When I was seven years old, the year-end holiday season was particularly tough for me. My father passed away on November 7th and a quiet heaviness settled over the entire extended family, turning what was normally a loud and boisterous Thanksgiving and Christmas season into a more subdued period of grief.
My father was only forty-six years old, but, to me, he seemed much older than that. He had been born crippled, was in constant pain most of his life and, consequently, rarely sober. It is a sad fact that though his body was rife with many ailments (a weak heart, partial paralysis, asthma and more), it was the drinking, and cirrhosis of the liver, that killed him.
Seven years old was too young to understand that my dad drank because of the pain; or the depression. The only thing I could see was that he was drunk a lot, and that he was mean when he was drunk. Being crippled hindered his ability to chase me to mete out punishment, so I would run when those moments came. That, of course, just made things worse. Nothing made him angrier than being unable to catch me when I ran.
My father and I never had long talks or much in the way of shared experiences. Ours was a relationship of fear – mostly me walking around with the fear that I was going to do or say something that would set him off.
There was a change in him near the end, though. He slowed down his drinking when I was around and tried to have some of those patented "father-son" moments you see in movies with me. On the last day I spent with him, we played catch with an old rubber football. He didn't even complain when he had to chase down my horrible throws. Later that afternoon he got dizzy and fell down a flight of stairs. My father went to the hospital and I went to stay with his sister. A few months later he was dead.
I didn't quite know how to feel or what to think of my father after he died. Was he the man who tried to be my friend near the end? Or was he the man I had known my whole life before those last few weeks? What had suddenly prompted the change in him?
About two weeks before Christmas a present came for me in the mail. It was wrapped in colorful holiday paper with a big gold bow on top. The tag said simply "From Dad".
He never bought me a Christmas present before in my whole life. Mom always bought what few presents we could afford and just put her and dad's name on them. Dad never even seemed to care about the holidays.
On Christmas morning it was the first present I opened. Finding out what was in that box had beenthe only thing on my mind for days. I was never more surprised, or confused, in my life than when I unwrapped my dad's present to find a beautiful children's Bible with a red leather cover, my name embossed in gold on the front.
My father never went to church, never prayed, never even mentioned God. Why would he get me a Bible?
I may never know the answer to that question, but I have a hope that burns inside me. Many years ago, I put another childhood memory into context. I recall that two men visited my dad not very long before his behavior changed. They were strangers to me and, after they left, I asked him who those men were. He seemed deep in thought as he vaguely waved me off and said they were “salesmen”.
It wasn’t a big enough event to take up much space in my curiosity bank, and I never linked it together with the arrival of the Bible several months later. As a Christian adult who has spent some time working in programs that are meant to reach out to the local community and share God with anyone who is open to hearing the message, I think I may now know who those men were.
At least I hope I do.
I pray that God was with them that day, and He was speaking to my father through their hearts. Maybe the change I noticed in him those last few weeks was God. Maybe one day dad and I will get to have that long talk.
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