(Gifts from My Father by Barry Young, Kairos School of Spiritual Foundation)
In a recent gathering of a remarkable group of men whom I count as “soul brothers”, I asked each member to reflect on our fathers. With a mixture of anxiety, affection, and tears, we all shared about the Main Man of our lives. Barry Young, our oldest and perhaps our wisest member, was the last to speak. His story, which grows out of his family’s business (pharmacy) in Bethlehem, has lessons for both generations. Thanks to Barry for generously sharing “Gifts from My Father”.
Beginning in 1947, my family worked in my dad’s pharmacy. My dad believed in the “Family Farm” business model simply because it worked – low overhead and high volume, at least for a small, locally owned neighborhood drug store. We three kids were responsible for snow removal, janitorial services, “jerking sodas”, clerking, and working in the prescription department. When we were “pharmacy techs”, my sister wore a skirt and blouse and my brother and I were expected to wear khakis pants, a shirt, and, as I recall, a paisley tie. Or was it a pheasant?
My father modeled a man who couldn’t understand why everyone wouldn’t want to be a pharmacist. I worked there because I knew it made my father intensely proud. I found the pharmacy to be a clean, honest vocation, which taught me respect for others and myself. Honest work and respecting self and others was the third greatest gift my father gave to me.
It was a typical cold, dreary Pennsylvania February morning. My dad appeared to be gazing past the snow-laden cars as they tread wearily up the icy incline next to the pharmacy and then with a sigh of relief, penetrate the busy intersection of Linden Street and Union Boulevard. It was then that I first noticed the pensive, lonely look in my father’s eyes. Curiosity drove me to ask him if he was OK. He stunned me with his lament about his closest friends, Les Whaley, Charlie Paul, Heine Cutler, Max Littner, and a myriad of other male friends dying. I could feel the angst in my 72-year-old father’s voice as he fought to squelch his painful losses. I wanted to weep with him.
Several weeks passed when, on several occasions, my father attempted to tell me that he had a premonition of his impending death but, sensing unfinished work between us, my anxiety increased and I frustrated his every effort. Finally, he suggested we paint one of our apartments. I knew at that moment, by this unprecedented gesture, he was becoming more desperate to talk.
You had to know my dad to understand the gravity of his simple suggestion. I never, and I mean never, saw my dad do anything with his hands but eat, play, and fill prescriptions. I never saw him turn a screw, or for that matter, a light bulb, hammer a nail or plunge the toilet. To my knowledge he simply had no interest or propensity for manual labor. When household tasks accumulated and were inescapable, he had but one universal response to my mother: “Get the man”. “The man” was anyone except my dad or me. We were mutually inept as fixer-uppers.
I suppose I should have known something important was stirring when my dad, the Great Procrastinator, insisted we go to the lawyer’s office to review his personal documents: his will, contracts, the location of his stocks, and the titles to his house and cars and, now, he was suggesting we paint one of our apartments. We awkwardly carried two ladders, several miscellaneous brushes, and two full cans of paint to the appointed location. We were conjointly careful not to start the actual work. Instead, comfortably seated on two ladders and without interruptions, we talked about his impending demise.
“Do you feel sick”, I asked.
“No”, he replied.
“Are you afraid”, I inquired.
“No, I know I haven’t lived a perfect life, but I trust in the grace of God. I just know I will die between 6 months and a year”.
We talked intimately for several hours, asking and receiving forgiveness for both real and imagined offenses. Clearly, my list was longer and less tidy than my father’s. We ended our afternoon of “manual labor” by returning two unused ladders, several unused brushes, and two full cans of paint. Then we called “the man”, who in this case was a professional painter. Giving yourself permission to “call the man” was another great gift my father gave to me.
There were no predictors to indicate how my life’s direction would be altered after this experience. No road sign or compass indicating the direction I was heading. In retrospect, I wasn’t prepared for the awakening of my interior life; a life where externally nothing changes, yet everything internally is seen through new eyes, a movement away from quick and easy answers and a comfortable, but superficial life.
Unanswered and uninvited questions arose within me asking the most basic of human questions. Who am I and what do I deeply want? Most curious of all was exactly who inside me was asking these costly questions?
Subsequent to our conversation and narrow escape from manual labor, I became aware that dad was fully and joyfully present to whatever he was doing and to whomever he was with. It was as if, “yesterday” was over and “tomorrow” was just a fantasy that only existed in one’s mind. He lived in the present moment. Fears and anxieties fell from him like white dogwood blossoms on a windy May day. Even in my stupor I sensed he was offering his final gift to his family.
Life is a Circle
Eight months later without further conversation or warning, the fatal day arrived. Louise, my wife, and good friends were vacationing in a New York State Park when my brother told me by phone that dad died. Hanging up the receiver, I clearly remember being aware of a giant hole in my being but deep gratitude for our life together. There wasn’t one word or moment I would add to, or subtract from our relationship. The circle of our relationship was complete and whole.
Dutifully and without question I followed my father’s last wishes.
“When the whole family first gathers” he said, “retrieve ‘the box’ from its hiding place in the basement and open it with everyone present.”
I did so with a certain measure of dread, fearing we would see my dad’s life reduced to a series of documents. The humble red shoe box contained but two letters: one letter expressing his love and pride for the very existent of his children and their spouses the other a love letter to my mom. His letter to my mother was a declaration of his love for her which culminated in one succinct but powerful phrase, “I discovered the secret revealed to the apostle Paul, ‘Christ in you’”. These three words, “Christ in you”, uttered first by Paul and then my father, caused the earth to groan under my feet and something shifted within me.
My father spent a lifetime modeling for us how to live, and now, how to die. He affirmed in me on some unfathomable level what I already knew: that we each carry a piece of the Light. For me, this was my father’s final and greatest gift. Through his life and death something new was born in me. Instinctively I knew we were participating in a life altering experience. It was the Cycle of Life, the Paschal Mystery, all over again.
He would have liked that.