My Dad has a large tumor on his pancreas, strongly suggestive of cancer. This is, of course, a dreadful thing, terrible and deadly. We have been aware of a potential problem only for a very few days, and so the news is still fresh for us. We are hurting, of course, but I think following Dad’s lead in trusting in God’s good hand in this hard providence. I have been, as we all are in such times, alternately downcast and braced, sometimes (somehow) at the same time.
The details go from grim, to somewhat hopeful (he will have surgery to remove the tumor on April 1), once things looked really bad, but we have some reason to hope that the cancer has not spread yet. However you interpret the news, it has been a trying time. A time to weep, and mourn. But also, strangely, a time to be thankful and glad. Sincerely.
I can’t speak for everyone else (Mom, my brothers and sister and our families) in every detail, but I can tell you we all love and respect Dad immensely. He is universally loved, deeply appreciated, and highly-regarded. His children all bless him, and his friends are legion and located all around the world. If it were possible to see (I see it in part), the collage of faces of those he has loved, discipled, fed spiritually and otherwise, it would span the spectrum of color and language, nation, and age. Vietnamese, Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Ndebele, Shona, English, Scottish, Welsh, Puerto Rican, Americans of many stripes. Red and yellow, black and white…Many.
He has been wonderful to me, and hundreds more. So, the idea of losing him feels, well, catastrophic. At least in a sense. This means I have had those questions and complaints people so often bring to God in such times. They are real and heartbreaking and I am still making my way through them.
I wrote the following during one of those battles with despair, when God gave me joy.
I can focus on what may, sooner than I wanted, be taken from me. Or, I can focus on the great gift I have received. One is a pathway to depression and disconnection, the other to a –sad, yes, sober, yes, but true– contact with the deep reality of the world and my own story in it. God means a million things, but is not mean. He gives and takes away, but is neither pernicious nor capricious. My feelings at every moment cannot be a standard by which to judge the universe, still less the universe’s God. So through this valley of the shadow of death I’ll walk, grateful and probably too much afraid at many times. But not afraid of the result in Dad, or me, only the terrible dangers we’ll be written into on our way to becoming the characters God means us to be. Love suffers all sort of injury. I have and will suffer great sadness for love. But I will not, cannot, follow another way than the way of love. God is love. And I love my Dad. Whatever comes, these two realities of the world must reconcile in the end. Meanwhile, I must be honest with myself, with every emotion and every pain and walk through it with my Dad, under God. I would be a faithful son in every way, God help me. My Dad has certainly been faithful to me.
And I want to live there, frail as I am.
Don Smith is a lovely man. I have always wanted to be like my Father. He has been close and reachable, while somehow still high and heroic in my imagination. He is a very good man. He has received much from the Lord and served the Lord with his life’s work.
When we were kids, Dad would always leave us at school, or the ball field, or gym (wherever) with these words.
“Don’t forget whose boys you are.”
I have tried to always remember that. I have tried to remember that everything I do reflects upon, and carries on, the heritage I’ve been given. I am a son and a steward. This means so much to me. Especially when coupled with another of Dad’s oft-repeated admonitions: “Do a little better.” Dad has never been threatened by the specter of his children exceeding him, but rather delighted. His words call for building on to the foundation we’ve received, for going on –further up and further in.
This is something else I wrote in the middle of this, early on after receiving the news. I seem to process things through verse, as poor as it often is.
Confessions of a Worried Son
My Father, oh my Father.
Be well this day and never fail.
How can it be that you suffer and decline?
Young men jump and run, hardly able not to strut,
and you, in a decline?
Have they courted danger for duty in the Mekong Delta?
Visited the afflicted in a Zulu township at midnight?
Endured slanders from ignorant fools?
Fathered five children?
Grandfathered more than twenty?
Been a father from God to hundreds more all over the world?
Why do young men strut, their glory and their shame?
When you are declining like the late fall, graceful and ominous?
The young men are like gods and you, a withering farmer.
Your fields are wide and beautiful.
Your lands a lavish gift,
to a hundred-thousand others.
Blooming, bright, and happy,
Food, plowed and planted,
for a million souls, hungry and hopeless.
Shade for countless playing children,
laughing carelessly, happy and forgetful,
of who planted these trees under God.
Acres and acres into the horizon,
farther even than you could ever see squinting.
But you decline, my Father, oh my Father.
And I thrive.
Am alive and go on and on like a sacred river.
And you, my source, clotted up and choked.
I am desperate for Moses and the 82nd Airborne,
to part the seas and clear the danger.
For a moment the young men sicken me.
I would trade them all for you, well and good.
I am bewildered by God.
The young men look at their strength,
They notice how glorious they are.
But your eyes have been on God,
your heart inclined to him and his people.
Black and white and every blessed shade or hue, loved by you.
Loved by God in you.
I am a grateful son.
I try to torture myself with recollections of my own failures toward you.
I try to find the ways I’ve hurt you, caused you pain.
But you have absolved me every day, so that nothing’s in my way.
Given every grudge away.
All my life to the end of my days,
You will haunt me with grace.
There is no trace of guilt in me.
I am free.
The sons are free.
I have inherited goodness, a level land.
from your hand.
I love you, oh my Father.
You are the best man.
And lest this feel like the sentimental ramblings of a frightened man, blind to the defects of his family, let me assure you I am definitely afraid and definitely rambling and definitely aware of our defects. It’s not the time to enumerate them, but rest assured that I am, in my life, perhaps more prone to dwell on them than I should be. In any case, we are what we are, are who we are. Flawed and forgiven, becoming more than we were –in Christ. And the refrain through that song, for me, is gratitude. I know many notes are off, and I know I can’t even hear all the ones which are out of tune. No doubt many sound great to me because they are so familiar. But the echo of this song is a cause for joy for me, and thankfulness to the God who does miracles.
My Dad has lost both of his parents in the past 15 months. When my Grandfather died, I was heartbroken. It was such a deep wound. And he was in his nineties. When my Grandmother died it only added on to the pain. You have probably been there. I still cannot keep from weeping when I see my Papaw’s picture, surprised into tears by an image of him, alive and well, looking at me through a screen. One of my prayers during those days, especially when Papaw died, was “Not too soon for my own Father, please God. Not too soon.”
It’s strange how something you have been terrified of, one of the worst things you can imagine coming upon you, can result in gratitude. I don’t know how long I will have my Dad here. I hope for many happy years. I cannot be certain of that. I hate Death and I will hate that bastard every day for all my years, longing for Christ to finally finish off this forbidding, final enemy. I will hate Death especially whenever it takes my Father. But no matter how the future of the story goes, I will have a backstory to be grateful for. And a big part of that is having a Father whose life has not been a slander against the Father in heaven. Perhaps there is little more good in the world. Certainly, this is a good from which a thousand others bloom and flourish.
And more than a fine backstory, you would not believe what happens later in the tale.
The conspiracy of goodness that has been my life,
I recollect in silence.
For once my frustrated sighs are quieted,
In holy reverence.
Gardens grow on graves.
The true New World is my home and hope,
This shadow I have seen,
And loved and hated all my life will,
Only be a place I’ve been.
When beneath my vine, I fear not.
So the terror that now threatens me,
Is only another day, I find,
Another chapter in the tale,
A fine tapestry on the wall behind,
The inevitable, eternal feast.
Please pray for my Dad, and the rest of us. Especially on April 1 in the early morning.