Chapter 26: Aw, Dad, you didn’t … Did you?

This is a guest series by Phil Cate. If you missed previous chapters, you can read them all by clicking on ‘Phil Cate’ under the Categories heading in the right panel. Watch for new installments every Friday.

All material is copyrighted and cannot be used without permission of the author.

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Chapter 26
Aw, Dad, you didn’t … Did you?

       Before I give you my last examples of Biblical principles that saved my butt, I’ve got one more story for you. One of the last principles is related to this story, so fasten your seat belt.

       A couple of months after Kay and I had reconciled and I had moved back into the house, we were invited one Saturday in late summer to a tailgate picnic with friends at the Auburn Game.

       Through a strange set of circumstances (I won’t bore you with details), the tailgate party was canceled and we had driven down for nothing. Kay and the kids decided they’d spend the day with other folks we knew at Auburn, and I had a good excuse to go play the Robert Trent Jones golf trail, since the tailgate party was a wash. Alright, alright, I had planned to golf all along, but let’s not go into that.

       I had a mysterious feeling through that entire round. My Dad and I had met there and played a couple of years prior to this day and we’d had a really good day. He and I had four or five really special days on various courses over the last five years or so, and one of those days had been on this course in Auburn. I felt his spirit there all day long, on this day after the tailgate washed out.

       I need to back up here for a second. As I told you earlier, when Kay and I were separated Dad was really not a big fan of us reconciling. Because of this, I had chosen to limit conversations with him. I told him I really didn’t want to talk about Kay unless he supported me saving my marriage. That really set him off, and he decided to sever all communications with me. He quit returning my calls; he wouldn’t answer emails.

       Out of the blue, I got an email from him that was copied to my sister, listing an address in Phoenix and saying, “I thought you all might want my new address.” He had lived in Los Angeles for twenty years with his second wife and had never indicated any desire to leave. To the contrary, they were very involved in Saddleback Church in L.A.; and as far as I knew, would stay there forever. I called several times to try to get an answer as to why he had up and moved, but got no reply.

       Now as I was saying, I had felt something nostalgic and magic about this round of golf. I was totally alone out there. It was Saturday football time and the golf course was completely empty. The course is in Opelika, Alabama, a few minutes from Auburn University. It’s out in the wilderness, and the solitude and beauty and quiet were quite memorable that day.

       Yet I couldn’t get Dad off my mind. Even though he could be so difficult relationally and he struggled so badly getting along with my wife and kids and me, I felt him — and it was the good side of him that day. I felt him walking the golf course with me, his long arm around me.

       I walked off the 18th green and went up to the clubhouse, a gracious southern plantation-style building. I stood on the huge veranda overlooking the beautiful Alabama countryside with an exquisite golf course flowing through it. I looked into the setting sun, knowing I was looking toward Montgomery only thirty minutes away; and I thought to myself, We never should’ve left Montgomery. Our family would have survived and thrived if we had stayed in the sleepy town with the likes of Ms. Bass and Ms. Menefee and that wonderful church.

       I remember thinking, Montgomery was the last time I saw Dad happy.

       Just then my phone rang.

       I answered the phone and the voice on the other end said, “Phil, this is Steve Gallimore. I’m a friend of your dad’s, and man, this cancer thing has gone on long enough without you knowing. The time is short, and he didn’t want me to tell you, but I just can’t not tell you anymore.”

       I said, “So my dad is on the verge of death?” He answered, yes. I asked him why no one had called me. Steve said, “Your dad made me promise not to tell you.”

       I immediately drove back to pick up Kay and the girls; I couldn’t really think, but I helped them load up and we headed back to Atlanta.

       I called my dad a couple of times and no one ever answered, so I’d leave messages on the answering machine. His wife called me back once or twice and was cordial and apprised me of the situation. 

       Finally, she and I decided that I’d call and she’d hand the phone to Dad so I could talk to him. When I called, she handed him the phone and said, “It’s Phil”; and he just handed the phone back to her.

       I was not entirely surprised, but was very, very hurt. Of course it hurt. My dad was within a few hours of leaving this earth forever, and he didn’t want to take my call.

