Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Dads, Part II: Moriah’s Pinnacle

Dad stood on the rostrum, half-hidden behind his swaddled newborn son, teaching about Abraham and Isaac. Sensing an opportunity to illustrate the poignant moment when a righteous father was required to sacrifice his longed-for and long-promised son, he’d cradled me on the pulpit and, in a measured and dramatic movement, pulled a knife, which he held over his head as if ready to sink it through my squirming body. With his typical tenderness and the intense love he had for his then growing family, it must have taken all his strength to act this part as he tried to breathe new life, both for himself and for the congregation, into this often clichéd experience.

When he withdrew the knife, I picture the way he must have characteristically bit his tongue to divert the tears while considering the gall through which Abraham must have waded before uncovering the resolve to obey, even if that obedience meant severing his tie to the posterity God had promised. And for certain the tears escaped when he shared the angel’s last minute reprieve, the stirring of the thicketed ram, the near-suffocating embrace born of increased love that the patriarch and his heir surely savored on their descent from Moriah.

I also picture the way he closed his remarks, returned to his seat, gathered me into his anxiety, and exhaled, grateful both to be done speaking and to know that he would never be required to shed my blood on the altar of sacrifice.

However, roughly eight years later, with his call to serve in the stake presidency, came what I believe was a summons into Abrahamic trial. And though this didn’t carry the stroke of physical disruption Abraham was prepared to impart, it has produced much the same psychic strain, I believe, as that through which the father and son passed on their mutual ascent to faith’s pinnacle.

Over the twenty years subsequent to that call, I’ve watched Dad labor to juggle the increasing demands of his career; of faithful service in the stake presidency, a high council, and now another stake presidency; of his diabetes, a heart attack, and associated health problems; and of his still expanding family. I’ve seen the gravity of age press wrinkles into his face and increased wisdom and compassion into his eyes.

And I’ve questioned over and over why he’s always injected so much of himself into Church service, why his life and happiness has always appeared to revolve around the almighty Meeting.

I used to believe this reflected a lack of desire to involve himself in his children’s lives. When I was a junior in high school, I remember growing despondent over my sense that I didn’t know him. If pressed, I could offer his statistics—birthdate, birthplace, height, shoe size, years of marriage, number of kids, hair and eye color, years in the stake presidency, etc.—but didn’t feel we’d spent enough time together to have the sort of relationship I thought I wanted to have with him. We didn’t go fishing or work on cars or play sports together (not that, in retrospect, we’d have enjoyed doing these things together). And our conversations ran the gamut from one-liners to lectures or me asking for money and him giving what he could. It never occurred to me to search beneath the gloss I’d given our interactions to find my true place in his life.

Looking back now, beneath the light of my own fatherhood and a maturing comprehension of my (inherited) introspective tendencies, I’m able to reconceive moments that I’ve long viewed as hinging on his failure to connect with me. No longer blinded by the childish vision of parent as clairvoyant and touched by an understanding that to get something I must express it, these disappointments merge into subtle acts of intimacy. Two such moments have recently reconfigured themselves in my memory. The first, as I recall it, goes something like this:

Bedtime. My bedroom. Dad and I sit on my bedside, talking about something Mom told him I was struggling with. As he stands to leave, I hold him back with my eyes.

He turns. “Anything else you want to talk about?”

In my head I scream, “Yes! But what? I’m only eight. And I’m tired. I’ve got school in the morning. But I want to stay up with Dad. What do I say? Something… ‘There’s this girl?’ No. ‘I’ve got a math test coming up.’ No. Anything. But what?”

I stare up at him and shake my head.

“Okay. I love you,” he says.

“Love you, too.”

“G’night.”

“’Night.” My head drops on my chest.

He turns out the light and shuts the door behind him. I almost follow until I see the light from his room go on and fade as he shuts the door.

He’s got work,” I say to myself. “And we’re tired. Maybe another night.”

Now I know that if only I’d said something, he would have stayed as long as I wanted him to.

And the second moment, representative of so many more:

“Expect a cool one today, with high temperatures coming in the high 50s.

“And now for traffic…”

My pulse engulfs the blaring radio.

Why do we have to listen to the radio every morning?” I ask him in my head.Why can’t you just ask me questions about school, homework, even girls… anything.”

I glare at him, waiting for an answer, and then out my own window. I watch the younger, bundled kids skipping along the sidewalk, their bookbags bouncing with each giddy step.

He clears his throat. I turn and wait for the words to flow. And wait. And wait. At the stop sign marking the turn out of our neighborhood, I wait some more, fiddling with the zipper on my bag. It slips from my hands. I reach for it. Something drifts across the radio about so-and-so dying.

Death. That’s a good topic,” I think. “A bit heavy for the morning, but good. ‘What do you think about death, son?’ Go on; say it.” I look at him.

He clears his throat again and pulls into the stream of traffic headed up the street. After a brief moment of speed, the stream dies.

