I grew up in a fundamental Christian church in the South, where everyone referred to the men as “Brother” and their first or last name. My best friend as a toddler could not pronounce my father’s last name – “Brother Blair” – and it came out “Butter Bear.” And so my mother’s favorite nickname was born.
Later, when my dad decided to pick up Spanish after 20 years of not studying it (he could do that sort of thing), my mom asked a friend how to say “Butter Bear” in Spanish, and so her favorite nickname for him morphed again, into “Oso de mantequilla.”
One thing about having your own blog is that you can write whatever you want, and today, I write a tribute to my dad, who died unexpectedly at the age of 68 on July 16, 2014. A tribute to Oso de Mantequilla, which I also delivered as the eulogy at his funeral last Sunday.
When I tell you that I grew up in a fundamentalist church in the deep South, I can feel the stereotypes rising and I plead with you to let my father smash them all.
Yes, my dad lived and worked in east central Georgia for 30 years. Yes, he retired as a Texas rancher. But not only was my dad a highly valued specialist at a nuclear plant, he also knew how to pronounce the word nuclear. He adopted a love for collard greens but still used the word “pop” to refer to soda. He spoke two languages, sometimes three, and could assemble and disassemble a computer or a radio or a chicken coop. He taught me what a fulcrum was, he taught me CPR, and he taught me how to sweep a sidewalk without being a perfectionist. He took me to the space station and took me to the jungle in Ecuador. He taught me Spanish and how to use it to help people who were lonely and lost. He taught me how to plan my Spanish curriculum and sent me games for my students to play. I called him my assistant teacher from a thousand miles away. He was one of the best friends I ever had. I know intellectually it sounds weird for a 30-something woman to hold hands with a 60-something man -even to me this sounds like it would look odd at Walmart- but that was me and my dad, it was us, and it wasn’t weird. He was my friend.
I wish I had more space to help you know him more. I wish I could tell you why he called me “girl with legs” and where the word frubbies came from and what it means. I wish I could tell you the story about the “really big shoe,” how he taught me not to flip a canoe by flipping us both into an alligator-infested lake, how much he hated New York, how “abracadabra” fit into our breakfast routine, why he had a scar on his upper lip, or how he made me change my own flat tire. How he always said “Let’s say prayer” instead of “let’s pray” and every mealtime prayer started with “Father, thank you for our home and our family.” Our home and our family.
He was my family and he was my friend. But of all the places he took me and all the things he taught me, what’s most important is that he took me to church, and he taught me who Jesus was.
When my dad and my brother were living near Chicago, a church sent a bus by to see if they could take my brother to Sunday School. My dad let them but decided that he needed to know what they were going to be teaching him so he went to church. God did not use that bus ministry to change my brother’s heart, but He did use it to change my dad’s. My dad was a man of logic and faith working together in perfect harmony and it just made perfect sense to him – that the human heart with its intricate valves and movement, the cells and molecules that work together to pump for five years or a hundred years or sixty-eight years, four months, and thirteen days, that
Someone had to have designed it, and that other transcendental idea we call the human heart, that thing that in us wants to do right but just so we’ll be recognized for it or wants to do wrong and cheat, lie, steal, kidnap, kill, and lash out at people we say we love, that human heart could only be fixed by the One who made it. That’s what my dad knew, that’s what made sense, and then there was faith. He had faith that the One who would fix it all, who would bring us the very good ending to all this mess, was Jesus Christ, the perfect Son of God who lived a perfect life and died a perfect death to pay the terrible price for the sins of all those who would ever have faith in him, and then rose again. Rose again to live.
Several months ago I had a dream about my dad and it moved me so much I knew I had to tell him about it. But when I just tried to tell my husband about it, I cried so much I knew I couldn’t tell my dad on the phone, so I wrote him a letter. I knew he’d have kept it so I went looking for it and sure enough, I found it on his desk. Let me print it for you here.
I had the most amazing dream last night and I wanted to tell you about it, but when I tried to tell Joshua I cried so much I knew I couldn’t tell you on the phone so I’d have to write it.
I dreamed you and I and Mom and many other people I knew and didn’t know were in a place that was like a nursing home but was a meeting of the worlds: there were young people alive and old people alive and also old people who had died and I was the only one who could see and interact with them all. At first you were there and worked there. Then one day you packed up your office and became one of the ghost people. I had the sense that I needed to figure out what to do with all the books and knick-knacks in the place but I didn’t process the event as a death and I could still interact with you, but only visually. You were like a ghost, so I couldn’t touch you. I don’t remember feeling sad because I could see and talk to you. But one day I saw you in the hallway and I knew you weren’t like the ghost people anymore – you were real again. I was overwhelmed with happiness and ran down the hallway to hug you. I wrapped my arms around you and was completely overjoyed to actually touch you again, but what really struck me was your smell. I was breathing in and it smelled like my dad and to breathe in that smell again, I was so happy I thought I could float away. I woke up with a sense of joy and peace in my heart.
So I have to tell you – you can’t ever leave me because I have to know where to find you and your smell.
I love you so much –
I believe God sent me that dream early to remind me to cherish the moments with my dad because He knew there weren’t too many left. He knew my dad was leaving. I told my dad not to leave me, but he did.
It’s a complicated story, but we were driving to Rhode Island when my dad’s condition got very critical and I needed to get on a plane in Cincinnati. We booked the flight and had a couple of hours so we found a park nearby and had a picnic together, my husband, my kids, and me. My one-year-old son Judah was climbing on a bench and found this paper. My husband said, look what Judah found, and gave it to me. It said “Expect a miracle.” The paper made me smile and gave me hope.
But where’s the miracle? The park bench told me to expect a miracle, and then my dad died. We didn’t get a miracle.
Or did we?
My husband told me he thought my dream was about the resurrection, that God was reassuring me that even when my dad did leave, that one day I’d see him again, that he lives, and maybe even God will use the same laundry detergent so my dad will keep his smell.
My dad lives, and I will see him again. I don’t tell you this because it makes me feel better. I don’t tell you because I want to believe it so badly. I tell you because this is what my dad would tell you if he could talk to you now. He’d tell you that some of you have a spiritual heart every bit as dead as his physical one is now, and he’d tell me that you can’t be argued out of it. God has to open the eyes of your heart. Even right now you’re sitting there thinking, this is what you believe and I’m glad it makes you feel better. See, God knew you would think that. He knew you’d think, so you say you’re God, so you say Jesus was your Son, so you say He died to bring the hope of a very good ending to this very bad middle, so you say you get to tell me how to live, so what? Anyone can say that.
And to that, God said, oh yeah? Watch this. I can say that. And I can make My dead Son live.
I make the dead live.
John 11 tells us that Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.”
Expect a miracle. This is the miracle. People throw around the word “miracle” as if it were a sandwich topping but a miracle is actually something that defies all explanation, and I mean any other explanation except God did it. A doctor can take the valve of a pig’s heart and put it in the human heart and put off death for a few more years, and that’s amazing, but it’s not a miracle.
But make the dead live? Only God can do that. Here’s what my dad would say if he could talk to you now:
You want to see a miracle? I died. And yet I live.
Write to your dad.
Take care of your heart.
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