The closer something is to your heart, the more difficult it is to tell the story. Perhaps that is because those memories are held and treasured in a place where love guards the door. For that reason, this may be a difficult story to tell because this particular story is about someone I love very much. It is about my father. No one had a greater impact on my life then he did. Dad would be turning 97 the 20th of January and I am turning 59 tomorrow on the 15th. Since we shared January as our birthday month, it seemed like the perfect time to share his story. It is a story about life and death and life.
LIFE – My father’s name was John Richard Smithson. His physical description would be average height, slender, with dark hair and blue eyes. He loved history, geography and politics and was the best person possible to have on your team for Trivial Pursuit. He grew up in a small town during the depression and was an only child. He didn’t invest much effort on school work, but managed to graduate from junior college. His father died when he was 19, preventing Dad from pursuing any further college courses. The finances just weren’t there. Soon after, the war broke out and he joined the Navy where he was first a navigator and then a pilot.
When the war ended, he finished college on the GI Bill, then completed pharmacy school and began working at a small pharmacy in his old hometown. Just as life seemed to be settling down, he came to the conclusion that what he really wanted to be was a doctor. So Dad took a few needed courses and mailed off his application to medical school. Back then, there was an age limit which you couldn’t exceed to be accepted to the Oklahoma College of Medicine. He was on the brink of being too old and only had one opportunity to apply.
Dad didn’t get accepted that year, but they did put him on what was called the “alternate list”. An alternate would only be able to attend medical school if another student declined their initially offered spot. No one declined, but even years later my father marveled at the hand of fate that year. For some reason, the Oklahoma State Legislators voted additional funds to enlarge the class size of the medical school. Soon after, he was notified that he would be part of the upcoming class of 1955. He never forgot or stopped appreciating the fact that he somehow managed to get into that medical school class. Even after over 50 years of general practice, that small town boy who considered himself nothing special, was amazed that he was fortunate enough to be a physician. He just thought of himself as lucky. I believe it was providence, along with some humility on my father’s part.
Funny and kind are two words that described my dad. I would also say my father was competitive, which would apply to everyone in my family. From the time I was little, we played games. Not just any games, but games where someone won and the rest lost. With brothers who were 6 and 12 years older than me, it wasn’t all that easy to win. But Dad always tried hard to level the playing field and give me the chance to not only compete, but sometimes even win. Whether he was going to my softball games in grade school or taking home-movies of my cheerleading squad at football games (which embarrassed me beyond words), he was always cheering me on from the sidelines.
As a junior in college, I decided to apply to medical school. Doing well on tests had not been difficult for me so I didn’t bother studying for the Medical College Admissions Test at all. The evening prior, I stayed out socializing till two in the morning, arose at six and went to take the test. It was not my best performance by any means. Since I had made the decision late in the year, there was no time to retake it. In fact, despite a 3.78 grade point average and numerous college honors, I received a big fat “NO” from the two medical schools to which I applied. Each one asked what happened on the MCAT in the interview. I had no good answer for them other than, “I just didn’t do well that day.” That response wasn’t good enough for either one of the schools.
I am more than aware of the numerous things my parents could have said in response to my situation. But a week after my final med school rejection, I received a letter in the mail from my dad. He said he was sorry to hear of “the turn of events” but that he was proud of my college record and the numerous things I had achieved. Then he went on to recount situations in his life, as well as the lives of my two brothers, where defeat made success seem unlikely, yet they had overcome. At the bottom of his letter was a quote by Theodore Roosevelt, which he had held onto and seemed to capture the final outcome of many a dark disappointment.
“It is not the critic that counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.” As I finished reading those words, a defining moment in my life took place. My father had taught me the valuable lesson that I could fail and still be valued, still be respected, and still be loved.
DEATH – One evening, I received a call from Dad. He said in a matter-of-fact way, that he had done some lab tests on himself and it looked as though his kidneys were failing. After going through my mother’s death over 15 years earlier, he didn’t want to go through any big medical workups over something that couldn’t be changed. On the following Father’s Day, I bought him a Hallmark book that asked a question on the top of each page about his life. Dad loved to read and was a wonderful writer so he happily took on the journaling request. He had elected to just start at the beginning of his life and write the things he thought were important.
