On the death of my father and the nature of love

I wrote the following essay almost nine years ago, immediately following the death of my father.

My father, Charles Himes, Sr., died a week ago, on Saturday morning, March 2, 2002, at the age of 82, of Alzheimer’s and diabetes and old age and, I believe, an acute sense of loneliness and hopelessness, locked inside his dark and confused mind in an unfamiliar hospice room, unable to recognize anyone around him. For over sixty years, he was a fundamentalist preacher, pastor of a string of little Baptist churches in several states. At the end, even in the hospital, he was still trying to preach, opening a torn copy of Better Homes and Gardens magazine as though it were a Bible, and failing to get his parishioners (fellow patients) to hush up and listen to the sermon.

Chuck HimesUntil a few weeks ago, he was living at home with my mother, Mary Lloys Himes, and getting by, albeit with much difficulty. Due to Alzheimer’s, he was often clueless about his surroundings and companions, confused about the time of day, failed to recognize that he was in his own home or with his own wife of 56 years. He was hanging on, leading something of a life, able to walk with difficulty and help, talk some although mainly nonsensically, and sleep in his own bed every night.

Finally, however, his situation at home became insupportable, and even life-threatening to my mother, who as his principal caretaker for years had worn herself out in his service. When taken to the hospital for evaluation and assignment to a nursing home, he crashed. He never walked again, became full of frustration, rage and violent impulses, and his health declined rapidly.

One of the last things he said clearly, in tones of deep sadness, was that he wanted to go home. Some in our family thought he meant he wanted to go to Heaven, and others that he simply wanted to be once more in a place familiar to him. Within a short time he was moved to a hospice, where he stopped eating and drinking, became comatose, and died with his family nearby.

I had to think hard and talk to my sisters and brother about it before deciding finally that I wanted to speak at his funeral in Chattanooga. My father and I had a tough relationship for most of our lives, until the last few years. Before I left home at 18, I don’t recall that he ever told me he loved me, or hugged me with pride or affection, or that he ever attended a school event for me -- track meets, parent/teacher conferences, debates all went by without an appearance or word of encouragement from him.

We did not understand each other, and we agreed about little, including almost any topic related to religion, politics, or culture. As I grew up in the 60s, we argued about haircuts and clothing, Vietnam and civil rights, religion and sexuality. I saw him as a rigid, self-righteous, cold, arrogant, and politically reactionary man. He saw me as a rebellious, disrespectful, willful, disobedient, and wayward child, headed for my own doom as fast as I could pedal. By the time I arrived in high school we were angry and distant, and by the time I went off to college I never wanted to see him again.

Despite my anger at him, I never broke ties completely and always found a way to come home each Christmas for a few days. And over the last several years we learned a degree of mutual toleration and respect. He seemed to like having me visit, and sometimes said he was proud of me or grateful for something I had done. But he rarely if ever asked about my life, my passions, or my family. Our conversations were generally simple and one-sided; he liked to pull me aside into his study to show me some keepsake or memento and tell me where he got it – perhaps a rock he had collected on a trip to Jerusalem, or a Minié ball he found on a Civil War battlefield nearby, or a Boy Scout badge he had earned as a boy.

At Christmas, 1998, he told me, with tears, that he wanted to apologize for how he had treated me when I was in high school – more than three decades earlier – and then gave me an actual hug, almost the first I could remember from him. It was an affection that I couldn’t return, and I felt uncomfortable getting it from him. For all his evident good will, I’ve been burdened by that huge load of black anger I felt for him decades ago.

Now he’s dead. And over the past few weeks I’ve been talking with my mother and siblings about him, learning much more about who he was, and who he wasn’t. None of what I’ve learned is particularly surprising, but it rounds out my picture of him, and helps me see him with a new measure of compassion. It strikes me that I couldn’t really know him – or myself – until he was gone. Only now can I see myself as a grownup, truly apart from him, the scales fallen from my eyes and a burden of resentment lifted. The death of a parent, perhaps, is a passage of meaning and transformation through which a child is enabled to become fully an adult.

