After I dealt with the obvious, my dad glanced at me over his coffee and reminded me to make it a story.
My dad always told me to use story-telling techniques, even when I was writing the most prosaic research paper, because people want to hear stories, not big ideas. He was obsessed with circles and cycles and titles and relationships.
He loved stories where the stranger in chapter 4 becomes significant in chapter 17. Where ideas and characters come full circle and everything makes sense in the end. Stories where even the names are meaningful, where the heroes have names that sound heroic and the villains have names that sound villainous.
That's why my dad loved the Bible, the greatest story ever told. He loved the circles, the cycles of living and dying, belief and unbelief. The generations. He loved the naming, the un-naming, and the renaming. The visions and revisions. My dad believed that constant revision is the right of every human, and the responsibility of every human who believes. Constant revision, re-circling, recycling. Multiple opportunities to get it right.
And now, I'm trying to come to terms with how short my dad's story was. It was too short. And seemingly incomplete. It doesn't feel like it has come full circle . . . that his experiences are making sense in the end.
It's not the story I would have written for him.
But I have managed to see a few circles in my dad's life during the past week. A few motifs that have cycled through.
He began his life as the leader of our family while traveling with my mom on Doug Henning's World of Magic tour . . . and he ended it with his two youngest daughters at the Magic Kingdom. He would like that irony. He started his family here in Greenville, moved to Boston, to Houston, to Atlanta, and then brought us back here. When he was first here in Greenville, he lived off of Piney Mountain Road, in a white house right behind the cemetery we'll be going to in a few minutes. He used to, on his walk home from Bob Jones, steal flowers from that cemetery and bring them to my mom . . . you know, he wouldn't take them off the graves, but they went through once a week and took all the flowers off and put them in this big trash heap right beside my parent's house. He retrieved the bunches that still looked good, still had some life in them, and gave her those. We're about to bury him within eyesight of that same backyard.
And meaningful names? Well, I can't imagine my dad could have been any more pleased with his own name. It's a great name for a hero . . . and it described him perfectly.
Both a noun and a verb. Aspirational, inspirational.
My dad hated it when people took declarative statements in the Bible and made them imperative. For example, something like: "Having therefore fellowship in Christ . . . " becomes "Now guys, we need to have fellowship in Christ." This really irked him. It was a personal pet peeve.
So, it's a little ironic that, read one way, his last name actually is an imperative. A command.
Russell (comma) Reach.
As if God himself had ordained my dad's life to be a struggle, a straining, and a striving. Russell. Reach.
And my dad did reach. He did listen to the imperative of his own name, even when reaching became difficult. He listened too well, according to some of us.
You see, I think we have only two accepted sickness narratives. There’s the plot where the sick person, and those around him, fight valiantly, patiently and calmly. And they overcome. And there’s the plot where the sick person, and those around him, make peace with the disease and each other. And then the sick person dies. Peacefully.
My dad didn’t fit into either of these narratives. His story was much truer and much more complex. It was the story of someone who fought, but fought messily, who kicked against his affliction, who never made peace with it – and then died anyway. That’s a story that makes us uncomfortable.
In church and on the news, in popular culture, I've heard story after story of people who, in tough situations, dealing with family illnesses like we have. Well, they somehow "never made a peep."
And I've thought . . . if only I could have learned to peep a little less. If only my dad had learned to peep a little less.
And I’ve thought. Maybe they were right. Maybe that was the way to go. Maybe we should have learned to "let go and let God."
But . . . then I start to question the modern Christian equation: Compliance + Silence = God. Equals godliness and goodness. Maybe it just equals giving up. Maybe that’s a formula for comfort, not for godliness. Maybe letting go isn't GOD. Maybe God is grabbing on. Tight. Maybe God is refusing to let go, refusing to give in.
And, ultimately, what I see in the Bible is that the kickers (Paul & Peter), the wrestlers (Jacob), and the failers (David) get the biggest blessings and have the most influence.
Every character in the Bible (and, anyone who knows anything about stories knows that the best authors reveal their themes through the actions of their characters) every character is a fighter. Every character is a failer. A failure. They are not compliant. They are not silent. They are not comfortable . . . in their faith or in the world. They struggle. They Reach.
Robert Browning once said: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.”
What do we do, then, with a man like my dad? What do we do with someone who grasps ideas so quickly, who cuts to the core of an issue immediately – so that it seems more like intuition than what could rightly be called a thought process – a man who grasps people so profoundly? In other words, what do we do with greatness? How far should a great man reach? How far does he have to reach in order to exceed his grasp?
I mentioned earlier that we don’t tend to do well with sickness, with deformity, with weakness. We’re also not that good with greatness. With exceptionality. Both extremes make us incredibly nervous – incredibly uncomfortable. And my dad was both; he was weak and he was great. Like he was tailor-made to put us all on edge.
We have a tendency to try to harness greatness, to try to bottle it. To tell it to pipe down. To shut up. To peep less. To quit telling its story. We tend to want to put great people in their place.
But maybe my dad was already in his place. Maybe my dad existed only in his reaching. Maybe "Reach" was his job, not his name. Maybe “Reach” was exactly what God wanted my dad to do, who he wanted him to be. Maybe it was my dad’s way of occupying his space in the greatest story ever told. I think that may be true.
So, I am happy to report – even as he lost his grasp on people, places, priorities. Even as he lost his grasp on words, even as his abilities plummeted. Even as the vast sweep of his life spiraled inward, even as his sphere of influence shrunk, even as every aspect of his being became more and more limited. More and more insular. Even as he lost his grasp on his own life – I am happy and I am proud to report: my dad always maintained his Reach.