Teacher. Communicator. Funny. Compliment to Anabel. Founder. Writer. Media personality. These are quick descriptors for Dad—or, Bill, to all but two of you. I remember sitting between Dad and Mr. McCann—Preston McCann, one of Dad’s best friends and the man whose name I carry—on many Friday nights watching a high school football game somewhere in Oklahoma. I was engulfed between two giants in my life and was consumed occasionally with cigar smoke from Dad’s stogie.
Dad was informed later on, by well-meaning folks, shortly after becoming a follower of Jesus Christ, that it wasn’t proper for a Christian to smoke cigars—not even at a ball game. So he quit in honor of his reputation and in response to his desire to do right by his Savior.
As I think about it, it strikes me ironic that one of my most vivid memories—celebrated recollections—of Dad is the smell of his cigar. He and I founded what would become Lifetime Guarantee Ministries in the late 70’s and were partners in ministry and business for thirty years. We marched in many campaigns, fought many battles, influenced hosts, created best sellers, and formed wonderful legacies, but my first memory is a smell that wafts readily across the savannah of my mind in Dad’s absence.
When Mom passed in November she was alone. Alone in the sense that no one was with her, holding her hand. How could we have been unless by happenstance? She was alone for less than ten minutes. I received a call and went to her vacated side. Death had not yet turned cold.
I received a call regarding Dad as well. It was June 22nd at 1:30 in the afternoon. But let me back up two steps.
I’ve met with a group of men for sixteen years. Every Wednesday morning, 832 times, we have gathered at Scott Walker’s office to drink coffee, read a book together, discuss our concerns and our victories, and then to hold hands around the conference table and pray. On June 22nd, a few minutes before 6:00 AM, one of my Wednesday buddies, Lamar, rang me on Skype from New York to say that Scott was dead. His heart quit cataclysmically on the precipice between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.
My Wednesday buddies and I—all except for Lamar who was traveling in New York and Scott who was with Jesus—gathered in the corner of a downstairs room at Colonial, drank coffee, and collected our thoughts, such as they were, such as they could be given our grievous loss. We prayed the best we could, staccato thoughts, trusting the Spirit within would fill in the gaps.
I left Colonial shell shocked. In my truck, I put my head on the steering wheel and sobbed convulsively until the reservoir of tears reserved for such a time was empty. I lifted my head, wiped my eyes with my palms, and my nose with the back of my hand. I nodded with little embarrassment to a lady in the car next to me who observed my grief while talking on her phone, backed out of my parking spot, and drove to visit Dad as was my custom.
Dad had a cough and wasn’t doing as well as he had been on Tuesday. Dad had good days and not-so-good days. To me, this was one of the latter, until I visited with Dee, Dad’s hospice nurse. She was concerned Dad had aspirated food into his lungs.
The version of Parkinson’s Dad suffered made his muscles stiff. Early on, Dad began to shuffle when he walked, then began slurring his speech. He lost his ability to write, eventually his eyes quit following words on a page and he could no longer read. Jackie, Dad’s nurse at the care facility—and truth is, my care giver as well—helped me understand: “Preston, at some point Doc will lose his ability to swallow,” she had told me months earlier.
In retrospect, I thought I understood what Jackie told me about death due to Parkinson’s, but I didn’t really—until Wednesday, June 22, 2011. When Dee and Jackie said they suspected Dad had aspirated, I shook my head. “What’s that?”
They were graceful in their explanation. I wish I could recall how they worded it so I could provide the same grace for you, but I can’t.
Their words aligned in my unsophisticated mind into this: They suspected Dad was coughing because he had sucked food into his lungs. His body was creating mucous to isolate the foreign body—just as it would do a bacteria or virus in the lungs. If they were correct, the mucous designed to isolate the foreign body would progressively compromise the efficiency of his lungs to the point of death, death by pneumonia.
Jackie and Dee both hugged me, told me they would let me know the test results, and ensured themselves that I was okay before they let me go. It was 11:30 Wednesday morning.
I ran errands and went to the chiropractor to get my head screwed back on straight. I filled the truck up with gas. At 1:30 I was in the Costco parking lot when Dee called to say Dad was declining rapidly. When I hung up the phone, Dee had defined my next steps: summon my brothers.
