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It was the first time, no, the only time, that I heard my father say something vulnerable. He spent 8 decades living with a code that proclaimed independence, strength, and invincibility, so when he phoned to say that he had cancer, he broke his own rules.

It was extraordinary for him to call at all; casual chat between us was not our way. Mom was always our relational conduit: it had been 8 months since she died. Since then, there were more connections, but always at my initiative. Losing a spouse is a supreme wound for anyone. Dad was less prepared than most to handle it. His personality and experience shaped him as a warrior. He fought through life and was proud to do so. I knew grief can’t be fought. It must be endured. He was 4,500 km away, living alone, refusing help, and determined to pin grief to the mat. My calls were attempts to assure him that he didn’t have to battle alone. Maybe he got the message and that’s why he called to disclose his diagnosis. I don’t know; he wouldn’t say.

I do know that since his admission, my occasional calls became weekly. He kept them brief and skimmed the surface of grief and cancer. He talked of the dog, weather and projects that needed to be done to the house. The topics were always something other than what needed to be said. I had come to expect avoidance and was jarred when he said, “I have to go into the hospital.” After insisting that he would be fine, he yielded to my intention to fly home. And then this, “When you get here, I want to talk with you.”

Confusion filled my mind on the flight to Ontario. What did Dad want to talk about? Whatever it was, he wanted it to be face to face, rather than over the phone. It could be about the will, some house repair, or the possibility of long-term care. It could be – but I longed for something more, something from the heart. Years earlier, I had written Dad a letter of confession, apology, and reconciliation. I wanted to acknowledge the vacuum between us, take ownership for my part in it and begin anew. The letter was received, but I never got a response. He never mentioned it. Perhaps this conversation would be the reset of what was broken. I dared to hope.

The morning I entered the hospital room, two of my sisters were already there. We surrounded Dad’s bed to stand watch. Our words were whispered to one another, hesitant to admit what seemed close. Dad was comfortable and lucid. He chit chatted easily and readily. It was mid-afternoon when I offered, “Dad, you wanted to talk with me?” He nodded his head. “Do you want me to suggest the girls go for coffee?” Again, he affirmed with a nod. I explained the situation to my sisters in the hall and they headed to the cafeteria. I drew close to Dad’s bedside and asked, “Dad, what is it you wanted to say?” He stared at the ceiling without looking my way. Behind his eyes there was a battle. I wanted to give him space to say what he intended to say, so I stood and waited. He was silent for 30 minutes and stared at the tiles above. Finally, I asked, “Do you want me to invite the girls back in?” Another nod, “Yes.” They re-entered and the room was filled again with conversation about the lint of life. Superficial words that smothered what mattered.

Dad died the next day. My two sisters were at his bedside while I was at the airport picking up my third sibling. They called to say that Dad was gone. Returning to the hospital, it struck me; distance and silence were my portion, even at the end. Whatever he wanted to say to me would be forever unsaid. What do we do when words we want to hear, words we need to hear, remain unspoken? There is grace from God even in this. What is it?

At first, I struggled with the silence, but no more. I have found peace in this. The last silence from my father was not absolute. There was a battle behind his eyes. While there were things he could not say, he had the intention to say them. He just couldn’t surface to his lips what was in his heart. I’ve learned to accept his intention. Being angry at someone for what they can’t do or can’t be is a bitter recipe for life. My dad’s final silence did not mute the intension of his love. Herein lies the grace. For the things I am not, for the things I want to do and can’t – God extends forgiveness, mercy, and love. So, what I have received from my Father, I extend to my father. That’s what grace does.

“bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, if any man has a complaint against any; even as Christ forgave you, so you also do.” – Col.3:13,   WEB

Scott Tolhurst

Scott Tolhurst

Scott and his wife have spent almost 50 years following God together through life, marriage and ministry. They’ve hop scotched across Canada and landed at the water’s edge on Vancouver Island. They’ve harvested the riches of family (5 grandkids!) and the delights of God’s people. Life has not always been clear but the fog has been pierced with these truths. The heart matters. Kingdom work is God’s. Nothing can replace faith. It never ceases to amaze Scott that, if his life is a gift, how great the Giver must be!

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