My father died while I was in the sky between Seattle and Denver Sunday morning. He was, as all people are, complex, and my feelings for him reflect that.
He never should have survived to adulthood. He was dropped on his head at delivery, a moment he joked about his entire life, never knowing until he was in his 60s that his brain had been divided by that blow. One side of his brain was dead tissue from the first moments of his life onward, but his brain rewired itself so that no one could tell from just knowing him. Once he learned this about himself, he joked about it as well, just as he joked about his left arm crippled by childhood polio. And yet he not only survived, he thrived, becoming a husband and father, and serving as an elder in congregations wherever he lived.
We were estranged for most of the last 16 years because I left the church he loved so much, and which loved him back without reservation, but I still loved him, admired and respected him even when I disagreed with his decisions. Fortunately, I was able to talk to him, have an actual conversation with him, even though his memory was ravaged by dementia, just a couple of weeks ago, not long before he slipped into the coma that presaged his death. It means a lot to me that we were able to have some small moment of reconciliation right before the end, that I could hear him cracking the same sorts of jokes he’d made when I was a boy.
A few years ago, I wrote a poem about him, titled “Jubilate Patro,” which roughly translates to “in praise of the father.” Or rather, my father. Here’s some of that poem as a final praise of him. I hope it captures some of that complexity I mentioned above.
For I will consider my father Sam
For he praises God in his mumbles and circular stories
For his left arm is crooked to remind him of original sin
For half his brain was cut off from blood when he was a baby
For it rewired itself
For his right arm is mighty in exchange
For with it he did not spare the rod
For he was an elder until Alzheimer’s took away his memory
For he was an accountant until Alzheimer’s took away his memory
For he praised God in his mumbles and circular stories before Alzheimer’s took his memory and thus it is a part of his soul
For he is still a storyteller even though he gets lost in his stories sometimes
For with his right arm he taught me how to snap off a curveball
For with his left arm he taught me to drive a stick shift
For with his half-brain he taught me to praise God among strangers
For he never explained football to me, but made me learn it myself
For he is taller than me even with the curve in his spine that causes him pain
For I will never know another man greater than him
For Sam Bennett Spears Jr.
Born October 3, 1940
Died March 2, 2014