Today marks the anniversary of my father’s death. Not a day has gone by that I haven’t thought of him. It’s been tough at times, especially not being able to share with him the joys of our new life in Toronto after all of the support he offered me and my family through recent years of struggle. Composing this tribute helped me to process his loss. The many pictures of him that my wife, Kristen, so lovingly framed and hung in our house help, too. Still, even though he lived to see 90, it feels like he left too soon. So, to honour his memory today, I am re-posting the eulogy I delivered at his funeral at First Baptist Church of Winston-Salem, NC.
There is a photo inside the bulletin that I’m sure you’ve been wondering about. I’m fond of incorporating art and photography into worship, though I must to confess I don’t typically distribute blackmail material of this caliber.
But this isn’t a typical day.
My wife, Kristen, is in the foreground along with our children: Ben’s twin granddaughters, Mary and Emma. Yours truly is standing on the right, wearing that glorious, vintage 1970s denim leisure suit and the red, sequined cowboy hat. My brother, Scott, is the one standing on the left, looking like an extra from the set of a Laurel and Hardy movie.
It was taken this past Halloween here in Winston when we all gathered to celebrate dad’s 90th birthday.
Halloween just happens to fall two days prior, and what Mary and Emma were looking forward to more than anything (with the possible exception of dad’s birthday ice cream cake) was the rare opportunity to go trick-or-treating with Scott, whom they affectionately call “Uncle Bubba.”
So we went trick-or-treating and had a ball. The girls were adorable. Mom and dad’s neighbors in Ardmore gave out “the good candy,” and as an added bonus mom and dad decided to tag along.
I wasn’t sure dad would be up to it, but he said he was – and sure enough, Scott and I got to watch in typical amazement as our 90-year-old father more or less kept pace with his seven-year-old granddaughters as they scampered from house to house, up and down the hills and around the bends of the neighborhood. He needed a little assistance on the way back down Birchwood Drive at the very end but that was it.
90-years-old. But not acting like it.
He rarely acted like it.
In fact, Dad celebrated his 89th birthday in Normandy, France, where he not only visited the site of the D-Day invasion; he also climbed all 350 steps of Le Mont-Saint-Michel.
We used to laugh about the fact that dad had a ministry taking “old” people to their doctor’s appointments, even though most of them were younger than he was. Until these past few weeks, dad hardly ever showed his age.
I remember lying in bed that Halloween night filled with gratitude for the opportunity to celebrate this birthday milestone with him in person: hoping that if I ever get see 90 I’m in half that shape and being thankful that he was my father, which hadn’t always been the case.
Even if he didn’t often show it, dad was old. He belonged to a different era than my brother and me. I can remember plenty of nights growing up when I laid in that same bed in that same house thinking very different thoughts about my father.
Dad was 48 when I was born and pushing 51 when Scott came along. Growing up, the age difference between us was more than a challenge at times. We shared certain interests and activities: baseball when I was playing Little League, and later golf – which dad played twice a week until he was about 85.
But for the most part, dad’s Victorian sensibilities and Depression era DNA could not compute the 1980s, especially pop cultural phenomena like Bruce Springsteen and Star Wars.
Dad was fighting WWII when he was 17 – not the video game, the real thing. When I was 17, I was listening to Iron Maiden, playing Dungeons and Dragons, and drinking obscene amounts of Mountain Dew. I once compared trying to bridge the gap between my world and my father’s world to attempting to build the Tower of Babel horizontally. We spoke two very different and distinct generational dialects – dialects that had grown so far apart they were practically different languages. There were times when we simply could not understand each other.
One of the more memorable examples of this non-understanding was the summer vacation where dad wanted us to pass the many hours in the car listening to the complete speeches of Winston Churchill. Thank God for the Sony Walkman!
It took me a number of years to come to terms with who dad was.
But amazing things happen when you finally do grow up. You grow out of the callow arrogance that accompanies adolescence. You realize one day, “Well, I’ll be derned. You know what, I don’t know it all after all.” And even more scandalous: mom and dad know a lot more than I’ve been giving them credit for!
Training for the ministry helped, too. Church gave us a field of common ground we hadn’t had before. Dad was raised a preacher’s kid and faithfully served this First Baptist Church for 58 of his 90 years. Mom and I are pretty sure he did just about everything there is to do in this congregation except sing in the choir and serve on staff – in good times and in bad.
From experience, he knew ministry is hard, and that doing church can be particularly difficult, especially these days when old models are caving, old buildings are crumbling, and old assumptions are failing.
The kind of politics you deal with in church – which is politics spiked with deep religious conviction – has always been a potent cocktail. Add a couple of shots of fear and anxiety, and it becomes corrosive if not downright explosive. We bonded over that shared experience, even though I don’t remember talking about it with him all that much.
I think we just recognized the mud from those familiar trenches on each other’s shoes.
Over the past twenty years or so, I’ve developed a great respect and deep affection for my father. We still didn’t see eye to eye on a good number of issues. (There was a slate of subjects we just left alone). But the more I learned who he was, and reflected on what he had experienced, survived, and accomplished – and the grace, poise, generosity, wit, and vitality with which he accomplished it – the more I marveled.
Whatever he did, he did it with diligence, persistence, and great attention to detail (unless it involved house keeping). And when he gave himself to an organization, a cause, or to you he gave his all – and gave all of himself the best he knew how. He was always there, even if his presence wasn’t always obvious.
And that’s the real reason why I asked for this silly photograph to be printed in the bulletin.
