We had arrived in Atlanta, Ga, where the Briarlake Baptist Church had allowed us to live in their mission house. The location was great--across the street from the church, a few blocks from Lakeside High School. Dad was to take a position at the Georgia Baptist Convention center in their annuity department...and Mom was going to just go on being Mom. Shortly after we arrived, I even landed my first job...at the church...working on the grounds crew. Since the church was big--taking an entire block--there were grounds enough to care for!
One of the things that the then-Foriegn Mission Board required/provided was a medical checkup after those tours of mission service. I just had a cursory look, and all was well. Mom and Dad had more extensive and intensive tests...and something came back not quite right on one of Dad's tests. So, more tests.
I suppose I'll never forget the day. I came in from work at the church for lunch...and the results were in. Cancer of the liver. Surgeries planned. Not a great prognosis. That was August...and I watched my father waste away over the next eight months...sick from chemo-therapy...weak from surgeries...until May, when he finally died, a shadow of his former self. He fought...hard! He spent time with me...good time...but not enough. Not his fault--mine. I wanted to escape, not see him like that. I suddenly had to go out with my friends a lot more...or study in my room.
Funny...I remember clearly two of our last conversations: one evening we were sitting in the den, the TV room, watching something inane (most of it was and still is), and a commercial came on. We muted it. Dad was in a recliner with a swivel base, and turned to me out of the blue and said, "Jon, I love you so much...." My dad didn't talk like that...and I didn't know what to do with it. I mumbled something like, "I know, Dad" How many times I've wished I could re-live that one, stupid moment...so I could say, "I love you, too, Dad" and could go over and hug him and he would know it was true and real and deeply felt.... But, past is past. Thankfully, after he died he visited me in some dreams and I was able to tell him then.
The other chat I recall was sitting out on the front stoop of the mission house--somewhere we almost never went. But, it was a warm, sunny Spring day, so Dad wanted to sit in the sun. I was glad to do so with him. For some reason, we started talking about motorcycles. Yes, motorcycles. I guess they've long been a part of our family--we took one to G'da in 1975...and got another in1980 for me. My brother Timothy has had several, and my brother Jeph had one that he and I shared a good bit. But, anyway, Dad and I talked about my getting a motorcycle someday. I was looking at a Honda CM200--a little street cruiser...and Dad was saying, "Yes, that might be a good idea....something to think about for next school year...." I was thrilled that I was having an honest-to-God "man-to-man" chat with my Dad and that he was encouraging me to do something that others might have thought 'dangerous' or something.
Dad died in May 1983...and my life would never be the same. Having one's father die when he is 17-years-old is hard enough...but add to it that I was still newly arrived in the US, without direction, close to graduating from high school to attend college (an appointment to the Air Force Academy, no less!)--oh, what an even more convoluted mess life had suddenly become for this kid!
One of the Scriptures we hold to claims that "we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose" (Rom.8.28 NRSV). In hind-sight, I can see this...but at the time, I hated God, I hated the world, I hated the US--and I wanted nothing more than to return to Grenada and lose myself there.
I must say that Dad--in my now-distant recollection--was nothing but hopeful and faithful through it all. I was more like Job's wife, thinking he should just curse God and die. But, no...he remained faithful, studied the Scriptures, prayed. I've found notes, scraps of paper in his Bible, from this period of his life...and he was hopeful, faithful, hoping for healing, trusting in God. I should have taken a clue from him...but, no, I had to go another direction.
I began to search in every OTHER place--philosophy, Hinduism, Buddhism, anything! After all, I had prayed to God for his healing, and nothing. In fact, I remember one night lying in bed praying, asking God to let me have all of Dad's pain and nausea for a day or two so he could just have a freakin' break!! And...nothing. But, my searches and question among the world religions and philosophies brought me the same--nothing.
Mom got a job at the Georgia Baptist Convention Center in their Public Relations department--a job MADE for her. I entered my senior year of high school and had decided to attend college close to home (Shorter College) so Mom wouldn't be left alone. I didn't get the motorcycle...got a Dodge Colt instead. My friends at the church, especially Tommy Houseworth, were my salvation in this time of being undone.
One evening, I sat in the den, in that same chair where I was when Dad told me he loved me. I looked over on the end table, and there lay a Bible. I picked it up. After staring at it for a bit, I said to God, "Okay, you got one more chance. I'm going to read this...the New Testament part...and if you reveal yourself to me, I'm yours...." I left the rest unsaid. Some days later, somewhere around Ephesians, I realized that God is real, that this world is a broken place--and that the brokenness is not God's doing!--that God does love us and wants the best for us...but best of all, God does not leave us walk through these shattered lives of ours alone. John Wesley said it well at the end of his life, just before he crossed the veil--"Best of all...God with us." Amen to that...and best of all, God is with us.