Who was my father? He was both very simple and remarkably complex. He was a gentle, honest man, who did not intentionally hurt anyone and who spent his life serving his God and his family. He was also a frustrated and often angry man who didn’t know how to show love. He was full of contradiction: a preacher who proclaimed the gospel of Jesus and yet found it difficult to offer Christian love to others; who demanded strict adherence from others to his own fairly narrow and prescribed beliefs, yet had little tolerance for those with whom he disagreed; a public man, an evangelist, and the pastor of several churches, who was most comfortable locked away by himself in his study reading some obscure Biblical commentary.

Who else was my father? He grew up in a world of poverty, violence, and profound ignorance, in a small, dirt-poor town in Depression-era western Pennsylvania. His own father worked long hours in a bakery, then came home to a miserable marriage and a dark house where he fought with his wife, beat his kids, and drank booze in the corner before staggering back to work. His own mother was a selfish, cantankerous woman with a mean streak a mile wide and little notion of how to cherish a child. His two older brothers were continually getting into trouble, getting drunk, and beating up on their little brother.

No wonder he had such a hard time loving others. He had no model, no experience of anyone caring for him, wondering where he was, making sure he had what he needed to flourish. In the face of those challenges, it is more than remarkable that he finished high school – the first in his family to do so – and then prepared to go off to college, doing it all on his own, because he had decided that God wanted him to be a preacher.

That was what drove him during those hard, wartime years of toil and penury, driving a milk truck and working in a shipyard as a welder and working the hoot owl shift in a factory while he crammed for an epistemology exam at Wheaton College, snatching moments of sleep when he could and working nearly all the time.

A preacher! That was an amazing goal for such a boy. What was it that made this quiet, bookish, awkward and naturally undemonstrative man believe that he had a calling as a preacher, of all things, a role for which he was not especially suited and at which he was never especially successful? I can only guess that for him the calling of a preacher was the most profoundly holy calling he could imagine, a transcendent calling, and a calling that could lift him out of the black pit into which he had been born. It was service to his God that would enable him to find grace, meaning and a lifelong vocation.

It was while studying to be a preacher that he found the first real love of his life – my mother. I think she was the first person who loved him wholeheartedly, without reservation, absolutely, and who saw in him the potential he wasn’t sure he owned. She stuck by him and loved him through all the years of trouble and disappointment in his life, through his pain and anger and frustration, as well as through his times of happiness and fulfillment. She took care of him and helped him during the last long nightmarish struggle he waged against Alzheimer’s, against his body, and against the confusing, shadowy world he no longer recognized as his own. And she did so with humor, unearthly patience, and at enormous self-sacrifice.

He also fell deeply in love with my mother’s whole large and complicated family. Her five beautiful and talented sisters became his sisters, and their five lively and eloquent husbands became the brothers he never had. Her preacher father became his father and mentor, and her mother – who knew how to adopt every human she ever met as her personal friend and protégé – gave him a mother’s model of unconditional love and joyful service he had never witnessed. When he married my mother, he was for the first time a child with his own loving family of elders and siblings. But it wasn’t enough to fix something that had been broken, deep inside him.

In the past week, during long hours of talking with my sisters and brother and mother as I prepared to say something at the funeral, I realized that my father’s life had some lessons to teach – about love, of all things. And I noticed that sometimes the most powerful lessons come from the most startling and unexpected sources.

First, I learned from my father’s life that there is no such thing as love without the capacity to forgive. We are all flawed and imperfect and to some degree selfish, and those in our lives whom we want to love are destined to disappoint and frustrate us in some way. Forgiveness may in fact be the first act of true love – love that sees truly but offers itself anyway.

Second, I learned that love needs to be offered freely and without conditions. Love that requires a quid pro quo, love that demands in exchange a certain set of behaviors, love that turns up the volume when its object performs precisely in accordance with our expectations – this may not be love at all, but a kind of bargaining for favors.

Third, my father’s life taught me that love needs to be expressed, or it does little good and can’t grow. Love reaches out to others, and enfolds them, succors them, helps them to flourish and rejoice in their lives. But if we hold it close to our chests, perhaps feeling love inwardly but never expressing it, our love invariably becomes tiny and parched and finally dies.

I am grateful to my father for teaching me these lessons at the end of his life, out of his desire to transcend himself and serve his God, and out of his darkness and pain. Now I’ve got the rest of my own life to apply them.

March 9, 2002

Read my related essay: On the Death of My Mother and the Nature of Love