This month marks the 20th anniversary of my dad’s death. Grief has a way of hanging around. Today, I want to share the story of my dad included in Green Hearts.
My dad and I had a special relationship, and he was the person I looked up to most in the world. When I was just a boy, he would take me fishing regularly. I also remember him holding me in his arms and asking me if I knew how much he loved me. His answer was always, “Big much.” In my heart and mind, I can still hear his voice saying those words today as if he were standing in the room with me. “Big much” was his way of keeping the message simple, clear, and memorable. Despite being diagnosed with kidney failure when I was in middle school, my dad continued to work full-time while on home dialysis well into my high school years. He also continued to be a loving, caring, and available father.
I remember many late nights when he and I would hang around in the kitchen after my mom went to bed. We would eat leftovers and talk about whatever was on my mind. Reflecting on it, I realize now that his sickness was, in many ways, a gift to me because he was less consumed with work and more available. Growing up with sickness in your immediate family changes the way you see each moment. Watching the man you most admire decline slowly and die during your developmental years changes the way you see the world. He eventually retired on disability, and I went off to college. There is much of his story that I missed over the next four years. However, one thing never changed. I would always call him when I couldn’t get my head right.
The word that describes my dad best is “wisdom.” Fred Cutchins was a serious student of God’s Word and served as both a deacon and teacher in his church. He was one of the wisest and best-studied men in my small hometown. He earned a PhD in counseling psychology from Georgia State University in 1976, the year before my birth. When I was born, my brother was sixteen, and my sister was twelve. I grew up as the “baby” of the family and also like an only child because my siblings were so much older than I. My dad was a reserved and private man. Just weeks before he died, I was at home visiting. It was the first weekend in December, and I had come home from college to study and prepare for exams. I can remember spending time with him and enjoying conversations, yet again, with him about life. At this point, his health was not good, but he was at home.
One moment from that weekend stands out from the rest. He asked me to help him get dressed. Neither of us knew that would be one of our last times together. There was a moment when we looked at each other, and it felt as if our hearts and minds connected deeply. I knelt to help him put on his socks and shoes for the day and glanced up to see his eyes already looking in my direction. Neither of us said a word, but the connection between a son and his father has never been so strong. I could sense his gratitude and love toward me. I returned to college, and he died only a few weeks later.
I can still remember being woken up in the night. I received the phone call that I had dreaded since the day he was diagnosed with kidney failure years before: “Your father has died.” His presence in my life up to that point had been constant and stabilizing. A new and unwelcomed normal began to take over my heart. The days and years after my dad’s death were not easy ones. There were so many ways our lives were intertwined that each day became a journey of absence. He would miss the birth of my children. They would never know him the way I did. Today, I tell my two daughters that he would have loved to know them. However, it is not the same as having him there asking them, “Do you know how much I love you?” I am sure his answer would be “Big much!”
At times the waves of grief would come and go. As the years went by, the pain seemed to be fading away, and I would begin to think that my journey with grief had ended. It became more natural and more comfortable to talk about him without tearing up and wrestling back the grief. I thought I was finally done with swallowing back the pain and could move on with only the happiness of the great memories I had made with my dad. Years after I thought I had mastered the art of moving on from grief, I was driving across town to work one morning. I was in my first job as a public school teacher. It was a typical spring day; the sun was shining, and I was enjoying a cup of coffee in the car as I thought about the day ahead.
I had gotten up early for a long run; I was training for a marathon. I felt on top of the world as I listened to my favorite playlist in the car on the way to work. My mind was free to think and dream, and I began to find myself deep in thought about something. Honestly, I don’t remember what it was, and it doesn’t matter. I got to the point that I couldn’t seem to get my mind right about whatever it was. I was stuck. Out of sheer habit, I grabbed my cell phone and called my dad. I was so deep into the routine of my day that I had forgotten he had died.
The previous routine of calling my dad for all those years when I had a question and was stuck had resurfaced momentarily. I wasn’t thinking; I even held the phone up to my ear and let it ring several times before it hit me. He is not there. He is not going to answer. At that moment, the grief of losing my dad flooded into that perfect morning and wrecked me all over again. I had to pull over to the side of the road, where I cried and cried for the better part of an hour. I even had to call in sick that morning. I think I cried more intensely in that moment than I had the weeks and months after his death.
Grief has a way of hanging around. So, what is your story? Life is not skipping from mountain peak to mountain peak. There are valleys. However, when we lift our eyes, we find the goodness of God in the worst of times.