The last time I spoke with my dad was June 17, 1996. It was Father’s Day.
I rarely phoned him—our conversations were mostly awkward and terse, often edgy. He was, in his worst moods, combative, a churlish atheist spoiling for a fight, stoked up with fresh volleys of mockery. He’d tell me he just watched a documentary about war in the Middle East or starvation in the horn of Africa or an earthquake in Asia, and where was God in all that suffering? Or he’d gloat about the fall of some prominent televangelist, and why wasn’t God enough? I found him tiresome. Sometimes I told him as much.
So on Father’s Day, 1996, I called him out of duty, and also because my wife told me I should. We were leaving the next morning for a week of holidays, to an almost phoneless paradise, and it was now or never. So I did as she said.
He sounded old and tired and sad. He was nursing deep regrets. He apologized three times for his failings as a father. My heart softened toward him, and I told him, No, you’ve been a good father. Then I was stumped for instances. But he seemed genuinely remorseful, and I got desperate. I prayed to God to remind me of good things he’d done, and said, and been.
God flooded me with remembrances. Sacrifices he’d made. Vices he’d conquered—not the least of which was a decades’ long addiction to alcohol. His faithfulness to my mother. His kindness to strangers. His unbending truthfulness, no matter what it cost him. His courage.
God flooded me. And in turn, I poured it back on him. I told him all the things I remembered about his example and his character. We laughed about funny memories. We got teary over painful ones. It was the longest phone conversation I’d ever had with him, and the warmest. We both ended with, “I love you.”
The next day he died. Our family had just arrived on the island and settled into the cabin where we were to spend the next week. Night was gathering. Heavy footfalls on the steps. A shadow falling on the window. A light knock on the door. There stood the caretaker, grim and downcast, a slip of paper in his hand. A number on it. My brother’s.
I knew right away. For some things, we have instincts. I walked down to the only phone on the island, in a little booth at the edge of the public wharf. I picked up the receiver, held it a long time, studied the pinholes in its mouthpiece. I dialed slowly. My brother answered. The flatness in his voice told me what I already knew, but he proceeded to tell me anyhow: our father had died that afternoon. It was over quickly. A massive coronary. Ironically, it happened as he rose to take a phone call from his heart doctor.
I think often about Father’s Day, 1996, and the day after. I think about all those phone calls. Mostly, I think about the first one, the call I made to my dad. It wouldn’t have happened without my wife’s persistence, or God’s providence, or his grace. I think about how glad I am for it, and how sorry I’d have been if, following my own impulse, I’d put it off. I marvel at the turn the conversation took, toward tenderness and thanksgiving. Toward love.
We all have our reckonings. We all have those moments that wake us up to something bigger, or shake us down to something deeper. That phone call, and what happened next, is one of mine. My life reoriented because of it. I move a little slower, more deliberate. I try to speak less, and weigh my words more. I seek the good in others. I say thank you a lot, and mean it. I say I love you every day, many times, to many people.
And I listen better: to friends, co-workers, strangers, my children, my own heart. And to my wife. Especially when she asks me to make a call.