My family and I deeply appreciate all the kind words people have said about my late father, a small-town attorney, whom most knew as Jimmy. Daddy died at 87, after working until the Friday before he had open heart surgery on Monday.
Many who have told us their memories of Daddy have spoken in hushed, almost reverential tones. Of course, eulogies do tend to be one-dimensional, especially eulogies offered in the Deep South. And Daddy’s life offered much to applaud.
He was a brilliant attorney and gifted teacher with high integrity, a strong work ethic, a keen mind and quick wit. He did many things throughout his adult life to help his community and the people in it. He won many awards and honors – each of them, well-deserved. He could provoke deep thought and loud laughter. I can’t count the number of folks who’ve said, “I just loved your dad!”
For all of you who have offered so many praises, it may be hard to believe that Daddy was terrified. He was terrified people wouldn’t admire him if they really knew him. He desperately wanted everyone around him to see only the good qualities, not the traits or attitudes or actions that needed improvement in any way.
But for all his trying to hide it (and succeeding to an incredible degree), Daddy was human. He did some things wrong. He made some poor choices. One of the most tragic: He didn’t allow himself to feel. Oh, he sparked strong – and typically positive – feelings in others. But after a difficult childhood capped by a traumatic war experience, he could rarely own, much less express, what he felt.
I don’t know if, on learning that, you who thought you knew him still admire him. But I do know this: Really knowing someone – the whole, complex, three-dimensional picture – is the only basis for truly loving that person.
As a child, I idolized my dad. I thought he was perfect. I’m sure that’s true for a lot of children. But because of Daddy’s terror of being known, I didn’t really know him until the last six years of his life. As I moved back closer to home and helped him and Mama through some of the hard aspects of aging, I saw.
As you might guess, coming to know a parent when you’re in your 50s – and realizing how little you knew him or her before – is jarring. Like an earthquake is jarring. It sparks all kinds of deep emotions, almost like finding out you’re adopted. Yet, what a relief to realize that someone you still subconsciously believed to be perfect (even with head knowledge to the contrary) is instead human, after all.
Having come to see both my parents as human and complex, I’ve learned that neither knew they were teaching us: It’s just as tragic to shut down your emotions as to be overcome by them.
Having acknowledged the ways my parents’ unhealthy choices have hurt me personally, I’ve found how truly freeing it is to forgive.
Thank you, heavenly Father, for my parents. Thank you for everything they taught and modeled that was good. Thank you that I can learn from their mistakes and sins. In particular, Father, you’re teaching me to feel my feelings; you’re showing me, Spirit-to-spirit, what to do with them. You’re leading me in the path of life.
Ahh. Having come to know my dad at last, in all his complexity and humanity, I remember him. I grieve for him. I deeply love him.