Chapter One – Part One: My Long Road to Faith

 

Here is the first part of a multi-part post for chapter one.  The second part will come out later this week!

CHAPTER ONE:

MY LONG ROAD TO FAITH

         How do you personalize the promised message of salvation in the lessons and teachings of Jesus, teachings that have been translated, reinterpreted, and institutionalized over centuries, teachings that have served as inspiration and guidance for billions of people?  To answer this question, last year I did something I had never previously contemplated doing.

In September, 2023, I inserted myself into the Bible story.  I wanted to view the story from King David’s perspective.  Given the explicit nature of the father-Son relationship defined in its pages, I wanted to understand what it meant for a human to grapple with the concept of being Jesus’ father, as this is something clearly David must do.

When my own dad died in 2008, I was devastated.

         It was the Saturday before Thanksgiving.  I had just returned from a whirlwind trip to Texas, where I had picked up my ten-year-old daughter, who was going to spend the week with my side of the family.  We landed at Raleigh-Durham International Airport just after 2:30 that afternoon and, after stopping by my house, were planning to drive the short, five-minute trip to my parents’ house to watch the Penn State football game.  I called my mom to let her know we had landed safely.

         “Great!” My mom said, “Come over anytime.  I’m still waiting to hear from your dad.  He must be on his way back from the condo.”

My parents had purchased a quaint, three-bedroom condominium on the coast of North Carolina in the cozy little seaside town of Emerald Isle, some two-and-a-half hours’ drive from their home in Cary, a suburb of Raleigh. Located thirty minutes northeast of the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base, Emerald Isle was a fitting vacation getaway for my parents.  My dad had committed thirty-one years of his life to serving as a Marine, including a thirteen-month combat tour in Vietnam between 1966-67.  Growing up, we had spent four years at Lejeune as a family; when my dad got reassigned to a logistics base in Georgia in 1986, I was allowed to stay with family friends and finish my senior year of high school with my classmates.

I don’t imagine that either of my parents believed they would ever own a “vacation home” as both came from humble backgrounds.  Mom was raised on the outskirts of Pittsburgh and had been a nurse before meeting my dad.  He was the product of smalltown Iowa, America’s heartland, and had joined the military undoubtedly influenced by his childhood, when the United States had helped win World War II.

He’d gone down to the condo Thursday afternoon.  It was offseason; the beach would be virtually deserted, save for the locals.  There was a Homeowners’ Association meeting on Friday that he had attended.  He and my mom had talked Friday afternoon; he was going to spend the night, likely sit in the jacuzzi Saturday morning, then make his way back to Cary in time for the game.

         I thought little of my mom’s comment as I made my way home, where my fiancée and her two kids were waiting to greet Ann Elise.  My fiancée’s ten-year-old daughter and mine got along together well, and her eight-year-old son also enjoyed my daughter’s company…usually more than he did his sister’s.  They greeted one another with the heartwarming glee that Ann Elise’s visits always brought.  It wasn’t long before the afternoon’s delight turned towards despair.  Less than an hour after I’d been home, mom called.

         “David, I’m getting worried,” the concern in her voice was evident. “I haven’t heard from your father.  I’ve called his cell phone and he isn’t picking up.”

         “Okay.” I replied, stirring myself from what I’d imagined being a promising and enjoyable afternoon of family and football.  She gave me the number of someone who lived down at the condo complex fulltime; at the very least they could tell me if his car was still parked in front of their unit.  “I’ll try dad first.”

         I did, and his phone went to voicemail.  I could feel the first movement of my heart dropping into my gut. Maybe he was in an accident, I reasoned.  That thought led me to call the North Carolina Highway Patrol to find out if any accidents had been reported along the highway between Emerald Isle and Cary.  There were none.

I called the woman who lived on Emerald Isle and got her voicemail.  I left her a message, explaining the situation, and asking her to call me back when she could.  I hoped she wasn’t traveling for the upcoming holiday.  It was 4 pm.   There was no avoiding the unsettling feeling that was now looming over the day.  The kids were engrossed with one another upstairs, and I no longer felt like watching football.  I told my fiancée I was going to mom’s, as I knew her nerves would get the better of her.  I made it to the stoplight outside our neighborhood when I got a call from the woman down at the beach.

 

         Dad’s car was still in the parking lot.

         As I took the call at the light, I could feel my heart plunge into the pit of my stomach.  I made my way to mom’s and told her the news.

         Her concern was now palpable.  Calls to the phone in the condo went unanswered.  She started calling some of her friends who lived nearby.  We made the uneasy and necessary decision to call the Emerald Isle Police Department and asked them to enter the unit.  To do so, they informed us, they would need someone to let them in.  I called Larry, the maintenance man for the complex, who agreed to meet the police at the unit.  Thirty or forty minutes of discomforting silence followed.  The evening had grown dark; it was nearing 6:30 when the phone rang.

         It was the Emerald Isle police department, calling to inform us that they had found my dad’s lifeless body in his favorite chair at the condo, a book on the carpet by his side.

         The next few hours were surreal, as I consoled mom, received her friends as they made their way to her house, and processed what was happening.  I called my brother, my fiancée, my boss, and a few other family members.

