My dad was a tough guy. He served as a Marine in the 1940s. He married while he was still in the Corps and was divorced not long after. I know almost nothing of his first marriage and only learned about it as an adult. He married my mother in 1953 and they had two sons: my older brother Kevin and me.
My dad was not an easy person to live with. When he was drinking – and he did a lot of drinking when I was young – it was best to keep your distance. I would not say that he was abusive, but he was angry. He could be verbally spiteful, especially to my mother.
He stopped drinking in the mid-sixties. Again, I never learned the whole story but there was a night when there was a run-in with other tough guys in the neighborhood and the police were called. I don’t know what my mother said to him that night, but he stopped drinking and, shortly thereafter, quit hanging out with his drinking buddies.
A year or so after that, my older brother was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. I can only think that my dad was resentful: here he was trying to straighten up and be a good dad, and this happened. My brother went through chemotherapy, many hospitalizations and blood transfusions, but his condition slowly deteriorated.
My family didn’t attend church, except once or twice at Easter to make my grandmother happy. But now, with disaster looming, my dad accepted an invitation to attend the local church. I suspect my parents, having tried everything else, thought they would give God a shot. It was a bargain of sorts: we’ll give you your due if you will spare our son.
That bargain did not work out as they hoped. My brother died. But the church took us in and on an April day in 1968, my dad professed faith in Jesus Christ.
I too confessed Christ and began to change. But the change that had begun in my dad seemed to stall out as time went on. He carried a big chip on his shoulder and lots of anger in his heart.
When hospital bills strained family finances, my mother had to go to work. Dad’s church attendance became erratic. He hit a low point and went out and got drunk. My esteem for my dad also hit a low point. By the time I left for college, the two of us were not getting along well.
I went on to get married and have kids and we frequently made the 70 mile trip home to visit. I couldn’t help but notice that my dad had mellowed. He was a gentle and loving grandpa, though the short-tempered husband continued to make appearances.
Over the next few years, the change in my dad became more apparent. I sometimes whispered to my wife, “Who is this man?” He was more attentive to my mother and more affectionate with all of us. By the early nineties, I was asking his opinion about decisions I needed to make, something I had not done since I was a child.
When he died, I officiated his funeral, per his request. In preparation, I looked through his Bible to see if he had highlighted anything, for I would often find him sitting at the kitchen table early in the morning, a cigarette in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other, reading his Bible. He had marked many passages that spoke to him.
I saw with a sudden clarity what I had been blind to earlier. There was a correlation between the changes we had witnessed – the gentleness and kindness to my mother, the generosity he displayed toward others, his choice not to retaliate when wronged – and the scriptures he had highlighted. The spiritual life that had begun in him years earlier had blossomed and was bearing sweet fruit.
The final and, perhaps, most enduring lesson my dad taught me was that God can change anyone, even him. Even me. That lesson has proved invaluable, and I am especially grateful to have learned it from him.
(First published by Gannett.)