I could surely count on one hand the number of times that my dad has been to church with me when a grandchild’s role in a Christmas special wasn’t part of the equation. I’d never heard him pray or read from a bible until I was present when he was helping the kids through their night-time routines. But, as I’ve described him to others many times before, he’s always been a model of what a Christian should be.
His interactions with others rarely happened without involving some kind of neighborly kindness. He always enjoyed visiting older neighbors, relatives, and friends, and his 1952 John Deere Model M tractor was kept busy plowing neighborhood driveways during every upstate New York winter that I experienced growing up. I’ve always known him to lend a hand when it came to construction projects, emptying water out of the elderly neighbor’s basement, and taking the neighbors trash with him when he was headed to the landfill.
Such tasks were all in addition to the family responsibilities that he quietly fulfilled in giving help to his two brothers, elderly aunts, uncles, and parents. In addition, he always had time to visit and listen. I could often find his car or truck parked in our elderly neighbor’s driveway where he would be seated at the kitchen table with her visiting and drinking a no-frills cup of black coffee. He would lend the same listening ears to me for hours whenever we were in the car going somewhere, whether it was my drawing and painting lessons with Mr. White, a road trip to Canada, or a trip to the grocery store.
Years later, after he moved south to North Carolina to help provide daycare for our newborn son, he also became my dependable partner in getting up at 3:30 AM to prepare and serve Saturday morning breakfasts each month at the local homeless shelter. He always modeled what it meant to be a good man without ever opening his mouth to talk about what he was doing or telling others what they should be doing.
His character is a testament to the way that he was raised by my Grandma and Grandpa on a small upstate New York farm where his responsibilities and chores took precedence over personal interests or entertaining distractions that were more available to other kids his age in the forties and fifties. He made due with the realities of the life that he had and fulfilled his responsibilities as a son, much like he later would as a father, each and every day while he was growing up.
He never let his circumstances become either license for arrogance or a calling card for sympathy like so many others do. Instead, he’s always walked tall and held the line letting his actions speak louder than his words. He has always been somebody that I could stand to learn from. Now, when he is on the other end of a life in which he has already faced an unfair number of low-blows (too many to name here), I am still learning from his example as he faces one of his toughest challenges in the form of brain cancer.
What started out as a routine trip to the doctor’s office to figure out why he was having digestive problems led to the discovery of an intestinal blockage caused by a carcinoid cancer tumor and surgery to remove it. It was during his recovery from the surgery and a follow-up visit to the surgeon’s office when his journey took a turn for the worse. Instead of slowly becoming more mobile and independent while recovering from surgery to remove the carcinoid tumor he began exhibiting diminished motor skills and increased weakness on his right side. His surgeon called some neurological specialists into his office visit to examine him and, as a result admitted him back into the hospital where a CT scan revealed a mass on the left-rear lobe of his brain. The mass was what would turn out to be a grade four, malignant, glioblastoma-multiforme brain tumor.
It was just after this diagnosis when I asked him, in a moment when it was just him and I sitting in his hospital room, about what he was thinking and how he was feeling about what was happening that he answered, “One day at a time, Mark. We’re just going to keep putting one foot in front of the other and take it as it comes.”
His philosophy went on to become the motto for TEAM JIM which raised $2,700 last year for brain tumor research at the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke University Hospital. Just as significantly for me personally, though, his perspective has guided me as his medical power of attorney, caretaker, and son through this journey.
Almost a year of radiation treatments, chemotherapy treatments, visits to the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke, CT, PET, and MRI scans later, I asked him again what he was thinking and feeling about all that was happening. Again, he said, “Just keep putting one foot in front of the other until they stop moving.”
Just as this mantra of his has been in play for him and I throughout the duration of this journey so far, so has prayer, whether the prayerful support of many friends and family or my own. Prayer under these circumstances has turned out to be a knee-jerk, almost involuntary, response for me throughout this experience simply because of the humbling process that begins when getting a glimpse of the shaded valley that we will all walk through at some point.
With so much out of the reach of my control or my dad’s, prayer has been the steady mast that has held up the sails on this ship so that it can continue moving forward from one day to the next. It has served as the kite string keeping my flight grounded as the winds have continued to blow. It has been the walking stick providing stability as I’ve continued to put one foot in front of the other.
New questions and unknowns have surfaced at every turn along the way of our journey and, for each, an answer has been sought through prayer. While some answers have been revealed, some questions have yet to be answered and new ones seem to materialize with every passing moment. But, I am learning, thanks to the combined wisdom of my earthly father and my Abba, my father above, to just take one day at a time and to trust God with the bigger picture.
One would never expect a 1978 Texas Instruments pocket calculator to be able to process the same information that a brand new, top-of-the-line 2011 Apple desktop computer could. Likewise, it would be foolish to think that we, with our finite human brains, could comprehend the bigger picture that God see’s and understands when he looks down on every passing moment, experience, and challenge that we face in our lives.
What we can do, though, is trust Him and know that, some time, a new day will dawn that will have no sunset and all will be made right. Because, according to Philippians 3:21 (NLT), if we choose to trust Him, we can know that “we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior. He will take these weak mortal bodies of ours and change them into glorious bodies like his own, using the same mighty power that he will use to conquer everything, everywhere.”
It was just this morning that I came across Philippians 4: 5 and 6 (NIV) where it says: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Dad routinely woke at 3:30 AM so that he could pick me up so that we could be downtown to prepare and have eggs, grits, sausage, pancakes, and coffee ready to serve for Saturday breakfast at 5:30 AM at the Rowan Helping Ministries homeless shelter in Salisbury, NC.
It is “God’s peace, which is far more wonderful than the human mind can understand,” (NLT) or, as the King James Version puts it so beautifully, “the peace of God, which passeth all understanding,” that I hope and pray my Dad, the appropriately named best man in my wedding and my long-time best friend, will continue to open himself to and trust. At the same time, I will continue to drink my daily coffee black, like him, and, while putting one foot in front of the other, do my best to not be anxious about anything but, instead, present my heart to my father in heaven with thanksgiving. You can add milk and sugar to your coffee if you prefer, but, please join me and pray daily, in support of my dad, and accept God’s grace and peace, which is, indeed, sufficient.