Dad stabilized that afternoon, and remained so. The nurse’s report was the same at my bedtime as it had been when I left Dad late in the afternoon.
Jackie called Thursday morning at 6:15. In the night Dad rapidly resumed his exit from this life.
I saw the arrival of the continuous care nurse Thursday morning. I witnessed Dad’s care givers come into his room. A giant of a man, Darshay, Dad’s aide came in to see him on his day off. He bent over Dad, addressed him as “Doc,” patted him, then engulfed me in his black arms for reassurance before turning to the door. The housekeeping lady with orange hair and piercings, Alissa, stopped her cart and came in to stroke Dad’s hair. Joanne, who gave Dad his baths and trimmed his nails, kissed him on the head, knelt and prayed over him. Samuel, the night nurse from Kenya, whom Dad called Obama, came in early.
Jackie came into Dad’s room in ten-minute intervals. Each time, she hugged me, checked Dad, confirmed his vital signs with the continuous care nurse, and then kissed Dad on the head before leaving to tend to her duties. Ten minutes later she would return. She stayed late.
One by one they all came, called him “Doc” and spoke affection into his “good” ear, the ear with the hearing aide. Word spread. They held my hand, stood next to me. Caring.
Dee was insistent that Dad have his hearing aide in his ear—especially in his turn toward death’s door. Dee’s a tiny lady, at least in stature, but she put her hands on my shoulders, checked to be certain I was okay (she knew about Scott’s passing), and guided me so I wouldn’t suffer regret later over what should have been—could have been—said to Dad. She ordered his hearing aide battery changed and the device checked to be certain Dad had every advantage and provision for his journey.
As he progressed toward death I told Dad everything was under control, cared for, and in order. “It’s okay to make your exit, Dad. We’ll be okay here. I’ll see to it.” I told him he was finishing well, told him to tell our twins in heaven, Alex and Anna, hello and that we would be along soon.
Dad’s chest ceased to rise and fall. The nurse listened for his heart. “Is he gone? Is that it?” I asked, and Susan nodded.
Dad slipped away at 3:18 on Thursday afternoon, June 23, 2011. Dianne held his right hand, I held his left. Another of my Wednesday buddies, John, who had lost his best friend in Scott a day earlier, had his hand on my shoulder when Dad’s earthsuit breathed its last.
The care givers, those divine humans who fence daily with death, referred to Dad’s gaze as “fixed.” That was the term they needed for their charts—to satisfy the suits in the carpeted offices. After she charted Dad’s condition, Jackie turned to me, “Doc is looking at something. Maybe it’s Anabel. Maybe it’s Jesus. He sees something. I can tell you that much.” She edged close and I put my arm around her.
Jackie is an Oklahoma girl, one of two that cared for Dad. Jackie is moving back to Oklahoma, Leflore, Oklahoma, eighty miles from where Mom and Dad, and my brother, Mason, are buried. Jackie’s husband has already moved. She has shortened vacations and delayed moving “until Doc was gone.” She called two days ago to check on me, to cry with me, to share our loss. Where does one gain a heart possessing this capacity, I wonder?
I have gained mercy since September 2010. That’s when the odyssey of Mom and Dad’s passing began. I didn’t know I was gaining mercy. The first inkling I had of this was in the emergency room of Baylor hospital as I sat beside Mom’s fractured body on October 2, 2010. This infusion can only be Father’s provision as is necessary.
I use the word “gained” on purpose. I know I am the recipient of mercy, but now that I’m gaining mercy I am realizing I didn’t know what mercy was inside of me. As you would expect, I received many things from Mom and Dad, but the final gift of their lives was the opportunity to find and exercise mercy.
I can’t explain mercy to you yet—maybe not ever—not that you need me to or expect me to. It is akin to blessing, but seems at this point to be the fuel, the driving force, the passion of blessing. It’s good, no doubt due to divine providence, that I can’t write about or talk about mercy yet. It is better that I live with it for a while before I intellectualize it and reduce it into words.
When Dad died, I put my head on his still chest and cried. I wasn’t sad that he was gone. The last four months were hell for him and everyone around him. I’d asked Father to take him, even gotten a bit irritated that He had not. Dad needed out of the physical mess he was in, at least it seemed so to me.