       I called Steve again at this point to try to get my arms around this thing. He told me that my father had told him not to tell me or my sister that he was sick. Steve had told him, “Frank, how do you think they’re going to feel?” And my dad replied, “Well, maybe I’ll make them a DVD saying goodbye and leave that for them.” Steve really pushed hard for me to go to Phoenix and say goodbye, but I still wasn’t sure what to do.

       My dad’s wife eventually called me back and said, “Phil, you should come out here.” I thought, I’m not sure that’s a good idea; he refused to talk to me, he refused to tell me he was dying, he may refuse to see me. I had spent three or four years and thousands of dollars in counseling trying to cope with Frank-Phil stuff already. I don’t know if I can take this.

       Everyone urged me to go, so I did; but Dad was almost gone when I got there. He was skin and bones and barely coherent. I walked in and said, “Dad, Ashton has our dealmaker skills; she’s trying to talk me into trading in the hamster for a puppy.” I got a mild smile, and after that he was non-responsive.

       He passed that night. The hospice service came in and asked if there were any things I’d like to place on his body to be cremated with him. I had taken some pictures of the girls with me, and I placed them on his chest and kissed him on the forehead and left the room.

       His wife told me he had left his golf clubs for me, the ones he used when I was a kid. I went into his closet and got some of his shirts and things, but I couldn’t wait to get to the airport. I kept wondering, Was I that bad that my father wanted to leave this earth and not say goodbye to me?

       During the entire process, I realized something that really staggered me. Divorce is the gift that just keeps on giving. I had been in the house while my father passed from this world, and I had shared the experience with a relative stranger. Don’t get me wrong, my dad’s wife was cordial to me and was losing her husband and she was clearly going through something very traumatic herself. Yet I couldn’t help feeling and thinking, Where is my mother? We should be going through this together, and we’re not. It just felt unnatural beyond words. That helped cement in my mind that God was all-knowing and all-wise; He knew how we’d feel as children of a divorce even twenty-two years later. He knew nobody wins in a divorce.

       Dad must have had similar thoughts. His wife told me one of his last declarations was about being divorced. Towards the end, she had asked Dad a few questions about things in his life. One of the questions she asked was about regrets, and Dad said he wished he had not gotten divorced. His wife was not offended by this in any way, as she knew he was just expressing something he viewed as a costly personal failure.

       When she told me this, I couldn’t help but think that his divorce was also the reason that my sister and I were not around for his last few months. Obviously, if he had still been married to my mother, she would have certainly notified me of his illness whether he liked it or not. It also made me wonder if he thought I was upset with him because of the way he and I had struggled relationally at times. When I heard he was sick, I was just as sorrowful about our past clashes as he was; and if Mom had been around, Dad and I would’ve probably been able to have a conversation about that, but it just wasn’t in the cards.

       The only thing I could do with this was move forward. Dad was gone and I couldn’t undo what I had done or what he had done. I made a pledge right then and there to myself that I would do whatever I had to do to hold my own marriage together, not only for my sake or Kay’s, but for the kids and their kids and anyone that would be affected. Divorce is so traumatic for everyone involved, and every marriage is worth every possible attempt to save. Now I plead with people that I love to just keep trying and keep on seeking solutions, regardless of how bleak it appears to be.

       My father’s funeral in Paris, Tennessee, was very difficult for me and other family members. Steve Gallimore, who had called to tell me Dad was dying, was the pastor of the church where the services were held. Steve is a very outgoing and likable guy, and he was one of the people that spoke and talked of Dad’s good qualities. All of the clergy involved spoke highly of my dad. Yet Dad had struggled with so many of the family that sat in that service.

       The service was all planned without any input from me; not that I am much of a planner, but no one ever even involved me. I wasn’t sure that many of these folks even knew Dad had kids. It really left me in a pool of hurt.

       My dad’s wife had a friend come to the service from California. Her husband happened to be a pastor at a well-known church in southern California, and he approached me almost immediately and asked me if I’d have coffee with him. I cautiously agreed, as I had no idea what he wanted.

       I met him in the lobby of our hotel that evening. I was curious and immediately asked what was on his mind. He politely and tactfully began probing as to why my father would not want his children notified that he was dying.

