Amazing Grace : In memory of my father
It’s been three months since dad passed away. He died on his birthday, which seems like something he’d do. I sometimes wonder if he died because he knew that I was coming to see him that day on the red eye from LAX. I just had to see him. The reality had hit me hard the day before – he’s really dying. I hadn’t allowed myself to believe it and even now, I don’t want to. I booked a same day flight. But I didn’t make it in time. His body had already been taken. I knew mom got him out of there quickly to fulfill some unspoken wish my dad had. I know that he would’ve wanted it that way. He didn’t want me to see him like that. To see all the tumors which covered his face. He didn’t want me to see how the cancer had withered his body to a shell of what it once was. I stared at the empty hospital bed in the living room by the open window, light bathing it through the window. Nothing felt the same in the house without him in it. The whole world seemed different. Just like that. He was gone.
I wanted to share the following story with him before he died, but I didn’t. I know he knew how I felt and we didn’t need words between us. I wrote most of it a couple years ago as part of a book that still lies dormant in my computer, hiding in memories. Sometimes the memories that stay with us aren’t the big life events, but the small moments that brush over us in an evening walk. They seem to become part of an eternal tapestry that never fades, woven by love itself.
Amazing Grace : In memory of my father, John States (July 29, 1949 – July 29, 2015)
Time had not blemished the little white church nor it’s white wooden steeple which reached up to the heavens above the tangle of dangling gray moss. Dad and I opened the creaky doors of his pickup truck and made our way to the pastor’s office. The oaks swayed gracefully and no sound was heard but the wind rippling through the leaves. Surrounded by orange groves and winding shell roads, this place hadn’t seen all that much change since it’s founding in the 1800’s. I remember sitting in those wooden pews, red leather bound hymnal in hand, belting out The little white church in the vale with the congregation while the organist hunched over the keys. There were so many memories here – some of loss and some of joy and my mind is swept with images.
Dad chewed on his gum nervously, a twitch in his hand and glaze in his tired eyes. He smelled like he’d double doused with the Old Spice. In a week, he would finally get to walk his little girl down the aisle, ten years too late. How many times had I heard him pout “I never got to walk my daughter down the aisle like every other father.”?
“Yeah, I know, dad. Well, maybe at the ten year” I would reply in the nonchalant, tough it up attitude that he’d always used with me.
And now here we were, ten years after I stood in a small chapel in Las Vegas with only my friend Christine present, and took Jared Murphy as my husband. And my, how things had changed since then. That little twenty minute wedding suited us at the time. We fit it into our work schedules with the same organization as a trip to the dentist, setting out a date when Jared had a day off work. I barely knew that couple in Vegas and they certainly never knew all that lay before them. But our little ceremony at the Little Church of the West was everything a true union should have been. It was intimate and sacred and as I held the plastic roses bought last minute at a gas station, there was nothing artificial about it at all.
We sat and listened to the new pastor, who was uncharacteristically charismatic for our small country chapel. We started discussing the details of what we would do and how we would stand and what would be said. Dad had his weathered, callused hands crossed politely on his chest, legs fidgeting, and there was a whisper of a smile as he hung on every word the pastor said. Yes, he was taking this serious like a first-time father of the bride! I couldn’t stop looking at him and smiling. I thought he might be dying for a cigarette by now, but he looked very … well, excited. It made me wish I would’ve given him this all those years ago. He’d always been much more sentimental than mom and I’d always loved that about him.
“I was thinking about walking down the aisle to Amazing Grace.” I interjected.
Why was I feeling nervous? I had found an instrumental version on the internet and I thought the pianist could play it since mom had offered to pay for music. Live music was already a step up from my first ceremony, where we came down to the recorded wedding march. The pastor gave me a strange look. And so did dad for that matter. Why was everyone giving me a hard time about this song?
Dad scratched his clean shaven face. “Sabra, you gotta go down to that Dum, dum da dum..” he was motioning his hard hands like a conductor and humming the wedding march. Of course, that’s what he wanted. Little did I know the seriousness to which dad would take this whole thing.
“Okay, dad! Yeah, that’s probably better. I just really like that song. But, let’s go traditional”. In that moment I realized that this whole ceremony meant more to me than just renewing my vows to Jared. Deep down I knew that maybe it wasn’t really for Jared at all. It was about all of us really – mom and dad and Jared, and our children and how thankful I was that they were going to be there. We only had one month in the summer now to be together since we lived on opposite sides of the country. Time together with mom and dad had become so very precious to me and I held on to these moments as if any minute, they could all disappear. Every moment with them filled my heart with joy.
It truly felt like amazing grace.
Dad wanted to walk his daughter down the aisle to the traditional wedding march and how could I argue? He started to get teary eyed while the pastor was talking and suddenly I didn’t care what I wanted anymore. I only knew that the moment stood still in time, his hand on mine.
We left the air-conditioned office and walked back out to the car so dad could finally light up a cigarette. The midday had become stagnant and humid and now the sounds of birds and insects filled the air. Being together with him like this reminded me of the time I worked with him as a teenager drilling water wells and doing pump work. He was one of the best. He wasn’t afraid to get me out there in a hard hat laying pipe and digging mud holes and I lost a shoe or two to those pits. I remember watching him in total awe run a whole rig solo. He seemed to have a genius ability to understand all the figures and how deep to go to hit water. I loved seeing him work out there twisting huge steel pipes together as the drill rods clanged together and the gray mud covered everything. Finishing a job was euphoric, but I mostly marveled at how he could do it alone. “I had a good helper,” he’d say but it really wasn’t true. Being and working alone had always been his element. We would sit in the back of his pickup and eat bologna and mustard sandwiches.
