At least two momentous historical events occurred in 1912. The first, of course, is that the Titanic sank. The second is that a baby was born. The little one was named Fred Harlan Wheat. And that baby grew up to be, among other things, my dad.
It is important to me to relate a bit of my dad’s story because September 21, 2018 would have been his 106th birthday. This number is important because my dad always said that he would live to be 106. Unfortunately, he succumbed to cancer at age 78. I was only 26.
The reality of just how young I was when he died came home to me recently when our oldest son turned 26 in September. When I look at him and see that he is still at the beginning of building his wondrous gift of a life, I realize I was only at my own beginning when I lost my father.
In fact, my dad died in 1990. 1990 is one of those “marker years” for me. By that I mean it made a mark on my entire life. That was the year we met four mentors who introduced us to Jesus in a new way through John 15 and the practice of solitude. It was also the year that Alan and I perceived a very clear call to our life’s work at an Urbana conference.
It was as though God provided a new place for me to stand and a new way for me to live right in the midst of my dad passing away. The gift of “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5) was potently real as my dad’s body wasted away over the course of six months.
Many times since then, at turning points in my adult life, I have regretted that I had not yet become interested in my dad as a human being before he died. He lived a rich full life and I didn’t get a chance to mine it for the gold that was there. My memories of his early-life stories are scattered and treasured.
He was a farm boy born in Holstein, Nebraska. He was one of four siblings. He served in the Navy and the Air Force as a mechanic. One of his titles was Master Sergeant. He had battled cancer before and won. He had a tremendous oval-shaped scar on his leg from a “shrapnel incident.” You could see the rectangular strips of skin they had used from his other leg. He had survived the Great Depression, World War II and the Korean War.
These are the things I wish I would have asked more questions about. I’ll never know the depths of his personal experience, and that makes me sad.
Of course, I have our memories together, but to share those would make this even longer, so I’ll cut to the chase now and share with you the most important thing about my dad.
I’ll start with a quote from Maya Angelou, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
This is exactly what I have from my father. I may not know all of his stories. I may have missed out on some really wonderful later-in-life conversations, but I will never be without the memory of how he made me feel.
My dad was a gentle-soul. He had a strong work ethic, working full time and also single-handedly taking care of our six-acre homestead. But alongside all of that was a tender heart and a peaceful demeanor. My dad listened to me. He encouraged me. He played with me. He’s the one who taught me how to do cartwheels when he was in his early 60s. I always felt safe with my dad and I knew he would always be there for me.
And he was the one who named me. Gem. Because of this I know exactly how he felt about me. He gave me the gift of my name.
I apologize if you are not finding an easy spiritual takeaway from this, but I just really wanted to share a piece of my dad with you in this, his 106th year.
Maybe the takeaway is this: I encourage you to be the kind of person who someone else can refer to when they quote Maya Angelou. They know how you make them feel—valued, seen, loved.
And here’s another: Don’t wait to ask questions of your loved ones. Get curious and listen well. Then treasure them even more than you already do.