       I had to respond truthfully with “I have no idea.”

       He indicated he’d been around my father towards the end and had pleaded with him to contact his children, but Dad had refused. He said in all of his years in ministry, he had not seen this happen before. We chatted about Dad for a while and that was it.

       Looking back, I know I was still quite angry and hurt that no one had told me Dad was sick. And maybe I was angry with myself, as I had been leaving messages and sending emails with no response. Maybe I should’ve just jumped on a plane and flown out there. It had just never occurred to me my dad would choose to leave this earth forever without saying goodbye to me. I still don’t understand it, nor does anyone, really.

       Steve Gallimore later told me of his tug-of-war with Dad on the same subject. Actually, Steve finally contacted me against Dad’s will, I think just out of a feeling of wanting to do what was right. Otherwise, I would’ve surely never even known Dad was sick. That would’ve been quite ugly, and I’m thankful Steve followed his heart.

       God shows up in the strangest places, though. Two very kind faces approached me in the hall after the services. Benny Nolen and his beautiful wife Carol Ann had driven up from Montgomery, Alabama. They had been friends with my mom and dad when we lived there thirty years prior.

       Benny’s wife walked up and touched me on the face and had the sweetest empathetic look on her face. She knew I was a mess, and she said, “Phil, all I can tell you is your dad loved you so much.” I really needed to hear that at that moment. I don’t know why, but I just did.

       I came home to Atlanta, and the mourning was tough. I didn’t get out of bed for a few days. I was mad at Dad and mad at everybody that had kept this secret of his illness. I thought, How dare they? I had a right to know. I had a right to say goodbye. I guess I felt really violated.

       I kept thinking of what Benny’s wife had said, and it helped me process the pain a little better.

       One day, I drove on a whim to Frazer, John Ed’s church in Montgomery, just to pray and go back in time and try to make sense of it all. It was literally on a whim; I think I left work to go grab some lunch and ended up three hours away in Alabama. I left a note for John Ed thanking him for speaking at the services. In the sanctuary where I’d been as a kid, I prayed for God to show me some answers.

       While driving back that night, I called Steve Gallimore in Tennessee (again on a whim) and asked him basically what was up with Dad? He said, “Phil, I don’t know what all of that was about.”

       I threw Dad under the bus a bit during this conversation, even knowing that Steve and my dad had been pretty close buddies. I had no idea, but a light was about to come on for me that I really needed.

       Steve said, “Phil, when I’m not preachin’, I sell farm implements, ’cause you can’t make a living preachin’ in a small town. My family is in the implement business and there’s one device we won’t stand behind. It’s called a manure slinger” (although I think he used a different word than manure). “You know why we don’t stand behind those, Phil? Because you get manure slung all over you. For whatever reason, Phil, we all have been a manure slinger at times, and we all sometimes get caught behind one. In this case, you got caught behind one.”

       He said, “I don’t know what was going on with Frank, but I know you need to forgive him and know he loved you.” At that very moment, I got a whole new insight. If I stayed angry with Dad, I might as well take his manure slinger off his tractor and bolt it to mine. And Steve would be exactly right; everyone in my wake would get caught in it.

       I had to forgive. I had to do what these sweet people had told me. I had to know the truth that Dad loved me, and I had to know I loved him. All the junk he and I had created in our power struggle had to go. Many of the best memories of my life were times with him; why focus on the hurt that we had both created with our hard-headedness?

       At that very moment, I could feel his arm around me, walking off the course, sharing a root beer. I could actually see past the garbage and love my dad. I could remember only the good. I was free.

       The unbolted manure slinger drifted farther and farther into the distance as I drove away from it. With the help of some incredible people, I had been taught to forgive and to feel forgiven. Incredibly, they weren’t the only ones that were teaching me what forgiveness was all about.

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Next: Forgiveness      

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Phil Cate is a resident of the Atlanta, Georgia, metro area and runs a small medical equipment resale business. He is available for speaking engagements and can be reached at PhilC@ER3.biz or by phone at 678-429-0901

Printed by permission from Phil Cate, Mama told me Jesus saved my soul, but who was gonna save my butt??? Confessions, lessons, and revelations of a born rebel, © 2008.

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