Saturday, December 3, 2011

Goodness, Mercy and Ronald Reagan

I have a vivid memory.  Where I was standing, what I was wearing, how it felt to say the words I'd chosen so carefully.  I'd returned home for Christmas, during my second year away at college, and I was standing by the kitchen table.  Dad was at the sink.

Maybe I wanted to hurt him.  I suppose that's what sons do when they reach a certain point.  I certainly intended to shock him, to prove to him that I could think for myself.  I didn't need his ideas anymore, or his ideology, or his president.  I was 19. 

"Ronald Reagan's an asshole," I hissed.  I'd rehearsed these words over and over, a two-and-a-half hour ride from Hanover to Boston.  I reviewed a pretty fair list of reasons: the president's belligerent foreign policy, his saber rattling and nuclear gamesmanship, James Watt at the Department of the Interior.  I mean, James Watt!  All these years later, the very name makes me crazy. 

Dad had returned from a long day at the office, looking forward perhaps to some family time before the busy holiday.  There I was by the table.  A Dartmouth sweatshirt.  Welcome home.  "Ronald Reagan's an asshole."  My idea of family time.  A 19-year-old Ivy Leaguer with the whole world figured out.

December 2011.  This afternoon I knelt at his feet.  Dad's dying now, with a neurological disease I can hardly pronounce, let alone explain.  He sits most of the day in a big blue chair, fighting to get words out, usually losing that battle.  He was never at a loss for words, so opinionated and sure of himself; at least he seemed so to me.  For years.  For decades.  After I blasphemed his president that Christmas, he and I fought like feral cats: politics and social issues, religion and family secrets.  We both said things we came to regret; and we knew exactly what we were doing.

Now he can't say more than 'yes' and 'no'--and even these are hard to make out.  I caress his rigid left hand and massage his cramping left calf.  He's not watching as much TV anymore, not even his old favorite FOX News.  (Silently, I praise God...over and over and over again.)  Dad wants to say something, I can see it in his eyes, and he does.  But I can't make anything of it.  After all these years and all we've said to one another, we're stripped of words, left with rigid hands and cramping calves.  But he seems content to sit with the 49-year-old son who has nothing at all figured out.

In the thirty years since 1981, we've had time to work a few things out.  Not the politics, not really the religion or the social issues.  And the family stuff, well, we struggled through all of that too.  But I learned some things about Dad, things that helped me understand him and appreciate how hard he'd tried.  I'm a husband and father now, and I suppose I have a more informed sense of what all that means and how hard it is.  To keep one's balance.  To stay true.

And to his enormous credit, he looked past my wild, leftist politics (which only get wilder and more leftist as the years go by), and saw a son who loved his parents.  And a son who was doing his best to raise and love three daughters.  A few years ago, when his disease first announced itself, Dad came to our home in California for a few weeks.  He let me care for him a bit.  And that was huge.  We talked and cried a lot.  

So tonight I'm thinking about Ronald Reagan.  I really don't know if he was an 'asshole' or not.  I do know that I hated his politics and the trend he unleashed in my country.  I still do.  But that December outburst was about me more than Ronald Reagan.  About me and my Dad.

My own teenage daughters are pushing back at me these days--at my values, at my music, at my faith.  I wish I could tell my Dad about that.  I wish I could tell him how I feel when one slams a door in my face, disgusted again.  Or how another sits a mile away in church and listens to an iPod while I'm preaching.  I'd want him to know that I know.  At least a little bit.  Instead, I read him the 23rd Psalm, and then the 26th.  He won't be here much longer.  And I feel the time passing quickly.  "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me..."

I never imagined I could feel this grateful for him.  But I do tonight.  I have fewer answers than I did at 19; but I have what I really need.  "Goodness and mercy."  Following me.  Following him.  All the days of our lives.  And beyond.