When we returned home last November, we posted this and several other pictures from dad’s 90th birthday celebration on Facebook. Then, this past Friday – the day dad died – this particular photo resurfaced.
If you use Facebook at all, you know that it’s a little bit like a black hole: (1) It has a tendency to suck you in and (2) its algorithms do strange things to the contours of time and space. Kristen, my wife, logged onto Facebook early Friday morning while she was eating her breakfast and this picture popped up in her newsfeed first thing, with a cheesy message that was something like, “Good morning, Kristen! Remember this?” She thought it was hilarious, so she re-posted it. She showed it to me and then to the girls, and we all had a good laugh.
Then later in the day, after Scott called me to relay the news that dad was gone, I looked at it again and had a good cry, because it was only then that I noticed dad sitting at his desk in the background: cap on, jacket zipped, ready to go; patiently waiting for us to finish our shenanigans.
And through the haze of my tears, I thought, “what a serendipitous blessing!” This picture captures perfectly who dad was and how he operated: ready, willing, and not calling attention to himself. Although it must be said dad didn’t always wait patiently – or quietly.
I can still see him looming on Sunday mornings in his coat and tie, getting after us (especially me) as we were unenthusiastically getting ready for church. He wasn’t the least bit shy about reminding me we were leaving in six minutes and time waits for no man. It certainly doesn’t wait for recalcitrant teenagers.
During the week, he used to wake us up for school at 6:00 a.m. sharp by bursting into our rooms with own personal rendition of reveille:
It’s time to get up, it’s time to get up
It’s time to get up in the morning
It’s time to get up, it’s time to get up
It’s time to get up da-da
I think he somehow thought this was amusing to 15-year-olds. It wasn’t. But I have to begrudgingly admit it was very effective. There was no snooze button on Ben Thomason.
So, he may not have always been patient, but dad was always ready.
As a WWII vet, aspects of his punctuality and preparedness were no doubt drilled into him by the United States Navy. But I think dad’s preparedness ran deeper than that basic training. He was a signalman on the USS Wasatch, a command ship for the Pacific fleet. It was his job to send and receive messages in semaphore code to and from other ships. He used flags during the day and lamps at night. (Mom has a postcard that he sent her while they were dating that has a semaphore message sketched out in stick figures that are holding little flags. It’s really sweet).
And while I don’t recall the details, I remember him telling me one time about a situation where a very important message had to go out but the ships he had to relay the message to were about to vanish over the horizon. If they lost visual contact, it would be too late. They wouldn’t be able to communicate for some time, and the situation was urgent. So, dad apparently had some very fast and very accurate signaling to do. There was no room for error.
But he got the message through.
Under pressure like that, in a potentially life or death circumstance, more than training is involved. One’s character and resolve are tested and revealed. And as he would do on many other occasions, dad showed himself to be a man of great integrity.
He wanted things to get done and done right, and I think dad was motivated by a deep sense of responsibility as well as a deep and abiding faith. He had given a lot, and he had received a lot. He wanted to leave the world a better place than when he came into it.
Scott and I may not have always understood his thinking or his motives because, intentionally or not, dad’s attempts at communication felt coded at times – and neither of us had been to signal school. But when we looked and listened carefully, especially over time, it became very clear how much he loved us and how devoted he was to God, to his church, his community, his family, and to so many of the rest of you
As we’ve been sorting through papers this week, Scott has discovered these articles giving advice to older parents on how to provide for their children after their time had come, especially how to ensure they would have enough money for college in the event their time came before their children were grown. Dad had highlight certain things and made notes in the margins. Neither of us ever knew he had been studying this stuff.
We did know he valued education tremendously, and promised each of us all the education we wanted. What we’ve unearthed are some of the foundation stones he had set in place to make good on that promise. And he has made good on that promise
Plus, as dad got even older and Scott and I moved away from home, his attempts at communication actually became a little clearer – at least to me. I wouldn’t have thought it would turn out this way, but dad became the one who overtly worried about us more. He became chattier on the phone. Whenever we were driving down for a visit, he always wanted us to call before we hit the road and he preferred to receive regular updates as to our progress. “Now, let us know when you get to Roanoke, or, “When you get the rest stop outside of so-and-so, give us a call.” Often he’d just call me us and ask where we were – three or four times.
And when time came for us to pack up and leave, he’d stand in the driveway, watching as we pulled away, and give us the “hook ‘em horns” salute until we crested the hill and he disappeared from the rearview mirror. I always thought was a rather peculiar choice for a Furman devotee. I’m pretty sure another school from another conference has patented that one; but for whatever reason, it became his signature farewell wave.
It was the accumulation of these small but meaningful things that helped me learn and appreciate who he was. And at some point, I came to understand that he loved me and mom and Scott and Krista and Kristen and Mary and Emma and so many others so deeply, regardless of how he may have struggled to show it or I struggled to receive it.
There is perhaps no greater gift in this world than being able to go to sleep at night knowing you are loved, cared for, provided for, and that no matter what – no matter what others might do to you or what you might do to yourself – someone has your back. What I’ve realized this week is that I’ve been able to go to sleep every night of my life with that knowledge, whether I was cognizant of it or not. Because dad had our back. Because he wanted to have our back. Because he loved us. And that’s why he made sure he was always ready; always the sturdy base of the column, never the flashy capital.
Thank you, dad. And well done. You got the message through, to me, your family, your church, and so many others: a message of love and fidelity, which Jesus declared is the only message really worth sending.
Thanks be to God.