         My dad was relatively young at the time of his death; he was just 68.  He worked out three times a week, played golf, and kept himself busy maintaining the yard.  Yes, he’d had high cholesterol and had been taking medication for it.  Whatever spiritual wounds he might have received from his time in Vietnam and while on active duty were seemingly nonexistent; he went to church regularly and, aside from responding to my rebellious nature as a teen, always managed to keep his emotions in check.  Three decades of military service had certainly taken a toll; I had served fifteen years on active duty and knew of the spartan culture the Marine Corps fostered.

         He smoked in the early part of my life, a product of his time in Vietnam I believed.  After he’d retired from the military, he’d had cysts form across his body.  All these were successfully removed and, as compensation, the US Government decided to award him seventy-five-dollars-a-month tax-free, the price it determined for his exposure to Agent Orange during the war.  Agent Orange was a deforesting chemical the US had used during the war to try and thwart the North Vietnamese’ masterful use of the jungle in their operations against US forces.

         I recently met a preacher who remarked that, growing up in the United States in the twentieth century, a child’s father was most likely their idea of God the Father.  This was certainly true in my case.

         Nothing rattled my dad, except me.  My older brother Larry seemed to be cut from the same cloth as dad.  Stoic, logical…capable of expressing emotion without ever being overcome by it.  I was the creative one, the one who wrote poetry and drew superheroes.  I was the one who swooned when I fell in love with someone, and clothed myself in melancholy when my love went unanswered.  My creativity most often expressed itself through my mess.  Dad often remarked that it looked like a tornado had blown through my room; as often as not, the floor was littered with comic books, clothes, and my drawings.  If you’re familiar with Charlie Brown and Peanuts…I was our family’s Pig-Pen.

         Dad seemed larger than life.  In many ways, I saw him reflected in the lead actors of Hollywood at the time: John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford and Paul Newman.  I never saw him overwhelmed by a situation; the only time I ever saw him truly angry was when I had managed to push his buttons which, starting when I was six or seven and into my teen years, seemed quite often.

         It was an involuntary act – when my dad zigged, I zagged.  When he demanded something, I resisted.  The more stringent his demands, the greater my resistance.  It was an instinct that grew into a festering resentment as I grew up.  As a result, my punishments were never short in supply.  Once, in exasperation, my brother Larry asked my mom, “Why doesn’t David just do what dad says?”  My mom had no good answer.

 

Secretly, I blamed my dad for the way my life had turned out.  While I had an active imagination, and could keep myself occupied for hours alone, I struggled with our family’s frequent moves, and was slow to adapt to making new friends.  This led to a lack of popularity, which I attributed to my stunted socials skills.  By the time I became a teenager, I knew – I wasn’t completely present.

         That’s a strange sense of self-awareness at a young age, a sense that something is “off”.  Having spent three years in Japan, the exposure to its culture impressed me deeply, and I looked into meditation while other kids my age were going to football games, getting drunk at parties, or exploring the alluring cocktail of hormones and the sense of freedom that comes from obtaining a driver’s license.

         We went to church faithfully when I was growing up, casting our lot with the United Methodists.  I only went to one Catholic service when I was a boy; my parents were away for the weekend, and I spent it with my best friend Joan, and her family.  That Sunday at Mass, Joan’s dad motioned when I was to join them in standing and showed me his palm whenever I was just supposed to sit.

         Growing up, we frequently read from The Upper Room, a small monthly magazine that provided daily passages from scripture and the author’s thoughts on the passage’s relevance in the modern world.  We each took turns reading the daily thought, and my dad might pepper the conversation with questions, asking us what we could take away from the reading.

         With my dad’s passing, my faith took a big hit.

Labor Day weekend, in the months leading up to his death, had been the last time our family had been together.  My brother was still on active duty in the Marines.  He, his wife, and their thirteen-year-old son were stationed in Hawaii and had flown to North Carolina for the extended holiday weekend.  That summer, dad had gotten involved with a program at church called, appropriately enough, Letters from Dad.

 

         Dad had a simple philosophy on life, and this program had challenged him to search his emotions, to communicate with his family in a way that he never previously had.  The output of the program were letters that he had written to mom, my brother, and me.  He gave them to us Labor Day weekend.

         My letter reflected his observations of my life, how I’d been so caught up in love and romance, having already been married and divorced once, and how I was seemingly so determined to carve my own path through life, as unconventional as that path appeared to be.  While I could be stubborn and strong-willed like him, I had creativity and a colorful palette of emotions that was so distinctly different from his measured and very discreet displays of affection.  He closed his letter to me by telling me he loved me, and that he wanted me to continue to share my life with him.  In the weeks after his funeral, my mom would discover an early version of his letters, one intended for all of us.

         In that early draft, dated August 2008, he had said he was being called to heaven, and how much he had enjoyed our family and all that we had accomplished.  He reflected on his life’s experience, and how a smalltown boy from Iowa had managed to see much of the world.  While my mom disagrees with me still, I have a sense my dad knew his time was running short.

Continued in Part 2