In My Father’s House, Part 1

The day before Father’s Day this year I happened to be parked at the far pumps at a BP gas station and convenience store in Ottumwa, Iowa, filling up. As I squeegeed my windshield I heard a commotion behind me and turned to see a large pickup rock to a sudden stop in front of the convenience store. It wasn’t the sound of the approaching truck that had caught my attention, however, but the not-so-muffled shouting coming from inside the cab.

A man was yelling at a boy, waving his arms and perhaps throwing some litter around. Outside of several f-bombs it was hard to make out what was being said, but it was a one-sided exposition. I casually and automatically looked away as the man got out of the truck, continuing the barrage. “Happy Father’s Day,” I thought, as he stalked off into the convenience store, my own thoughts suddenly dizzy in my head. A couple of minutes later I hung the nozzle back on the pump, and made my way toward the store as well. I had to walk in front of the truck on my way. Not wanting to embarrass the young man further I glanced sideways at him through the windshield and was impressed to see that, though tears were rolling down his cheeks, he had his head up. I turned my head fully toward him, made eye-contact, and winked.

I hope what was communicated was encouragement, a friendly contact and a silent assurance that things will get better.

Yeah, I’ve been there. My own father’s temper has been known to be … expressive. I absorbed my share of it growing up, though I can’t remember now any particular incident or cause, no more than I remember a particular thunderstorm. I mean, I know there were thunderstorms when I was growing up but I don’t remember any specific ones. What does come back to me now, however, is a time when I was in second or third grade and my dad was trying to get his business launched, working long hours away from the house. He must have felt some need to spend some time with me, however, and out of the blue one Sunday afternoon he took me for a special treat: to play miniature golf. I don’t remember where my brother and sister were, but I’m sure I was delighted that I was the only one to get this attention. The problem was, it was an especially hot day and the putt-putt course was laid out on what seemed like acres of cement, none of which could have been very far from my head given my height then.

I don’t know how long we played, but at some point I started to feel dizzy and nauseous. I didn’t know heat stroke from heat rash then but I was definitely sick and my dad was definitely scared. He got me off of the premises, carrying me to his car and laying me down with a wet handkerchief on my face. We went home and he put me in front of the window a/c unit until I recovered. I’m sure he felt bad that his great plan to spend some time with his son had almost ended in disaster; I know I did, though for different reasons. I remember the concern on his face, however, at a time when I might have expected him to be angry.

Another time when he could have gotten angry and didn’t was when I was 16 or 17 and we were anchoring a mobile home. He was steadying the 4-foot anchoring rods in their crosspiece while I swung the 8-lb. sledge to drive them in. At one point I accidentally clipped the upper part of his ear with the handle of the hammer as I repositioned myself for another swing. It drew blood but no explosion, though I’m sure he didn’t like it. (Which also reminds me of a time when we were trying to level and anchor a trailer on the side of a steep hill near Steelville, Missouri. He wouldn’t let me get under the unit as he delicately worked with hydraulic jacks, concrete blocks and wooden shims along the underframe. Just as he was placing a shim and lightly tapping it into place with a hammer a sonic-boom rocked the valley. I had heard of greased lightning up until that time, but I had never seen it until I saw him crab sideways out from under that trailer!)

Family lore has it that my father’s father was known for a volatile temper. I saw a little of it growing up, but other than a couple of years when he lived near us I wasn’t around him that much. Most of the accounts are from stories my uncles would tell at family gatherings. Most folks today will accept that a temper can be passed on to each generation whether by nature or nurture or a spiritual manifestation. Whichever, my father received his inheritance and passed it on. My brother and I heat up about as quickly as he did, though expressing it is an indulgence that I have tried hard to limit and thankfully haven’t seen it in my children.

Anyway, I survived with minimal trauma and with greater memories such as the ones I’ve just described taking precedence. I don’t know what the future holds for the young man and father I saw in Iowa, but I hope the incident was an isolated one that one day will be acknowledged yet set aside in favor of ones happier and more plentiful, for both their sakes.

As I entered the store I tried to think of something to say to the father; something encouraging, in just a few words, that might give him a different perspective. I could come up with nothing in the moment and even now, months later, I still can’t think of the perfect sentence to calm the situation and allay my own fears. My fears were not for the future of that family, or that whatever I said might provoke an additional outburst. My concern was that in speaking to that father I might end up telling him why I was in Iowa that day and telling him where I was going and why, and that neither of us would want to hear that outloud.

You see, the reason I was standing in that gas-station was because my daughters and I were on our way to Missouri to see my dad as a Father’s Day surprise. He had been feeling sick for weeks and experiencing a lot of back pain. Though we could barely breathe the word, our family was concerned that cancer had returned. Thoughts of the past and the future had been folding themselves constantly in my mind during the drive. If it was cancer, would he need chemo? If he needed chemo, would he put himself through that ordeal or — after what had happened to friends of his — say, “To hell with that”?

He was surprised and pleased to see us when we got there, twisting stiffly in his swivel chair to see what the dog was barking at. He got up for hugs all around, his golf shirt stretching a little around the bit of gut his cardiologist had been after him to lose. He didn’t look much different since I had seen him back in December, but I could tell he was in pain from a fractured vertebrae and the subsequent bone biopsy he’d had the day before. We talked some over the weekend about the pain and the possible implications, but tried to keep things light and positive. The test results would be back on Tuesday, I was heading back on Monday.

The girls and I stood around him and prayed before we left. He acquiesced, but it felt to me as if I was throwing a saddle on a newly busted bronco for the first time. I have personally seen and experienced great, even miraculous, results from prayer, and have prayed many times for people, standing on scripture and faith, the words usually come easily as I follow the leading that comes. This was harder, though; so much I wanted to pour into it, so little that seemed to want to come out. Through the long drive home I took some comfort from the knowledge that it is the power in the words, not the eloquence that makes the difference. We arrived home Monday night.

Tuesday brought the word. Lymphoma, stage four. He would start chemo on Wednesday, no fuss. “Let’s get it done.”

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