My Dad is in the hospital. It's been four days since he was admitted with what we thought at the time was a mild heart attack. Since then they have ruled that out, but he has a serious case of pneumonia. His recovery seems to be slow and difficult. That is hardly surprising; Dad is 90 years old. He hasn't been able to walk in five years, since he broke his hip. He has Alzheimer's and much of the man that I know and love is already gone. Yet the thought of losing him tears me to pieces.
Dad - Ben Smith, as the world knows him - was born in Hemphill, TX on August 30, 1926. He volunteered to serve in the State Guard as a teenager; in 1942 he even gave directions to a lost and bewildered Colonel named Dwight Eisenhower who had taken a wrong turn during Louisiana maneuvers. Ben joined the army as soon as he turned 18, eager to take part in the War before it was all over. He saw a man killed right in front of him during a live fire exercise during Advanced Infantry Training; after that, he was stationed in Hawaii, where his job was guarding Japanese POWs. His unit was scheduled to take part in the second wave of the invasion of Japan - they were told that their survival rate would be about 1 out of every 132. Only one man out of every hundred and thirty two to hit the beach was expected to survive the invasion without being killed or wounded! To this day my Dad attributes his survival to President Truman's decision to use the atomic bomb.
After the war, Dad came home and went to college on the GI Bill. He also met and married my mother in June of 1950. By then Dad had already given up his plans of going into business and had decided to enter the gospel ministry. He was briefly called up to serve during the Korean War but never posted overseas; my sister Clinta was born during this time. Two more siblings would follow; my brother Dwain was born in 1954 and my sister Jo came along in 1957. I was the last of four, born here in Greenville in December of 1963.
Dad took his call to the ministry seriously. He served in several small churches throughout East Texas and Louisiana; his longest tenures were at Roxton, TX - from 1956 to 1962, North Baptist Greenville, from 1962 to 1975, and Faith Baptist Quinlan from 1978 to 1988. He has preached thousands of weddings and funerals, baptized countless converts, conducted revivals, presided over building programs for new churches, and ordained dozens of deacons and ministers. His motto as a pastor was "Love the people," and he did. I do not know how many marriages he saved, how many suicides he prevented, how many lives he touched with his humility and compassion and sincere, country wisdom. My Dad was more than just a preacher, he was a pastor, and a better one than I will ever hope to be. Anyone can get up in a pulpit and preach a message, my Dad lived his and lives it still, even trapped in the cage of an ever-shrinking mind. He remains kind, decent, and more concerned about others than about himself to this day.
Dad has also been a fine husband. In all my years, growing up and as an adult, I never heard him say a negative word about my mother. Not that they never disagreed or quarreled; I know they did, but they did so behind closed doors and never let us see them angry at each other. His devotion to my mother when she suffered health problems or the time when she was badly injured in a car wreck was touching to behold. In their retirement years, before he injured himself and became immobile, they traveled all over the country, spending months at a time in their RV, especially in their beloved park at Mountain View, Arkansas. Seeing my mother hover over him during the current crisis has been a stirring reminder of the fact that love ultimately wins, and that "in sickness and in health" actually means something, even in this day and age. I aspire to be the husband to my wife that my father has been to my mother.
To me, my Dad was always the biggest, the best, the strongest, and the wisest man on earth. He could carry me on his huge shoulders when I was worn out from a day's hike, he could work me into the ground when the yard needed tending in the summer, he was a fountain of good advice during the turbulent years of early adulthood, and while he never once tried to intrude into my marriage, he also never withheld his wisdom on the subject when I asked for it - and his advice was nearly always right.
I remember once, when I was six years old, Dad bought me a rod and reel and took me fishing. I drew back for a cast, threw my line out as hard as I could, and sent the rod and reel sailing into the water when I didn't grip hard enough. I sat down on the bank, ready to cry because I had lost my fishing pole. Dad calmly noted where my rod had sunk into the lake, reeled in his own line, and cast across the spot where my rig had sunk. He slowly reeled in his hook, and lo and behold! He snagged my pole and reeled it right back in and handed it to me. From that day forward I would not have been surprised to see my Dad walk on water!
For ninety years, my Dad has lived a life of courage, decency, devotion to his God and his family, and love for his fellow man. I do not know how much longer I will have to spend with him, but I do know that he will leave a gaping hole in my heart when he goes on to his reward, and an example I will forever strive to live up to. Seeing him struggle for breath at the hospital reminded me just how rare and precious our time with our loved ones is, and makes me want to do the most I can with the time I have left.
Every year I always look hard to find the perfect card for my Dad on Father's Day. A few years ago, I found one that was perhaps the best summary of how I feel about my father of any I'd ever seen. It showed a little boy riding on his father's shoulders, as I rode countless times when I was small. Its inscription was simple and to the point:
"Dear Dad - Loved the view. Loved You. Still do."
Get well soon, Dad. Your little boy still needs you.