Dad was a hard-working man and also a man of hard memories. Things that I never understood and couldn’t possibly relate to, but longed to. Memories of a difficult childhood that I’ll never truly comprehend. Memories of being in Vietnam that he never talked about. When others were being drafted, he signed up at the age of eighteen for the Marine Corps and even went in for a second tour in Vietnam. I think he thought he’d die there and it might have even been his intention at the time. But his mother already had another son there so she wrote a letter and they brought him home. They wanted to make him a drill sergeant but he turned it down. All mysteries.
Despite what dad had gone through – or maybe because of it – he always had a passionate love for his family. He and mom met on a blind date and she says it was love at first sight. All he wanted was a family of his own to love. My memories are filled with trips down the river, jumping into the creek, vacations in the mountains, fishing, hunting, the beach, exploring the woods with machetes and all kinds of things that I’d imagine other dads might be scared to let their kids do. He never spoke to me like a child. He wasn’t afraid of anything. When I started having migraines at eight, he’d put his hands on my head and try to take the pain on himself. He was always a care taker like that. He was always taking care of baby animals that he found and caring for his friends and family who were dying. I always wished he’d take care of himself like that. He was stubborn, but sensitive. When I cried, he cried. As hard as dad and I fought at times – and no one could fire me up like dad – we always made up and often in tears. And we always made up.
My dad was stubbornly private about many things, but I always felt like I understood him. I somehow felt his pain and maybe because I’m so much like him. I felt it in our silence although I would never think to mention it. I couldn’t talk to him about that sort of thing. I just have always gotten him. And I always wanted to make it better… make him happy. But years bring seasons and we had our share. As much as I felt that I understood my dad, I could never fully understand his grief. Is anything harder than losing a child? An only son? When I had Emma and Hayden, I realized what that pain must have been like. But dad was such a rock during that time after we lost Tim in a dirt bike accident at the age of only thirteen.
Less than a year before my brother died, something had begun to change in dad. It was more than just the fear of losing his family. It was more than just his meetings at AA. It was much more than his sudden joining of this church. It was a life transformed by God. It was such a quiet conversion that I might never have known except that he couldn’t hide how different he was. Those months leading up to my brother’s death were blissful for our family as a healing had taken place. I knew that he felt happy and loved at last and somehow that love was enough. I no longer felt his pain because it wasn’t’ there anymore. It was by the grace of God that dad was so strong for us in the years that followed Tim’s death. Despite his agonizing grief, I remember him driving the church bus and coaching little league and even preaching before the congregation here. I never in my wildest imagination would’ve envisioned seeing my dad behind a pulpit or even reading the Bible. But that’s the thing about God – he often goes above and beyond what you could ever hope or imagine. This, the hardest time in his life, was the only time in my life that I didn’t worry about my dad. There was a peace on him which I still remember, as if his broken pieces had all been put back together and he was whole for the first time – his truest self; my dad. Despite everything else that has happened before or after, this is how I’ll always think of him.
We sat in the truck and he started the engine. The windows were down and sweat was already streaming down my temples. But it all felt so good and comfortable and we started out, a breeze whipping in through the open windows, the smell of cigarettes and coffee in the cab. He made a painfully slow turn out onto the road. In that moment, I knew that we were thinking the same thing. I knew that as we pulled out of the driveway, we were leaving something behind. The truck had pulled out to the right where it would wind through the orange grove and pastures and towering oaks. This road would take us home, but somewhere in the silence of our hearts we veered to the left, where the pasture land was wider. The sun seems to shine brighter down that way where there are fewer trees hovering and the weathered wooden houses springing up here and there had settled the land in such a way as they almost looked like part of the earth. We would then turn left onto the highway and soon pull onto a grassy road to the left off the freeway. We would open a metal gate and pull in. There, fenced off in the middle of a pasture grazed by lowing cattle, majestic oak trees would shade a manicured lawn strewn with headstones and fallen leaves. Some would be new, stark white granite embraced with fresh flowers. But most would be old stone monoliths or small flat plates darkened with age which had been here since the 1700’s. There in the far corner a small plot would be framed off by granite; a plot large enough for four or five headstones. A small granite bench and small ceramic lamb rests in one corner. There in that plot Tim’s body lies and has since I was fifteen years old. As we pull toward home, the silence is loud with a longing to turn the truck around and go there and fling ourselves upon that grave in the middle of that pasture and weep. But we don’t. Our thoughts had enveloped it and that is enough. Maybe another day. In that moment, he was nowhere more on this earth than inside that silence.
Dad and I laugh as we pull up the long grassy driveway. I poke fun at his painfully slow driving and he says, “Shut up, Sabra”. Soon he would be walking me down the aisle for the first time and something about that makes me feel like a blushing bride for the first time. I can see Emma’s face pressed into the screen of the front porch and hear Hayden’s loud squeal as he runs. They are stripped to their underwear in the tremendous heat and humidity. Storm clouds have started to gather overhead and a breeze has aroused the sweltering midday with the promise of rain.
I made a slideshow of some photos that mean the world to me. So thankful that our friend Tonya, captured some wonderful photos of our ceremony. They are beyond special to me. In loving memory of my dad, who will forever remain in my heart.