What Matters Most

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Hubert Earl Harris, 1912-1999

With the dawn of a fresh year comes the realization that this is the eighteenth anniversary of my dad’s death.  He died on New Year’s Day, 1999.  My daughter, Diane came to visit him at the nursing facility where he lived that day.  He wasn’t in his room and it was supper time, so she went with Mom to her apartment to eat, then returned to discover he had just died.  He was four months short of 87 years of age.

Dad  was an active, outgoing, innovative, energetic man who lived a normal, healthy life.  He was a salesman, contractor, and devoted man of faith whose life turned around providing for his family.  His son Paul suffered from severe cerebral palsy (CP), so providing for his well-being became all-important.  Dad and Mom founded a residential school for developmentally disabled adults during a time when services for the disabled were beginning to increase.  I have always believed Dad’s health began to decline after Paul’s death in 1989.

So, today I am thinking about Dad.  My first memories are from the years before any of my siblings were born.  Dad would get down on the floor and romp with me, letting me climb all over him.  He would tickle my feet and I’d try to tickle his and make him laugh.  In the car (late 1930’s when there were no seat belts or child safety seats) he would have me stand next to him with my arm down behind his back.

One day we found out that didn’t really work when we were involved in an accident and I was thrown forward, cutting my head on the floor mounted gearshift handle.  The policeman who responded to the accident put me in the back of his patrol car and took us to the hospital.  I still remember how thrilled I was to hear the siren blowing…it was great excitement.  The injury turned out to be minor, although I still bear the scar from it on my forehead.

In those years Dad would carry me piggy-back, and pull me around in a Radio Flyer wagon.  Then he’d get in the wagon for me to pull him, which he enabled with his feet.   I delighted in every adventure my dad shared with me during those early years.

Three years after I was born, my sister, Merle, came along.  Three years after that, Paul was born…then six years later came my youngest brother, Jim.  Sis with a heart murmur, and Paul with CP, created a different scenario to our family life.  While I always felt close to my dad, I suppose the specialness of being the first child, the center of parental focus, receded with increased challenges and responsibilities.

I copied Dad’s early relationship with me as my own children came along.  I still love to get down on the floor with grandchildren and romp around, playing with them, building blocks for them to knock down, and a score of other things embedded in my subconscious mind from those early days with my dad.   

During my pastoral ministry I would get down with the children for their special time during worship, and try to communicate by imagining how God and everything else must seem to them.  During some years my wife and I wrote puppet plays to give a simple spiritual message.  A member in one church even built a special puppet stage for those occasions.  We had puppets named Jerry (for Jeremiah), and Naomi, as regulars.

When I no longer did children’s time that way, I used a puppet dog, or other animal, as an identity figure.  My brother, Jim, who is an associate pastor, still specializes in children’s messages in ways that are far more creative than I ever imagined.  I haven’t asked him, but I suspect we both got that talent from our own dad when we were young.

So, Dad went to his eternal home eighteen years ago, following a ten-year journey through colon cancer and Alzheimer’s Disease.  Sixteen-and-a-half years later Mom joined him…along with Paul and Sis.  I don’t know how long Jim or I will continue our earthly journeys, but I do know from my experience with Dad that it’s the small things we do in simple daily relationships with children, and others, that matter most while we’re here.