A Father’s Day Remembrance
The Memories, Love and Lessons That Came From Our Dads
by Michael Spencer
The more time passes, the more I love my dad, S.L. “Sim” Spencer, who passed away in 1993. Maybe it has to do with walking through more and more of the life that he lived, as I grow older and watch my kids grow up, and I find myself so often in the identical places dad was in with me. Or maybe it has to do with seeing people as God sees them- after they’re gone.
Robert Capon taught me that, in death, we see people much more as God sees them: all things reconciled by His grace and endless, amazing love for imperfect people. A person only seen in the distorted images of a subjective experience is seen differently in the more gracious lens of God’s mercy. But this perspective only appears as life is ended, and suddenly we find all the missing and neglected pieces coming together, with divine kindness to make it all clear.
That’s been my experience with my dad. I came along late in life, the only child of a second marriage. He was just a year younger than I am now when I was born, with a failed marriage and failed family already in the books. I think it was easier for him to be a dad when I was small, because he loved to laugh and be the one showing me how to fish and shoot and hunt arrowheads. But when I got older, it was more difficult, and we fought ferociously like a lot of families during the sixties and seventies. If I could change anything in my life, it would be things I said in those arguments.
My dad was sick most of the time I was growing up. First with heart disease, then heart attacks, then a crushing five-year depression that took away everything he loved to do. He was an outdoorsman, who wanted nothing more than to provide enough for his family that he could hunt and fish and tramp around with his brothers and friends in the woods. He wanted to introduce me to this life, and when I was small it was fine, but as a teenager, I wanted nothing to do with those plans. So the depression took away his pleasures, and I took away the rest by being a selfish, ignorant brat.
For those years, my only memory is dad sitting in a chair with his hand over his face. I didn’t understand the disease, but accused him of being selfish. I didn’t understand the medications, the hospitalizations, the shock treatments, the shame, the stigma or the loneliness. It would be years later that I would grow enough as a human being to understand some of my dad’s suffering- and how I had added to it.
One day, I bought a CB radio, an expensive faddish purchase for my car. Dad thought it was ridiculous, and railed about it for days like he did about every dollar I spent after I got a job. But a funny thing followed. Within six months, my dad had bought hundreds of dollars of CB and amateur radio equipment for himself. He plunged into the hobby with delight, finding his way out of the world of depression and isolation through the airwaves. He took on a new name, initially the handle “Two Bits,” then “Lee,” a name he’s always preferred over his own. And something else happened. We found each other again. First, as CB radio buddies, and then in other ways. We stopped fighting, and began laughing, talking and spending time together again. I began to appreciate his warmth with people and his many friends. I admired his practical knowledge and wide experience. He was proud of my calling as a preacher. We forgave the past and forged a lasting friendship.
Very soon, I was away at college, then in ministry and finally, married. Dad began to decline in physical health even as he began to recover in mental health. Our visits were all too rare, but they were frequent enough for me to gain some time repenting of my previous foolishness. Whenever possible, I would get him into the car and we would just drive. Drive to all the lakes and woods and fields that he had loved so much. Now he would tell me stories, and honestly, I think I enjoyed his recollections more than I ever would have enjoyed the original experiences.
My dad had five grandsons by his other kids, but his failures had put distance between himself and his first family that he wouldn’t/couldn’t go back over. So there were few visits, fewer pictures and phone calls, and little else. Instead, there was only hollow distance and a shallow formality. So he lavished love on my kids to make up for that failure, teaching my daughter to walk when my wife and I were on a trip, and laughing so hard around my son that it took twenty years off his face. I am convinced he somehow mysteriously bequeathed his entire incredible sense of humor to my son. My kids gave him all the joy a grandparent could want. On his eightieth birthday, we made it a big party for Papaw, and I could not help but feel things had come full circle. The delight I know he took in me as a child, but that mental illness and my selfishness had taken away, God had given back to him as an old man.
Dad declined rapidly, and died suddenly in the summer of 1993. On my last visit home, he asked me if I really believed in heaven?
Now, almost ten years later, I see in my dad so much that is the treasure of life. His endless laughter. His mind for jokes. His tenderness and friendliness. His deep devotion to God and his constant prayers for others. His wisdom and simplicity and wonder. An eastern Kentucky mountain man with an eighth grade education, his children and grandchildren have lived in a different world, but we all look back to him with admiration and affection. I miss him more every day.
More and more, I see him as God sees him. All the pain and depression and loss bound up and made, somehow, into the crowns of gold the righteous wear. His struggles and disappointments, sins and human frailties, all transformed into the glorious garments of the redeemed. In heaven’s city, I think he has found the woods, and the water and many old, good friends. And here below, he has left me the path to the same.