My little brother is serving an LDS mission. He is in Germany for two years working to serve the spiritual and temporal needs of the people he encounters. Dad died when he was just five months into the mission. This project I’ve undertaken is personal, but I think, in this space, with my lovely readers, it is alright to share.
photo of dad and daniel, by justin hackworth
Dad spent more time talking about you than not in the months before he died. He was so anxious for you to understand your worth, so proud you were immersed in the Lord’s work and so worried you wouldn’t have enough mail to get you through the hard hours, days and weeks. His mom sent him something in the mail almost every day of his mission. It wasn’t always a letter, even for a loving mom there wasn’t enough to write about that often. Sometimes it was a funny card she saw at the grocery store, a clipping from the newspaper or just a photo of the people back home that loved him. He saved much of this correspondence and as a child, I remember loving to thumb through the silly morning cartoons and little somethings she’d sent across the ocean to a boy she loved.
We were eating BBQ at his favorite local smokehouse when the subject came up again.
“I keep thinking about Buddy. You know, some days are just so lonely and it is so meaningful to come home to something in the mailbox. But it’s hard to think of something to write every week on top of emails and regular letters. I’ve been thinking, what if someone sent him snippets of literature, poetry and other interesting writing? For example, a favorite passage from Mark Twain with the reasons that it is loved. The thoughts it brings to mind. It would be a great way to expand his horizons while he is gone while also filling his mailbox. I think if someone were to do that, it would be as meaningful for them as it was for Daniel.”
And then he took another bite of his ribs and the conversation moved on to other things.
You know Dad. He was asking me to take on this project without really asking. I thought about it for a minute and then got caught up in fall, winter and then the months that came and took him away. In the time since he has been gone, I have missed him for me, but I have also missed him for you. I had a sitter today and should have been working. Instead, I drove around town and cried over the pen pal you’ve lost. I pulled into a parking lot and bent into the steering wheel and asked the air around me what I could do to help you, to give you the experience Dad was so anxious for you to have. Through the wet on my cheek and the grip on the wheel I felt a drop of calm and remembered that conversation over spice rubbed ribs and mustard sauce.
I can’t give you the letters Dad would have written, but I can finally start the project he sneakily laid on my doorstep that day. I don’t know how much it will help you. I can tell you that it will help me. Dad used to call me just to tell me about a good line he’d read in his latest book and he was always interested when I came to him with new to me discoveries he’d found years ago. Right now, I can’t think of a better way to keep that close to me.
So, you’ve got about 54 weeks left in Germany and I’ve got at least 54 new and old discoveries to share. Some will catch you where you stand and others you’ll watch pass you by. There will be lightfilled poems and heartwrenching prose. And maybe just a few thoughts on astronomy, gardening, food cultures, the likelihood of a zombie apocalypse or anything else that sparkles long enough to catch my wandering eye. I can’t say that the collection will be more than its many little parts. I can say Dad wanted us to have it. And for me, right now, that’s enough.
First, a poem from CS Lewis. I found these lovely lines in a book given to me by my friend, Rachel. She sent it to me in the weeks before Dad’s death and it has been a constant companion since then.
It is eighteen years ago, almost to the day –
A sunny day with the leaves just turning,
The touch-lines new-ruled – since I watched you play
Your first game of football, then, like a satellite
Wrenched from its orbit, go drifting away
Behind a scatter of boys. I can see
You walking away from me towards the school
With the pathos of a half-fledged thing set free
Into a wilderness, the gait of one
Who finds no path where the path should be.
That hesitant figure, eddying away
Like a winged seed loosened from its parent stem,
Has something I never quite grasp to convey
About nature’s give-and-take – the small, the scorching
Ordeals which fires one’s irresolute clay.
I have had worse partings, but none that so
Gnaws at my mind still. Perhaps it is roughly
Saying what God alone could perfectly show –
How selfhood begins with a walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go.
Daniel, we could sit and talk about the concepts introduced in those few words for hours and hopefully, someday we will. But for now, I will share just a few brief and incomplete impressions.
First, I think sometimes as we grow up we feel that we must be the ones that do the walking away to achieve our selfhood. You and I both know now, that isn’t true. Dad never would have walked away from us, rather he was carried from us. But he is away, nonetheless. So you and I and all the people that looked to him, and the partnership comprised of him and mom, are left a little like our friend in the poem, searching for a path where none seems to lie. The path is there, it is just waiting for you to make it. Take the first step. Yes, we’ve been burned by the ordeals that fire and set our irresolute and immortal clay. Buddy, I want you to know, that it’s okay if it feels too hot sometimes. Don’t let the heat distract you from the flames’ work. Acknowledge the pain of the fires that lick and then feel about your soul for the things they’ve hardened into place.
