My father, David James Williams, gently passed from this life on Sunday evening, May 3, 2020. He was 96 years old. Dad was born on January 28, 1924 on the banks of the Ohio River, in the town of Martins Ferry, Ohio. He was the youngest of six children of a car inspector for the Nickel Plate Railroad and his wife, who baked the communion bread for their church. Dad graduated from Kentucky Christian College in 1946, and over the next 43 years held ministries in Advance, Indiana; Huntington, West Virginia; Akron, Ohio; and Grayson, Kentucky. In 1989 he and Mom retired to Lexington, Kentucky where they lived for the last 31 years of their lives. Mom preceded Dad in death by five months. One of the last things Dad said at her funeral was, “Time to go. I’ll see you later.” Later has arrived and I imagine they are picking up where they left off, after 73 years of marriage.
A few months ago, I bought a mug from Cath Kidston, though not your typical Cath Kidston mug. This one had a western theme with a cowboy twirling a lasso while riding a bucking bronco. Though I had no idea why, the second I saw the mug I knew I had to have it. Monday morning, about 12 hours after my father’s death, a memory stirred.
My father was always busy. I understand. I inherited his need for movement. On Saturdays he mowed the lawn, cleaned the garage, weeded the garden, swept the basement and washed the car. And he did it all in a flannel shirt my mother absolutely despised. The shirt was a black, white and red print of cowboys on bucking broncos. I thought it was the coolest shirt in the history of mankind. When dad was wearing that shirt, I knew no matter what he was doing, he would be happy to have me close by. He needed the diversion I brought from whatever job he was tackling.
Dad was not all that handy. My father had a knack for turning small repairs into major catastrophes. When he tried to put up a pole lamp (a thing in the 60s) he somehow broke the lamp, cut the cord, and burned a hole in the carpet, all in a matter of about 30 seconds. I mean, that’s pretty impressive. And he did it all wearing that flannel shirt, and the grimace that went with it. Whenever Dad used his hands to do anything other than type, he wore the same grimace, usually accompanied by a lot of muttering and a trip to the hardware store for parts that had somehow been destroyed during the repair process. It turns out the grimace and its attendant mayhem are genetic. I can type faster than a streak of lightning, but outside of that, my hands should be forbidden from attempting the simplest of household repairs, all approached wearing the same grimace, though not the same shirt. My New York handyman, also a friend, used to say, “Why don’t you stick to earning your money speaking and pay me to put that shelf up for you. You’ll save us both a lot of grief.”
I am pleased I share other traits with my father. We both were way more interested in asking good questions than in finding answers. We knew a lot of the big questions cannot be answered on this side of time and space, and are likely to be elusive on the other side as well. We both found people interesting, all manner of people, and never encountered a subject that bored us. If your passion was archery, we’d talk with you about archery for hours. It left us both with a lot of basically useless knowledge. Dad and I both loved the church, and though it sometimes treated us badly, we never lost our conviction that the good news of the Gospel is indeed the hope of the world.
Dad was a better pastor than I. Everyone loved him. He was gentle, approachable and kind. He was not a great preacher, but he was a great lover of people. And he loved me. My father delighted in me. Right up until the last two years of his life, he loved talking with me about theology, politics, anthropology, music, or any other subject that struck my fancy. Dad was eternally curious. He was also honest. If I had a big problem and asked for his help, he often would answer, “Well, I don’t know what to tell you. You’ll have to puzzle over that one on your own.” I found that wonderfully freeing. If my own father didn’t know the answer, it was all right for me not to know the answer either. He gave me permission to say, “I don’t know,” and to realize it is often the most holy of answers.
One of the reasons I wanted to make it through life without transitioning was because I knew it would bring great pain to my family, including my parents. Yet my father, who was 90 when I transitioned, chose to embrace me as me. He had plenty of questions, but unlike most evangelicals, he was willing to listen and learn. Dad lived as though there was one truth that triumphed over all others. I saw it in how he treated church members and strangers and all manner of humans, including his youngest child. Dad believed that love wins, and every ounce of my own theology is born of that same conviction.
My father is being buried this morning, next to my mother, in the little cemetery in Grayson, Kentucky where my grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousin are buried. It is the cemetery just north of where my grandmother lived, the cemetery where she took us for picnic lunches in the cool summer grass when we were children, the cemetery where I rolled down the hill laughing and looking up at the cumulus flecked sky, reveling in the simple goodness of being alive.
When I think of those picnics, and the love my father showered upon me, and the mystery and wonder that this precious life is even possible, I am filled with gratitude, and carry on, in my own heart, the same firm conviction that breathed its truth into my father’s soul – that above all else, love wins.
Carl Jung described life as a short pause between two great mysteries. My father lived his short pause to the fullest, a true gentleman, living joyfully, trusting in the slow and steady work of God. Enjoy eternity, Dad. I know you’ve got a lot of questions you want to ask and people you want to love. And I hope that when you explore your new home, and look in the closet, you’ll find that flannel shirt waiting for you.”