“I don’t have much time left, really.”
My father’s voice on the other end of the line reminds me of my grandfather’s.
It’s been nearly ten years since I heard that voice. I’m making beds. I can see Dad at his breakfast table.
“At best, maybe fifteen years. I’m on my last chapter.” He pauses and I let the empty space beckon answers.
Grandpa died at eighty. Dad will turn sixty-three this coming year.
“I need a plan. I don’t think I’ve had one.”
I pull the sheets up, smooth out the bed’s coverlet in coming light, then wait, listening to Dad think.
I’m hesitant to say anything. Best he find the way.
But I’m still, just standing here, knowing that we are moving out into hallowed ground. I wait. Then venture into the space with only a question.
“Well, how do you want that last chapter to read, Dad?”
“I want to end happy.”
I sit on the edge of the bed, sunlight warm on my back, and ask slowly, “And what do you think brings happiness?”
He’s probing in the silence, the back corners of being, looking for what lies in unexamined places. I’m praying.
“More farming?” I make an effort but I know the words still sound incredulous.
“My father farmed his whole life and made nothing . . . But he thought someday folks would pay farmers for their work. That might happen in my lifetime. Can’t quit now. And maybe someday the grandkids will talk about how I could grow a crop of corn.”
I can see Dad sitting at his table, looking out the bay window, watching rows of pride growing up into light.
“What about the people? The relationships?”
I let the words sit.
And he goes in another direction, approaches it all from the other side.
“Alan Strand called the other day.” Every time I’ve seen Alan Strand, he’s wearing denim coveralls, a worn-through cap.
“He was trying to figure out whether to spend the time he’s got left restoring another tractor, buying a new engine for it — or if he should try to track down his daughter. He hasn’t heard from her in ten years. Doesn’t even know where she is.”
Now this seems pretty obvious to me.
“And he decided?”
I shake my head, only a bit stunned. The words dribble out. “He intentionally considered the options, voiced them to you . . . and then decided the tractor?”
“Yep. He knew how to do the tractor. Little risk. The daughter, she was all risk. And you know . . .”
I can’t stop shaking my head. None of this makes any sense.
And yet it does.
“Do we give up what makes us really happy — farming, restoring tractors, writing, study, whatever we are good at — a lifetime of happiness—for a few days of happiness at the end? Do we sacrifice what makes us really happy day in and day out, for a few days of happiness with the people at the end?” Dad says it certain and I can hear the pain. “There are no guarantees with the people.”
Before I can think, I rush along, finding what I’m looking for, my rock.
I say the words more to myself than to him, words leaving my mouth before I can think.
“Jesus said, ‘He who loses his life will gain it.’”
The other end of the phone is quiet.
Tentatively, I step out a bit further. “Maybe making small sacrifices in personal pursuits – in the end we will know a happiness we couldn’t have imagined.”
I circle back, wondering if he’s following.
“Maybe this is one way we live out what Jesus us calls us to.” I say the words again, deliberately, for they seem new to me, richer in ways I hadn’t considered. “He who loses his life will find it.”
Dad lets his voice expose where he is. “Yeah. Maybe . . .”
I let him find his way . . .
“But maybe none of us can change really.” His voice sounds so old . . .
“Great artists, great actors, great politicians, it’s all the same. They do what makes them happy and that means they don’t have much time for people. Balance is a hard thing. Nearly impossible if we are going to do something well. And we’re wired the way we are. Maybe those around us just have to come to accept it.”
I hurt inside.
“I am too old to change. I know farming.” He sounds just like Grandpa.
Then he’s talking about the price you can get for a bushel of corn and the weather forecast for the next few weeks.
And I’m thinking about the times I’ve been in my own bubble with my own agendas of accomplishments, drifting away from people and the true happiness disguised.
I’m remembering with a strange sadness a woman standing amidst the floral memorials of her mother’s funeral, telling us of her mother’s far-and-wide reputation for the important stuff of bleach and immaculate housekeeping.
I’m thinking about the time I’ve chosen to wash windows, tend a flowerbed, answer an email, instead of playing a game of bananagrams with a trio of loud boys, read an Eloise Wilken story to pleading eyes.
My pride was tangled up in the tasks.
Why doesn’t it always matter more to love well?
Is it because relationships don’t bring us paychecks or praise?
Loving well, stepping over hurt, laying aside self and desires, draws on more of our interior resources than investing in a career, a skill, a personal pursuit. And yet, there are no promotions. No public status. No guarantees.
Relationships grow only in the soil of humility, selflessness, open-handedness. Relationships are inherently risky: for all that, you can’t control the outcome.
Investing in relationships requires courage. It mandates daily fortitude and intentionality to make moment by moment decisions to prioritize relationships while balancing vocational demands.
Do my daily decisions support my belief that relationship is the essence of reality? Or do I merely pay lip service to relationship — while the use of my hours clearly reveals true priorities?
The value of your life — is the value of your relationships. With God and men.
Dad’s talking about what he’s got to get done this week. I am my Father’s daughter.
“Look at the time.” I can see him turning there at the table, looking up at that clock ticking loudly over the kitchen sink. “And what am I doing sitting here? I’ve got so much to do and here I am talking the day away with you.”
I have to smile. Dad’s customary call always ends with this customary adieu.
“Always good talking with you, Dad.”
And then he’s gone.
Off to write more farming, more of what he’s good at, into that last chapter of his life story. And I gather Bibles for church and more of hearing Jesus’ words to come crucify self, words I need to hear again and I’ll forget and need to hear again.
So we’re on the cusp of a week of holidays, days of flag waving and patriotism.
Farmers don’t know holidays. Livestock needs feeding 365 days a year. But we finish barn chores early, eat dinner, gather lawn chairs to head up to the lake and fireworks over water. Something we rarely did as kids. We try to make memories. We try to leave the work. We keep trying the investing in people.
Sun’s sunk deep down into water, only a glow of embers burning along the horizon, when we haul our lawn chairs across the grass up at the lake. The shoreline’s full of people. Shadows and glow necklaces and laughter and kids slurping blue freezies out of plastic.
I point straight ahead. Is there a spot there for the lawn chairs? The Farmer nods. Yes, there — there’s enough room for us there.
There should be room enough for us there beside that silhouette with a farmer’s cap. Kids run with their chairs slung over their shoulders.
The silhouette turns. The youngest turns. And then she laughs, running through shadows into shadows.
He set aside self — he wrote sacrifice into his story.
I walk through shadows.
My hand finds the shoulder of that flannel plaid jacket and he finds my hand. He pulls me closer. He brushes my cheek with that leathery skin.
“Ann . . .” His voice is soft, full of things he can’t say.
“Dad.” I squeeze his hand, a long, lingering pulse of all I feel.
And then fireworks bloom.
These mirror images rock gently on water, two spaces merging and petals of color falling.
The children pull up on Grandpa’s lap, lean in close.
And I think how children will talk about this yield of time.
How in our dark places, we sacrifice and find faces and light and happiness unexpected.
The skies explode. Light rains down. I am in this story with these people. What is the plan for this flash of days?
I look over at Dad.
We are not too old to take courage.
We are not too late to sacrifice.
We are not too lost to reach out to each other and linger on the rim of time.
Relationship is the art of sacrifice that makes the days a masterpiece.
Somewhere in our dark, we can forget all that is lost —
for the tender wonder of what could be found . . .
“He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it.” ~Jesus
Q4U: How do you feel about your relationships today? How have you been hurt? How have you been healed?
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By Ann Voskamp at A Holy Experience