Carry the Torch

Last week I spoke at my father’s funeral.

My dad was an elementary art teacher for 29 years. That means there were many art supplies in our home. As a child, I spent much of my time around the ping-pong table designing, drafting, sawing, drawing, painting, cutting, building, sculpting, stitching, and, gluing. My canvas was hardly large enough. The canvas of my dad’s life was brilliantly colored and he left this world with pieces of it in the hands of many thousands of people. He left a large imprint. An imprint of love.

Dad went to a very small private high school in North Dakota. He attended community college for one year before being called to serve in the Army during the Korean War. After his honorable discharge in 1955, he moved to Colorado to finish his Art Education degree, married mom in a small Colorado town, and made a small teacher’s salary.

Then dad went large. He and mom had five kids, and he taught hundreds of elementary-aged kids every weekday. During the summers, he worked for the school district teaching sports to many of these same children. He was a surrogate father for fatherless boys, taking them to ballgames, fishing, and mentoring them. He held art labs before and after school for anyone who wanted more “art time”. His labs overflowed with children wanting to finish their pottery for firing or to work on their marionettes. Dad’s canvas was radiant!

Supporting a large family wasn’t easy. Dad worked additional jobs after teaching hours to support us. After he retired from teaching, he worked security for ten years at the media gate for the Colorado Rockies. Everywhere he worked, he worked with integrity and kindness, enriching lives and adding new hues and fine details to his beautifully colored canvas.

After his kids grew into their 30’s and 40’s, he lost his wife – tragically – in a one-car accident. Mom had been diagnosed with aplastic anemia a year before she fell asleep at the wheel. She was only 72. Since her dad lived to 105, we projected she would too. But we were 33 years so painfully wrong.

Dad’s vibrant canvas suddenly faded to a simple drawing etched faintly with a black charcoal pencil. For ten years he stayed in his home, hardly exiting and barely existing. He slept during the day, and at night ran his errands. And he drew pictures. For years, we ‘kids’ contemplated how to get dad to live during the day, and sleep at night. We wanted to see him. We wanted him to be happy. But he chose to stay in the shadows.

Times were few when we went into his home – our childhood home. When we got a sneak peek, we saw his art tables and supplies in a corner, and file boxes and papers everywhere. Dad’s attention to detail and neatness were evidently buried with mom.

Then dad got sick and we almost lost him in the ICU. It was time to have the assisted living talk; my sister was successful. Moving him into a small room from his home was pretty much a nightmare. What was healing was being in our childhood home and seeing memories of our mom, and our past. We relished in the memories. For the first time, we got to hold and cherish the remembrances of mom. My favorite, her baby blue scarf.

Not many things could go with dad to his new living space, but necessities were his art table, supplies, and file boxes. What were in those boxes anyway?

We worried about dad. He hadn’t been very social for a decade, even with his children, or grandchildren, and now he was surrounded by people. If he wanted to eat, he had to do it with others. We tried to ease his transition by visiting him frequently to eat with him in the dining room. On one occasion, I witnessed a resident shouting loudly at a caregiver. I learned Peter was often pugnacious and angry. But dad had a wise solution. Saint Peter. In dad’s file box, he searched for a colored pencil drawing of Saint Peter he created during the past decade. He framed and delivered it to Peter, a few doors down, who softened at dad’s gesture of kindness. A new friend. Next, dad met Mary. He searched in his file box for one of many renditions of Mary, the mother of Jesus, he drew during the past decade. Then he met Joan. For Joan, he had no picture in his file box, so he drew Joan of Arc. She cried in delight. More friends.

Dad became the welcoming and healing committee through his gifts of love. During holidays, he made cards and stood at the front desk handing them out to each resident as they entered or exited the dining room. Paul received Saint Paul; Stephen received Stephen, the first biblical martyr; and Tom received Thomas, the apostle. Each resident, each doctor, each nurse, the chef, the caregivers, the volunteers, one by one, received a drawing from dad. Jesus was the most popular choice.

For ten years, God was preparing dad for his new ministry. For ten years, he was in the wilderness being prepped for a great work of service. For ten years, dad drew, and he was not alone. Dad was grieving his beloved, but in his grief, unbeknownst to him or his kids, God was orchestrating the healing of many hurts and pains of residents, doctors, and caregivers at his assisted living facility.

Framed drawings popped up everywhere – Minnie Mouse in the facility director’s office, Jesus in the accountant’s office, an owl at the nurse’s station, every kind of saint you have never heard of facing out from various resident’s windows. One day, dad received a knock on his door from a doctor who wanted to meet the artist who brought so much joy to his patients. He left with a smile and a drawing of Saint Luke, the doctor.

During the three years dad was there, he repainted his dim black charcoal canvas into a color-filled love-filled spectrum far-reaching canvas. He healed hurts of loneliness and forgottenness. He brightened days of slumber and boredom, he delivered messages of hope and faith, and he filled drab rooms with vibrant colors.

We wore colors to his funeral. Bright ones like his hundreds of shades of colored pencils. His five kids spoke, and when it was my turn, I told the story of a man who colored the lives of other people with his gift. A gift he gave prolifically. A gift the Lord gave him. I spoke of wanting to be like my dad and to find my gift to give during my suffering of grieving the loss of my ability to walk, and now also through my grieving the loss of my dad.

This is my attempt. To write. To write a canvas of stories that help comfort the lonely, nurture the brokenhearted, and uplift hopeless and defeated souls. I want to paint a beautiful canvas through my brokenness that radiates hope for others. I want to carry the torch for dad.

Welcome to Radiantly Broken.