I Am the Luckiest Man Alive

He hugged me twice.

Dad wasn’t a big hugger. It was usually a one-armed, awkward, sideways hug as I arrived or left from a visit. But last weekend he hugged me, full frontal, not once, but twice.

I could tell it really mattered to him that I came to visit to help them move into their new house in Iowa. We spent an afternoon building shelves in the garage, and then as the moving truck arrived, we hooked up the washer and dryer, unloaded boxes, and got the house ready for their first night. 

When I left him last Monday as the sun was setting, he walked me out to the garage and gave me a second hug. It was tight. He said he was so glad I came. He told me he loved me. Then he watched me as I backed out of the driveway. I waved and drove away. It was the last time I would see him alive.

Four days later the dreaded messages began to come. “Dad fell down the stairs.” “We are on the way to the hospital.” “It doesn’t look good.” “His heart stopped twice.”

This can’t be happening. Not now. Not this way. Not yet.

After staying up all night texting my sister and brother, I booked the earliest flight out — left the hotel at 3:30am for the longest flights of my life from Sacramento to Denver, and then on to Des Moines. My first flight had Wifi, and I stared at my screen waiting for texts from my brother to come through. It was toward the end of that flight that the words “brain dead” came through. They were keeping him on a ventilator long enough for me to get there. But there was nothing else they could do.

Just Another Day

I deplaned in Denver and for the first time in my life looked for a chapel. I’ve always wondered why there were chapels in airports, but this day I just wanted to go somewhere alone while I waited to board my next flight. Instead, I found a quiet corner in the United Club and called Faith. For the next 10 or 15 minutes I sobbed uncontrollably over the phone. I don’t think we even talked. I just cried. She listened.

A couple hours later I walked Into the hospital room where my mom, sister, and brother were surrounding my dad. Nothing had changed. Dad was on the ventilator. His chest was moving up and down, but he was no longer there.

I had a few minutes alone with dad alone and told him what a great father he had been to me. I told him I couldn’t imagine a better dad in the whole world. I told him he left an amazing legacy. You made it all the way from your birth to your death with your integrity intact. You lived a life of service to others. Everyone you met was better because of it. You loved well.

We stood around his bed while the machines were turned off. The beeps ceased. The rising and falling of his chest subsided. He was already gone. But now it was official.

We quickly began getting texts and online tributes. When the first one came through, it said, “Your dad was an amazing man…” Honestly, I couldn’t get past the “was.”

“Was.” That one word broke me. He no longer is. He was. He’s no longer here. From now on we will talk about him in past tense.

Over the few days since he passed, I’m learning (trying) to embrace the word “was.” I stood by my mom at the visitation yesterday and we heard story after story of the way my dad served people. I was particularly amazed by the people who he inspired in his 9 to 5 work life. 

Dad was a businessman, but he didn’t see it as a secular job. He saw it as a way to influence and impact the people around him. He marked people everywhere he went. He worked for Xerox for 35 years, and even though he retired nearly 20 years ago—more than two dozen Xerox employees showed up at his funeral, some from out-of-state, to tell us through tears how he had marked their lives by his attitude, leadership, faithfulness and solid work ethic. I had no idea—and yet I wasn’t surprised.

What I do know is dad was the most sacrificial, loving example of a husband that I’ve ever witnessed. For 58 years he loved my mom well. I never heard an argument, raised voice or angry tone from my dad toward my mom. By his actions, he taught me how to love. In fact, he treated everyone with respect, refused to gossip, and was the ultimate servant leader. He helped anyone who needed it, whenever they needed it.

I loved hanging out with dad. We worked on scores of projects over the years, big and small. We built decks, rooms, sheds, shelves, furniture and more. We hug lights, wired walls, worked on plumbing, hung drywall, and installed windows and doors. Dad also loved cars, and although I didn’t share his passion,  I’d snap a picture every time I got a cool rental car, and he’d call and tell me all about it.

As an adult, dad never tried to tell me what to do. He asked questions, but never pried. He never tried to guilt or manipulate me into anything. He accepted me fully and supported my decisions without question. 

I may be the luckiest man alive. For 50 years, I had a dad who loved me and supported me. He was my biggest fan—he loved my wife and my kids sacrificially—he showed me what it’s like to be retired while still adding significant value to the world—from him I learned what it is to be a servant leader. To whatever extent I am a man whom you admire or respect—it is due in large part to my dad.

I still can’t believe he’s gone. Even now, I sit in his house tonight expecting to hear his laughter coming from another room. My heart groans from the loss, but I’m hopeful about the future. The silver lining for me, the hope I embrace, is that it’s possible to leave this life with no regrets. It’s possible to live nearly eight decades as a servant to others. It’s possible to love people with your actions, day after day, year after year, through an entire life. It’s possible to lay your head down for the last time and take comfort in the words “well done.” 

I miss you dad. I’ll see you again one day. I’ll hear your contagious laugh. I’ll see your smile. We’ll build something together. Until then, don’t worry about mom. We’ve got her. I love you. Thank you for everything you’ve given me.

Yes, my dad died a few days ago. I am sad beyond belief. But because of his life and his legacy, I truly am the luckiest man alive.