Second, in both the most brilliant and most agonizing moments of mortality, we are given glimpses of God. Separation is the act most necessary for us to establish our eternal selfhood. We must walk away from home to get back it both in mortality and immortality. You and I believe that we were sent here, away from our heavenly home so that we could become more like God. What I think we often forget is that by reaching to become our best selves, we are also reaching for our divine selves. God trusts us to become like Him by living up our truest selves. It’s a beautiful and heady and honorable task. You are strong enough for it, I promise.
And finally, love does not dissipate across the distance of space or time. Rather, those two things work to prove its construction. Love doesn’t simply reach across the baseball field, the move from home, the closed casket. It overcomes them and sees clearly beyond them and and picks us up to place us in the spheres we are meant to inhabit. We’ll find one another there when this mortal daylight dims. Until then, we’ve got fire to face, paths to make and love to prove.
I’m watching from across the field and buddy, you’re doing just fine.
On Saturday, Riley and I shook off our househead and took the girls to the Strawberry Days festival in the next town over. It was one of those – hot damn the sun is burning my soul – kind of days. All the colors of the carnival rides were multiplied by the heat. Just hip high, my daughters looked at the carousel and ferris wheel and spinning orbit of death with awe across their eyes and rose red cheeks. I wanted to see the small festival in their big way, so I knelt down and held them while we looked up.
I grew up on fairs and festivals. I can hear my childhood in the clink of the gates at the front of the line. Taste it in the funnel cakes and spiral cut potatoes. Glimpse it in the exhilarated faces of my girls while they ride something that is just a little faster than they expected. I can’t really explain it. The words aren’t there to capture the feeling. But as I saw my daughters whip around the corner of each ride, look for us in the crowd and smile with pride at their bravery, I felt closer to my dad than I have since his death in February.
He and my mom used to stand in the crowd while I adventured across the metal landscape of carnival rides. I’d look for their faces in my joy or fear and then smile because because I knew they understood. My dad’s parents were both dead by the time he was my age. I wish I could hug him then. A twenty nine year old orphan with wife and babies and no parents in the crowd to search for as he laughed and cried across the landscape of life. Maybe without them, he turned to us. Maybe he felt closer to them, too, while he stood and watched his babies. Maybe, just maybe, in those moments we were able to give to him half of what he gave to us.
After the rides, we ate hot dogs and kettle corn. The girls walked ahead of us to the car, the paper crowns Riley got them trailing glory and cut stars into the heat. As we drove by the carnival, I let myself look into the crowd just once. I didn’t see what I knew wasn’t there. So I reached for Riley’s hand and then turned to the girls,
“That was so great, you guys. Thank you for going with me. What was your favorite part?”
They chattered in their little voices about all the little big things of the day.
And I smiled through the tears.
I’ve got ten voicemails from my dad saved onto my phone. They nearly all say the same thing,
“Hey, Megs. It’s Dad. Give me a call back. Love you.”
One is a three minute long peek into a discussion he had with Riley about work. Minutes of grace from a misdialed phone. I love to hear him have a conversation again. The cadence of his voice and the image of his hands moving with his words.
My favorite is from last year on February 27th. He’s wishing me a happy 28th birthday. It feels like my birthday every time I listen to it.
I’ve listened to most of them since he died. Easing myself into the seconds that hold his voice. It both excruciates and alleviates.
On friday, I was doing laundry and breathing through the loneliness that still hits with closed fists. Freshly dried towels spilled across the concrete. I bent down to pick them up and decided I was done standing for awhile. When I sat down I let my weight rest on the warm the towels and the cold floor.
Maybe it would help to hear his voice again.
Phone out, I couldn’t bring myself to press his name through the cracked screen. So I found a voicemail from my mom from December 4, 2012, thirteen days before his initial diagnosis. I save some of her voicemails but this one had never been played. A message that slipped through the cracks of my technological neglect. Maybe there’s a meaning behind these things. Perhaps, I thought as I leaned my head against the wall and closed my eyes, perhaps I had been unconsciously saving this message for this moment. Maybe, I thought, it was the two of them. Calling from the car. Inviting me to lunch or checking in. My mom pretend yelling about my dad and my dad laughing in the background. Maybe.
I pressed play.
And there was silence.
