days a week all his life to provide for a family, to have a kind word to say about everyone, to stand up to his neighborhood in defense of low-income housing, to deliver food to the poor in the midst of historic racial tensions – could not protect him now.

What I failed to see was an imitation of Christ’s suffering.

Faith by example

Growing up with my father, I learned to equate strength with gentleness, personal responsibility with hard work and caring for others.

Burdens could be placed in his way. Just not limits.

He was valedictorian of his high school class, but he had to pass up college to go to work to support his family. After serving overseas in World War II, he swept floors in a screen printing shop. He would work his way up to buy the small company, but never stopped sweeping floors or treating every job in the place with equal dignity.

When people cheated him, taking work and not paying for it, he would not seek conflict. It was enough for him to shake off the dust of that experience, and never do business with that individual or company again. He never criticized those who were prejudiced, yet would never utter a prejudiced remark.

“ I learned to be a man who defined himself by how he lived up to his responsibility to others. Admitting weakness was not part of the deal. ”

What he did do for most of my childhood, a time of hot summers and race riots in New Haven, Conn., was deliver food to the needy in the poorest neighborhoods of the city as part of an ecumenical Christian group. When low-income housing was proposed for the end of our street, he refused to join neighbors in protest.

He would never strike me, nor anyone else. He stood at the back of the church each week, serving as an usher. Yet no one who sat up front would be a more faithful attender. When bad weather closed the roads, we would walk up and down a steep hill through snow drifts not to miss a Sunday service. In hard times, he worked even harder to support us and keep his employees working.

There was a physical and emotional price to be paid. It shocked and worried me the few days he would ever admit to being too sick to work. In accord with the values of the time, particularly in a tight-knit, first- and second-generation immigrant neighborhood, no one would even admit my mother was an alcoholic, or use the term alcoholism.

I learned to be a man who defined himself by how he lived up to his responsibility to others. Admitting weakness was not part of the deal. You accept obstacles and overcome them. You keep your fears – and tears – to yourself.

Letting God in

The first time I saw my father cry was just before Christmas. He was home from the hospital, and knew, in addition to the stroke, he was in advanced stages of lung cancer.

We were in the driveway outside his house when I gave him my gift, a letter I wrote trying to describe how much he meant to me and the world. As I handed him the letter, I told him I loved him, something else we understood instinctively but almost never said out loud. When he finished reading, tears streamed down his face.

For the first time in his life, he was physically unable to be the caretaker. He was free to receive grace from others. He was free to be himself, a vulnerable human being face to face with his own mortality.

At the time, I could not see the significance of this breakthrough because I was trying to be strong for him. I had moved back into my parents’ house, and was trying to balance the demands of my own job, keeping his business alive to provide income for my parents and spending as much time as possible with my father. At this level of stress, the horrific scene of my father being attacked only could have a numbing effect.

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If I opened my eyes, as he was doing, I, too, could have seen the face of Christ in people all around us.

Two old friends who had run companies stepped in with financial and hands-on support to keep the printing company going. A local restaurant donated banquet space for his birthday party, which brought together more than 100 friends and neighbors. I would lift him and his wheelchair up the steps of a church that after his death would build a beautiful permanent handicapped ramp.

In the Gospel accounts, Jesus weeps over the death of Lazarus and on behalf of the people of Jerusalem. He anguishes over his own fate before saying “your will be done.”

My father would shed many more tears in the months leading up to his death as we were able to say words of meaning to one another that had always been in our hearts.

In his wheelchair, even at the moment blows rained down upon him, he was more fully Christian than ever before. He had learned there is grace in response to suffering. He was not alone.

Maybe someday, I will have the strength – and the faith – to cry again.

It would be my father’s final gift.

*Briggs is news editor of United Methodist News Service in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: David Briggs, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5472 or dbriggs@umcom.org.

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