Ten years ago this morning (it was a Sunday then) I woke up in a camp near Estes Park, Colorado. The crisp fall air had settled into the cabins, and we all groaned getting out of bed. I had performed a monologue the night before, and the group discussion afterward was moving. I had finally let go of all my anxiety/anger/doubt about my father’s bile duct cancer. I was at peace with God’s will in however things turned out–whether he would/could heal my dad was no longer an issue. I slept sounder than I had in weeks and for the first time in awhile, I saw God as good.
As a staffer on the church youth retreat, I had to go around and help wake up all the other guys so we could get out the door and go to breakfast. I didn’t have much of an appetite. And my walk to the dining hall was unusually quiet and introspective. We had one more worship service, communion, and then we’d all pack up and head home, get back to life. I watched as the band warmed up, the morning sun much warmer inside the chapel than outside. Dust particles floated in the beams of light, and the brightness didn’t bother me. I heard someone asking for me in the background, and then I was told that my mom was trying to get a hold me, that my dad wasn’t doing too well.
He was fine the last time I saw him. He would have said so anyways. The Friday before I left for the retreat my family had met with hospice care because my dad was getting weaker and weaker. “If I die,” he said, “just put me in a pine box.” That’s really all he had to say about hospice care or even dying. I was crunched for time and had to get packed and still hadn’t written the monologue I would be performing the next night. I patted my dad on the leg and told him I’d fill him in on all the camp details. He loved camp. To my dad, there weren’t many things more important. I waved as I drove off. Dad had made is way to the porch. He hadn’t been outside much lately, but he mustered the strength to stand there, belly bulging like a starving African child, skin pale and sickly. He smiled and gave a big wave, and I unintentionally snapped a photograph in the depth of heart. I didn’t give him a hug. I didn’t say, “I love you.”
The camp director let me in to their offices so I could call my mom and see what was happening. Of course I didn’t get cell reception back then (I checked earlier that morning, just in case). My mom answered in tears. I told her they told me that Dad wasn’t doing well.
“Daddy went to be with Jesus this morning,” was all she said. And I didn’t even get to say goodbye. I packed up and drove home–it was the first time I’ve ever been able to get out of a speeding ticket (anybody who’s anybody knows not to speed through Lyons. I even knew, but I sped. And got pulled over. And was shown mercy by the cop). Dad’s body sat in his favorite chair beneath the large window, stiff and cold. I held his hand–even in his sickness his hands dwarfed mine–and lay my head in his lap. And mom and I cried and talked about the kids that found Jesus at camp. The coroner came and we all packed up and the funeral craziness began. It was ten years ago. It was yesterday. It was forever ago. Here’s the poem I wrote for the funeral:
Sunday Drive Through the Aspens
by Joel E. Jacobson
It happens this time every year,
every autumn that comes and goes–
the lively leaves of green transform
into glowing gold and yellow and red and orange–
the trees tell us the end is near.
And, though I only realize it now,
my father’s leaves changed years ago.
His life his example his compassion–they shimmered
like bars of gold and dollars of silver.
But as his serving limbs of love, patience, and Godliness
wilted under the freezing blizzard of age and pain,
and as his solid tree trunk body was scratched away
by the velveting bull elk of cancer,
the beautiful man I knew as a child faded and withered,
and his leaves of strength–browned and burdened–
fell to the ground.
And so it is I hike through the forest of men
searching for my tree to carve my initials in.
But when I draw near and face my dear daddy
I see it’s really his initials instilled and carved into me.
The beauty lies in our drive through the
aspens on Sunday. For when I returned,
Christ had already called and carried you up
His mountain, leaving the wretched, battered bark
behind in our arms. No regret hardens my heart though
because above your head and through the window,
the trees shined in all their glory
as Christ restored your golden leaves in eternity.
After reading this poem for the first time in years, I want to meddle with it, revise it, fix it. Because this was me 10 years ago, when I was going to be a screenplay writer, when I hadn’t been rejected from grad schools, literary magazines, and movie production companies, when I was on staff at a church preparing to become a youth pastor, when I had just graduated college with a degree in English, when I was single (with no hope or prospects on the horizon), when I drove a white (money pit) Jeep Cherokee, when I worked for Red Robin opening restaurants, when I was a Christian because it’s what my parents taught me, when my faith wasn’t my own. For the first time in my life, I had to wrestle with the character of God, wrestle with why I believed in Him, why I should believe in Him, why He was worth anything in light of losing my father. If God wasn’t real, then my dad wasted his life (and mine).
The months and years following my dad’s death were instrumental in developing my faith and my life path. It’s funny (more ironic than funny), but the church I was working for was good at burning people out, and after a year of being on staff I backed away from volunteering with youth and focused my efforts elsewhere. I became a substitute teacher because Red Robin left me too tired to write (haha, I am fortune’s fool, always too something to write if I’m not intentional!!). Then I became an elementary school teacher, and eventually moved to high school. All the while I’ve grown in my understanding of the character of God.
And through it all, the poetry has remained. It’s funny (okay,maybe more ironic than humorous, maybe both) that I am the son of a laid-off-geophysicist-turned-AFLAC-insurance-salesman and a math teacher mother. My dad cared about bridging relationships with people in his community. He was the helpful handyman in our neighborhood, the volunteer carpenter for church camp projects (the same camp I was at when I found out about his death). He helped an elderly lady winterize her swamp cooler. He was a mechanic, a woodsman, a carpenter, a salesman, a husband, a father, and the funniest man he ever knew. This was his poetry.
I love the mountains, but don’t share my father’s love of hunting. I’m not so good with a band saw or lathe, but have managed to install flooring and complete other power-tool-required house projects. I don’t change my own oil anymore. But I write. Words are my wood. My love of poetry has opened doors for relationships and connections that I would never have dreamed of. I’m able to use writing to connect with students, colleagues, neighbors, family, friends, and strangers. Loving those around us and honoring God were always more important to my dad than any of us kids following in his footsteps. Oh, winning at cribbage was near the top of that list too, but I digress.
I remember, as the years passed, struggling with what it meant to be a godly man and the frustration of having to figure it out on my own. (I wasn’t really alone, but it often felt that way). At my brother’s wedding, he told my brother that marriage wasn’t always easy, but it was worth it. It’s still hard wondering what kind of wisdom I could have gained in regards to marriage and fatherhood. But I don’t have that, and for whatever reason it wasn’t meant to be.
What was meant to be was the poetry: the experiences, the lessons, the relationships, the faith. God’s taken care of me, of us, of my dad. I don’t know if I’ve fulfilled my dad’s expectation of me as a man of faith, a husband, a father, a brother, a son, a teacher, and a student. People who knew my dad have told me frequently that I would have made him proud ten times over. Here’s to hoping. The past decade seems to be an instantaneous eternity, and there may only be tomorrow or another whole decade ahead. But thanks to my dad, there will be poems and poems and poems.