It was the kind of silence that can be recorded – cracks and clicks, the sense of air moving. I sat and listened to the quiet on cooled towels and cold concrete. I cried for the beauty of the thing. As the seconds picked up and slowed down across the voicemail, I felt the awe of a time traveler. For a moment I could almost touch the space it had carried to me – a time before we knew the change that waited, a place with thirty more christmases and the weight of his hand on my shoulder. I held the past against my head. It rang against my eardrums and vibrated across the spaces of my brain. It seemed like it was only my misunderstanding of time and space that kept me from being enveloped and carried back to it completely.
At the advent of the hot air balloon, men and women of science took to the skies risking breath and limb. They were equipped with barometers and ballast and journals to record the shape of the clouds. There is a story of an intrepid seeker that climbed to the highest heights and attempted to take samples of air at altitudes never before breached by man. He thought, that maybe, the air was different there. So he went up and brought down jars of the stuff and sought to compare it to the air he breathed six feet above heather and holly. I’ve always wondered how he thought he’d keep it all from flowing out from under his fingers when he opened that jar for his first experiments.
He, of course, would have discovered the same thing about air that I discovered about time on that laundry room floor. There isn’t anything much that differentiates the time we course through now and the time we coursed through then. One is simply harder to reach.
The recording with its cracks and gaps ended. I hadn’t really been carried anywhere that would keep me.
My little girls laughed and called from upstairs. So, I pushed myself up off the floor and into the hall to the moments that are ahead. There seemed to be no other choice, all the ones that lay behind keep flowing out from under my fingers.
So my dad died of Leukemia. And then my mom was nominated Woman of the Year for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. And now we are raising money to give to research dedicated to kicking cancer’s sad angry bottom. When I posted about that campaign last week, my readers donated almost $2000. It was humbling and kind and just so powerful.
We’ve got one last way for you to help and it’s pretty damn delicious. Today from 5 – 8 pm, 20% of the sales at the Chick-Fil-A in American Fork, Utah will be donated to the cure cancer campaign in my Dad’s name. (Check out picture below for the deets.) I will be there rallying the crowd and there will be enough Chick-Fil-A sauce to satiate even the most addicted among us. Bonus? If you share the photo below on social media with the #chickfightscancer, you are entered to win a $100 gift card to Chick-Fil-A. Yeah, that’ll buy you a lot of friend chicken, and that’s not a bad thing.
Want to help but can’t make the dinner? Donate here.
Photo by my dear friend Heather
When my dad was diagnosed with Leukemia in 2012, my mom never left his side. I think that sometimes I say that to people and they think she must have been around a lot throughout the months of treatment and trepidation. And then, before we move on with the conversation I shake my head and say,
No, no, you don’t understand. She was always there. She slept in a chair in the hospital room for months straight. She had to walk up to the maternity floor every day to shower. She ate hospital food and breathed in illness and fear and hope. She had endless optimism and an understanding faith. She held his hand and his heart and in doing so, taught us how to do the same. She understood that sometimes in life we must stand sentinel over the ones we love as they face the very hard things that make us all very mortal. My dad’s last year on earth was fortified and sanctified by the strength of the woman he loved.
Her example didn’t go unnoticed and in the months during his brief remission, she was nominated by one of the nursing staff as the Leukemia and Lymphoma Woman of the Year. They said she was an example of courage for anyone involved in the care of a loved one with cancer. They said they hoped others would learn from her example. They said that when faced with the seemingly inevitable, the good hope of someone you love is the best thing.
They were right.
My dad died 8 weeks ago. We are all still slowly falling apart and wondering if the new parts of our hearts will land in the right place. It has been a rending, sacred, shocking kind of thing. And my mom, my lovely mom, is still nominated to be LLS Woman of the Year. Her role is to raise awareness and funds for Leukemia research. The campaign ends in a couple of weeks and I’d like us to gather together and help her stand sentinel one more time. All the money raised will go to research to find a cure for the disease that took her husband. If we raise enough, she gets to donate it in my dad’s name and give it to the branch of Leukemia research of her choice. This is important. My dad’s life was extended significantly by a new treatment that is not widely available. If she raises enough money, she’ll be able to help others gain access to the treatment that gave our family some of the most precious months of our lives.
Here’s the thing. Anything helps. Any little thing. Whether you donate this week’s diet coke money or something more sizable, I will be forever grateful that you helped my little mom do a very big thing.
You can donate dolla dolla bills here, Kim Conley Woman of The Year Page.
Want to eat and donate? Head to the Sonic in American Fork, mention this flyer and they will donate 20% of your order to LLS. (Also? There is another delicious fundraiser happening at Chick-Fil-A next week. Come on down!)