“Great,” he says, more to the inching train than to me. He looks at the stereo clock—ten minutes to—and fiddles with the steering wheel. Reaching into his suit pocket, he pulls out a roll of mint Life-savers, rips away the layer of foil, and offers one to me.

“Thanks,” I say.

He clears his throat and pops one in his mouth. “So your mother tells me you have a test today?”

“Yeah. In math.”

“Are you ready?”

“I think so.”

“I’m sure you’ll do fine.” He looks ahead, puts the truck into first gear, and heads up the street.

I match his line of vision as we move through the empty lane and say, “That train was fast.”

“It sure was. Let’s hope we’re not late.” The truck shakes as he drives up the hill, and turns down one road, then another.

As the school gets closer, I wish the train had been a little longer.

Dad drove me to junior high for three years and, nearly every morning, I wished for something to spark a conversation between us. Not once, however, did I think to strike the flint myself and then to fan the flames with my own words.

As I’ve matured into adulthood, I’ve diagnosed his eagerness to serve as a symptom of a sense of inadequacy. In other words, I felt that by allowing himself to be swallowed up in service outside the home, he has attempted to bridge the distance between his weakness and his potential Godhood. To some degree, this may be true for all who serve in God’s kingdom, especially in when we consider Alma’s teaching that, in the church he started by the waters of Mormon, “the priests were […] [to receive] for their labor […] the grace of God, that they might wax strong in the Spirit, having the knowledge of God, that they might teach with power and authority from God” (Mosiah 18:26). I for one have certainly been compelled at times to intensify my Church service in an effort to negate the effects of my weakness in an outpouring of God’s grace. As I ripen with experience, I don’t see anything inherently wrong with this desire, taken, of course, in moderation.

On the contrary, I believe the compensation of grace for labor in part reveals God’s reason for allowing us to serve in His Kingdom: we can’t reach our full potential as heirs of Eternal life alone. In order to become attuned to the spiritual realities through which we come to know God and gain the experience necessary to teach others with authenticity here and hereafter, our souls need the stretching that comes from expending ourselves in service to God as well as the grace extended through Christ’s Atonement. Otherwise, mortality is a moot proposition.

Yet, even with my evolving understanding of and compassion towards Dad, these diagnoses somehow haven’t allowed me to create a complete picture of the Abrahamic legacy he’s offered to his posterity. The final piece of this puzzle came only recently through the mediation of my wife.

She’d returned home from a visit with Mom and, against the backdrop of a five year discussion centered on my struggle to understand Dad, turned the key that unlocked the central paradox of my father’s love. “Your mom told me,” she said, “that your dad has worked so hard to serve in the Church because he feels like that was the only way God would keep him around long enough to provide for his family.”

After processing her comment, I opened my Doctrine and Covenants to section eighty-four and read again, as if for the first time, the promise God extends to faithful bearers of His priesthood:

And the sons of Moses and of Aaron shall be filled with the glory of the Lord, upon Mount Zion in the Lord’s house, whose sons are ye; and also many whom I have called and sent forth to build up my church.

For whoso is faithful unto the obtaining these two priesthoods […] and the magnifying their calling, are sanctified by the Spirit unto the renewing of their bodies.

They become the sons of Moses and of Aaron, and the seed of Abraham, and the church and kingdom, and the elect of God (D&C 84:32-34).

As I read, I realized that in offering so much of himself to the Church and Kingdom of God, Dad has followed Abraham to Moriah’s pinnacle, prepared to offer on the altar of sacrifice that which (I know now) is most important to him: the lives and the love of his posterity.

For years I resented the way this required him to miss the events that, in my youth, I considered important. And yet, searching back, I hear something stir the thicket of my experience and turn to see him standing quietly on the borders of my life (he’s an introvert, too), always ready to offer his characteristic joke and his integrity to steady his often wavering son.

And now I return to something I’ve used elsewhere in this blog (this was its original context), but with a different focus: On May 19, 2007, I passed through the bowels of hell en route to finishing my first full marathon. After limping the last sixteen miles due to the tightening of my Iliotibial Band (read: near-crippling pain radiating from just below the outer knee) and wading through mild dehydration and not-so-mild mental fatigue, I crossed the finish line and grabbed a bottled water from my wife. She walked with me through the finisher’s area, past the medical tent, the apples, oranges, bagels. Through the blur of my vision, I searched for a sturdy figure against which to brace my exhaustion. As we turned the corner, I saw Dad and Mom standing beneath a towering oak, tending our two daughters.

He’d stepped forward and gathered me into his chest, squeezing tighter than he had since I stepped off the plane from Auckland via LAX and Salt Lake International. As my head fell against his broad shoulders, he said, “You did it,” and swallowed. “I’m proud of you.”

“Thanks,” I returned, biting my tongue to stop the tears. “I’m really glad you’re here.”