My grandmother was one of the biggest influences in my life. My favorite memories are what I dubbed “teeth in the cup” moments, when she was at her most relaxed, letting her thoughts and teachings flow. One evening, when I was a teenager, she declared in her sweet, yet serious, way: “Baby, you can be humble or get humbled, but you help choose which way God gives it to ya’.” I would be thirty years old before what my grandmother said would truly sink in.
As an adult, I believed that if I poured myself into taking care of my family, flourished at my job, ran all the errands, and served all the people I would be a great person. I imagined God smiling and saying, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” Maybe, if I always looked at the positive side of things, I could simply tuck away the negative and everything would be alright. Surely God wouldn’t give me anything that I couldn’t handle. I believed I had to keep pushing on. I didn’t take time to listen to the advice of others or ask God for wisdom. I had too many things to do.
The first half of 2017 plays in my memory like a movie. Our church begins each year with a fast. My desire was for God to reveal what He wanted me to pray about. I am a talker by nature, so my goal was to become a better listener. Over and over I felt God say, “Pray for your parents.” I scoffed at the idea.
At this time, I had a strained relationship with my mother who lived six hundred miles away. My father had been out of my life for three years. I had moved on–now grown and married with a seven-year-old son. Nevertheless, I did what I was told. I prayed for my parents.
A few minutes later, my phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number, letting the call go to voicemail, but soon learned it was from a hospital in Chicago. Returning that call would change my life.
“Your dad has lung cancer and he is paralyzed from the waist down from breaking his spine in a fall. You are his only child and we have been begging him to reach out to you so someone would know what’s going on with him.” He had been there since around Christmas.
Those were the first words I had heard about my father in years. I felt numb. I cried out to God, “What do you want me to do? I’m in Tennessee and he is in Chicago. You told me to pray for my parents and the message I get is cancer? Come on, dude!” I let out a big sigh, shook my head at least a hundred times, and was reminded of what my grandmother said when I was a teenager in that “teeth in the cup” moment.
Over the next couple of weeks, I tried to mask all the negative emotions–fear, pain, hurt, and confusion–by responding to people with, “Yeah, I’m fine.” I refused offers of help, declined opportunities to meet with others who understood what I was going through. I turned off the phone and tried to disappear for a few days in order to figure out how to get through this. Why? Because, just like I always had, I intended to push through with a smile, maybe make a joke and keep moving forward. This time, though, my old way of doing things was not going to work. I would be forced to learn that I could not walk through life alone.
I tried to decline an offer of financial assistance, even though we desperately needed it, but the person refused to back down. They insisted on helping, lovingly admonishing me in the process.
“I’m going to help you,” they said. “I refuse not to obey what God has told me to do. Don’t block either of our blessings.”
The flood gates began to open. Offers of help poured in, which felt extremely uncomfortable but transformed me. I learned that community is crucially important, and I thank God for the people who didn’t believe me when I said I was fine–the ones who had the courage to ask, “Are you really, though?” It was another “teeth in the cup” moment, a humbling that I would be forced to endure. After years of rejecting the help of my community, combined with my unhealthy coping mechanisms, I was dying inside. Without the support of those who loved me, I would not survive the situation with my father
At the end of January, after many phone conversations, I finally visited my dad in the hospital. By the time I arrived at the hospital he was getting worse. The chemo was not helping at all. In fact, it only made him sicker. He had allowed me to pray for him during our calls, which was a milestone in our relationship, but this was our first face-to-face interaction in years. Though I was thirty years old, I felt like a little girl standing in front of him and was finally beginning to understand the true feelings behind my original numbness when the hospital had tracked me down. Finally, I told him my frustrations and bared my anger.
“I don’t hear from you in years, but now you call?” I was full of rage. It felt like it was oozing out of my pores. My father listened intently then, in his always calm way, told me how he felt for the first time. He said he was so happy I was there to see him. He said he was proud of me and disappointed in himself. He explained that he didn’t know what being a good father really meant because his own father had not modeled it for him. His way of expressing love was to make sure the bills were paid and, when he was around, to take us out to have a fun time. He assured me that he never stopped thinking about me and his grandson, and he thought I was doing a great job. He had not wanted to interfere with our lives.
I crumbled, but it was not anger or sadness–it was compassion. Compassion from knowing that, although he was my father, he was just as human as me. I felt a veil lift from over my heart, finally understanding that he was a hurt person who was loving from a hurt place–a place that only God could heal. But now I realized I could contribute to that process. As a mother, I remembered the nervousness of bringing a little human into the world and not knowing what the heck to do. I could change the future of generations by making a choice–to forgive. I would choose not to continue the unhealthy cycle of sweeping issues and emotions under the rug because the dirt doesn’t simply disappear. It’s still there until you give the room a good, deep cleaning. I finally removed the façade I had created and allowed myself to be cleansed.
At my father’s bedside, I said my last words to him with a face full of tears: “I forgive you. God forgives you. You did the best you could with the tools you had, Dad. Thank you for your honesty. I think we both needed that.”
The next day, his body shut down and 24 hours later he passed away. I had been given nineteen days between finding out he had cancer and his passing. At the hospital, we had a sweet three to four hours together before he spoke his last words: “Thank you. Thank Jesus, I’m tired. I need sleep.”
Jeremiah 29:11 says, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.” I can now thank God for the way he used my father’s death to break and rebuild me. I continue to feel uncomfortable when I ask for help. I am still tempted to say that I’m okay when I am not, but my struggles are no longer a burden that I need to hide. I am now free to be honest, allowing my community to walk beside me and carry me through trials which, in turn, equips me to do the same for them.