It is sixteen days since Dad died. I’m still not certain which tears belong to Dad’s passing and which belong to Scott’s. I’ve delayed writing, thinking I could distinguish the drops that have formed a river. To no avail.
I’ve wondered the last sixteen days—wondered about these tears that come over me at the most inopportune times. Why would I cry over my Dad’s completed freedom?
I have taken some time to retreat into the mountains, to walk in the afternoon showers, and to stand in the rush of a snow-melt stream and fly fish. I’ve done this because I’m exhausted, and fragile, and tender, and am a man suffering. I’ve gone away to these environs because they are raw, unadulterated, and straightforward. I know this geography as a place of comfort. The nuance of regular life makes too much noise when I need to sort through my soul.
I’ve concluded that my tears are about finality. There will be no more memories made with Dad. I’ll have to make do with the ones I have until I make my own passage and we pick up over there, beyond this orb debauched by the Fall. But there are enough memories for the remainder of my lifetime.
When he died, the bell tolled for my Dad, my professional partner, my friend, and my colleague. There is a whole lot of loss in that sentence. But, it is okay. It is a rich legacy.
Some years ago I sat in the living room of my friends, Latchezar and Lucy Popov, in Sofia, Bulgaria drinking a glass of wine and talking of our families. Being the same age, we shared the same future: our parents were soon to be gone. Latcho said, “You know, Preston. We are soon to be orphans in this world.”
I’d never thought of myself as an orphan before, until Latcho said that, but he was right. His words returned to me after Dad entered the care facility and Mom was dead. I leaned back in my chair at the recollection and considered that identification: orphan.
Orphan! A phrase from Father’s book came to mind: “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.”
I wrote His pledge on a sticky note. I pasted it next to my computer as a comfort until it peeled away due to wear.
I fished Homestake Creek two days ago. It was poor fishing given the unprecedented volume of snow melt, but I still fished. I edged along in the torrent, flipping my fly where Browns might lie, shielding my glasses from pelting rain with the brim of my cowboy hat, and heard those words rise out of the river: “I will not leave you an orphan.” The rush of the river transferred into me the intensity of Father’s message for me.
Years ago, when the symptoms of Dad’s illness were first manifesting, I talked with Dianne: “I don’t want to come to the end of time and regret not engaging Dad more. We work together every day, but I don’t want to have more memories of working with Dad than I have of being with Dad. I’d like to propose to Dad that we take a trip together, and that we pay Dad’s way.” My wife readily endorsed my request.
Dad and I were in his garage building the furniture that would accommodate the recording equipment for the Lifetime Guarantee broadcast that would eventually reach 55 markets and thousands of listeners. As we cut and glued and clamped, I said, “Dad, I’d like to take you on a trip, all expenses paid. I’ll take you snowmobiling in Wyoming, salmon fishing on a boat in Alaska, or trout fishing in Yellowstone. You choose.”
The best picture of Dad and me, or at least my favorite, and one that hangs in our hallway, is from fishing on the Firehole River in Yellowstone. Dad had gone into the woods “to make water,” as his Pop had termed it, and returned with only one suspender fastened on his waders, an initial clue to his eventual demise to Parkinson’s. That single suspender was crossed across his chest, the other dangled behind. I didn’t say anything, and I didn’t fix his suspender. I was glad we went fishing.
As the affirmation from Father’s book reverberated in my empty mind, “I will not leave you an orphan,” I fished Homestake Creek in a steady rain, and I remembered fishing in Yellowstone with Dad. I also remembered burying Dad’s ashes next to Mom’s and my brother’s twelve days ago in Eastern Oklahoma, a land threaded together by streams my Granddad Hoyle fly fished.
After losing his brother and his father to death, Norman Maclean wrote, “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”
Finally, Dad is free. Released from the chains that bound him, the chains he spoke to you about, that he wrote to you about, and that are his legacy of thought, ministry, and desire. These are the substance of his words.
Like Dad was, and like you are, I’m haunted by them. I too have written and spoken and thought about this freedom that is ours, that Dad and I spent hours discussing, forging them into our souls with the furnace who is Grace. Today, there is no longer a mystery for Dad in the haunting words of Scripture.
Dad is free. And one day, we too shall be.