My Dad Died, But I'm Okay
Dad left his body on December 16, 2020, after almost 89 full years of work, joys, pain, and many, many baseball games. I was holding his hand as this Korean War veteran’s breathing slowed, slowed, and then stopped. His heart continued for another 10 minutes, and then it was over. Peacefully.
My father is a good man and a great man. I’m not writing in present tense because I’m in denial, but because our faith is that Dad is more alive today than we are. I’ve put all my chips on the number that says that heaven is free of pain, sorrow, tears and sin, and it’s awaiting those who put their faith in Christ. And that is where I hope and believe my father is now.
How can I be sad for my dad? He’s with the God whom he served faithfully since he was 36 years old. And he’s with his beloved wife of 54 years, my mom, whom he couldn’t wait to see again after a long nine years. He was more than ready to go home, as he often said.
But he didn’t live a morose life of complaining in his dotage. To the contrary, he was grateful for the little things all day and every day. Hardly a phone call ended without his expressing gratitude for me, my call, his daily bread, his fantastic family, his community of friends, or any number of other good things for which he was genuinely and unrelentingly grateful. That was the secret of my father’s enduring contentment.
What’s the measure of my father? Three kids, 14 grandkids, and four great-grandkids. A successful career. Years of coaching little league, serving on church committees, volunteering in his local political party, sitting through freezingly long high school band competitions, writing political commentaries, and finally completing his 400-page autobiography.
But that’s not the half of it. He loved me unconditionally. I never, ever feared losing my father’s love. Not when I struck out at the plate for the umpteenth time. Not when I lost the faith he cherished (regaining it inch-by-inch). Not in staking out a political position contrary to his – he was proud of my independent thought. Not when I was fired and disgraced. Dad loved me because of one incontrovertible reason: I was his son, and nothing would ever change that.
It’s hard for me to imagine what it must be like to not have a father like that, but I know many people don’t. They may achieve great things in pursuit of their father’s approval, but they’re driven by the gap and not the fullness. I once said to a U.S. Senator that his father must be so proud of him. He looked away and quietly said, “My father has never said so.” Ouch. I could tell it hurt him. How could it not?
Having a father who told me until the last week of his earthly that he was proud of me is a gift beyond measure. It also reminds me that I started life on third base, unlike so many others, and I have no room to boast. What do I have that is not a gift of God, much of it delivered to me through my earthly father?
Am I devastated to lose my father? I’m not. I adore him and will be forever grateful for him. But my happiness for him at seeing God face to face – a God to whom he sincerely and fervently prayed every day since age 36, and being reunited with my mother, who was the apple of his eye – outstrips my sadness by a country mile.
Death sucks. It wasn’t in God’s original plan, and God is an enemy of death. It’s one reason why I cried a bunch of times the week he died. I grieve that death has extinguished Robert Wichterman’s earthly frame. It’s not supposed to be this way.
But if, thanks to human rebellion, death has come to dominate this broken world, slowly ravaging our faculties, stealing our friends, and overcoming our defenses, and if the restoration of all things stands on the other side of the River Styx for those who call God “Lord,” then how can I not be happy for my father?
I’m turning 57 next week, and my skin is beginning to sag and wrinkle. I forget words more readily than I once did. I get tendonitis. These are all portends of worse things to come -- if I live long enough to endure the growing indignities of age. But they also get me excited about my own departure from this mortal coil. I get excited that I’m likely closer to heaven than I am to my college graduation, and maybe much closer. I can’t wait to see God, and I’ve felt this way since I gave my life to God at 17. Now I can’t wait to see my father and my mother.
My dad’s story has begun anew – a much, much better story. We will meet again. This hope makes my sadness bearable and my joy for my father irrepressible.