The months passed and as his health deteriorated, Dad elected to do dialysis. The nurses at the dialysis unit were beyond sweet to him and I will always be thankful for their kind care. That gratitude extends to the numerous friends and patients (many were both) who brought him meals, checked on him, and included him in their lives. Once when I was home with him, I asked him how the Father’s Day book was coming. Dad’s response was a little surprising to me.
He said that it had given him insight and that the more he wrote, the clearer things became for him. As he worked on recording the events, he began to see how they all interconnected and built on each other. For the first time he said he could see God’s hand at each and every step along the way, opening one door and closing others. That was a pretty novel thing for him to say because we didn’t really talk much about God when I was growing up. We went to church mainly on Christmas and Easter and I never saw anyone reading a Bible or praying much at our house. We would have said we were Christians, but I don’t think that was accurate. He once told me years later, he had thought religion was a joke until mom died. After that, he didn’t think it was a joke anymore. And now his own death loomed close at hand. Which leads us to the heart of the story.
LIFE – Even after a golden anniversary of practicing medicine, Dad still continued to see occasional patients up until the week he died. Through good times and hard times, his office was still his favorite place to be. And I believe he gave other people life, or at least better lives.
One evening, he began sharing some of the highlights of his own life with me. We had stayed up late, which he loved to do, watching a movie. When the show ended, I was exhausted and ready to head to bed. Dad laid down on the couch and pulled a blanket up, snuggling it around his neck. His eyes were mostly closed when I went over to give him a kiss goodnight. When I sat down beside him and whispered goodnight, he began softly talking. At first I wasn’t sure if he was talking to me or if he was talking in his sleep. It was like he was narrating a movie of his life that was playing in his mind. He talked about specific things that happened all through his life, very much like the Father’s Day book he was writing for me.
As he neared the end, Dad paused and a sigh passed through his lips. Then he said with sadness, “I have some regrets.” He named a few things, and at the time, I remember thinking to myself, “I’m not sure I really want to be here for this.” But I am so glad I was. Because sometimes the ugly only serves to make the good more beautiful. As he finished talking about one of his regrets, Dad immediately followed it with a statement that seemed to whisk it all away. “But I heard Reverend Scott say, that because of what Jesus did on the cross, my sins are forgiven – in the past, and the present and the future. And when he said that, it made sense to me, and I believe it to be true.” He stopped talking after that and drifted off to sleep with a calm that settled over him.
As I went up to bed, it struck me how simple and short the Gospel can really be. My father had expressed it in a few short words. Nothing fancy or difficult, but still profound. Two days later, he died. But not really. Because the life that is in him doesn’t end. Over 2,000 years ago, Jesus asked Martha a question about death. He said to her,”I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Martha’s response was, “Yes.” My response is the same. Because of the Gospel, death is swallowed up in victory and the mortal become immortal.
As the years have moved quickly by, the appreciation for the things my father taught me has grown. Most importantly, he showed me how to love well. In fact, it was easy for me to comprehend a God who loved unconditionally because I had known what that was like. The Scripture that says, “We love because He first loved us,” makes perfect sense to me. But for those of you who didn’t grow up with a father like that, I want you to know that you really do have one. He’s always loved you. He always will. Just look up and you’ll find Him.
Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous, it does not brag, and it is not proud. Love is not rude, is not selfish, and does not get upset with others. Love does not count up wrongs that have been done. Love takes no pleasure in evil but rejoices over the truth. Love patiently accepts all things. It always trusts, always hopes, and always endures. Love never ends. 1 Cor 13:4-8a
I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor ruling spirits, nothing now, nothing in the future, no powers, nothing above us, nothing below us, nor anything else in the whole world will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:38-39
So this body that can be destroyed will clothe itself with that which can never be destroyed, and this body that dies will clothe itself with that which can never die. When this happens, this Scripture will be made true: “Death is destroyed forever in victory.” 1 Cor 15:54
But God shows his great love for us in this way: Christ died for us while we were still sinners. Romans 5:8
Love the words to this song. The same is true for me.