Monday a week ago was the 23rd anniversary of my father’s death. I’ll tell you that story now. A warning before you read on, it may not be safe for work, unless you’re ok with crying at your desk.
The picture above was taken sometime around 1975, but you probably could have figured that out from my dad’s hairstyle and sweet belt buckle. You astute observers and those that know me a little may have noticed that I am eating something out of a Redskins’ mug. Though my parents may have been influenced by the Redskins proximity, growing up in Virginia, I resisted and rebelled turning to the dark side. I’ve been a Cowboys fan for about 3 decades now.
Monday before last, on the anniversary of his death, I didn’t feel anything in particular. I wasn’t particularly sad or upset. There wasn’t any coldness or avoidance of it either. It’s been 23 years. There are still times now that I may feel the loss of my father but it doesn’t affect me the way it did say 20 years ago. I’ve often pointed out to people, that a significant loss like this you don’t get over. I’m not over my father’s death. I haven’t moved on. I’m changed. I’m different. I still have that scar, it’s just healed and I don’t think about it as often.
To tell the story of my dad’s death I need to say a little about who he was and how we grew up. My dad’s father was not a good father and probably not a good man. He died when I was three and I’m told that he loved having a grandson and doted on me. I’m also told that he came to faith on his deathbed. He died of liver cancer that came about from his drinking. My grandfather’s legacy lives on today. He retired a Brigadier General in the Air Force and was very demanding of his boys, my dad and uncle. They were expected to perform academically and athletically. My father excelled as a swimmer and swam at Georgetown. My uncle played football and then rugby at the University of Virginia. Through all of that my father and uncle never really knew the love of their father.
What that did for my dad, and my uncle to a lesser extent, was sent him to pursuing more and more extreme adventures. The short of it is that my father lived like he was more lovable if he was doing the most extreme things he could. He was an adrenaline junkie before that label existed. He also learned with an alcoholic father that you hide your emotions and feelings, and that eventually you even hide them from yourself. When you jump off a cliff you feel. You feel alive like you don’t most of the rest of your life. I believe that it’s the same reason people watch horror movies. I think it’s why people cut. Those things, extreme sports included, allow us to feel something when the rest of the time we feel dead inside.
So I grew up with stories of my uncle, father, and their cousin Bill’s extreme adventures. Jumping off of cliffs and bridges, racing and wrecking cars and motorcycles, hang gliding, parachuting, white water rafting, kayaking, and canoeing. And I was discipled into this family lifestyle. It was normal for me growing up to participate in these extreme activities even as a young child. I remember when I was around 10 and my sister 6 that we were riding our bikes along some railroad track, and we came to a trestle that spanned a small gorge. We rode across. It certainly wasn’t designed for pedestrian access. Right as I had gotten across, and my dad and sister were only about 2/3 of the way, we heard a train approaching. My dad had to pick up my sister and run to make it across in time.
Another time when my sister and I were roughly the same age we walked across the Roanoke damn. Another place not designed for pedestrian access, we had to climb over a 10 foot chain link fence to gain access. The damn itself was about 12 feet wide and rounded on both sides. On one side was the lake the damn had created, and the other side had a 300 foot drop to broken rocks below. In the middle there was a spillway where the water cascaded over. I remember walking through that rushing water, making sure that I was on the lakeside, and even though it was only a few inches deep and not really strong, I remember being pretty scared all the while.
I look back on those things now and think how incredibly stupid and irresponsible my father was for taking us with him on these adventures. But when you grow up in that environment you figured out how to live in the midst of the adrenaline junkie life.
I was 18 when my father died. Spiritually speaking it had already been an eventful year. I had come to faith through Young Life just 10 months prior to my dad’s death. My uncle, in March of the year my dad died, recommitted his life to Christ. In May of that year my paternal grandmother called my uncle and said, “I just realized that I’m a sinner, I knew your father was, but I always thought that I was ok.” My grandmother at the age of 72 recognized her need for a savior and accepted the love of Jesus. Just a few months before that, my father had gone on a men’s retreat with our church.
The moment he walked in the door, coming home from the retreat, is one of my fondest memories of my father. There was nothing unusual about what he had on, a long sleeve teal t-shirt that he had gotten from running a 10k. It had Michelob written all over it as one of the sponsors of the race. He had on a pair of tan corduroys that were so worn and thread bear that you could almost see through them in some places. My father was a very thrifty man and didn’t care much about what he wore, which explained his shoes. They were a pair of royal blue and bright yellow Nike waffle sole shoes from the 70’s. Today they’re in style, retro cool, back in 1990, not so much. But back in the 70’s there had been such a good sale on these shoes that he bought 3 pairs and some 15 years later he was on the last of those three having worn out the previous 2. All of this was normal attire for my dad. What wasn’t normal was the big wooden cross, like 8 inches long, hanging around his neck from a rainbow-colored piece of yarn. There was more though. When he walked in he had a huge smile on his face, not that smiling was particularly unusual for him but he did tend to be a pretty serious man. As soon as he walked in through the garage door into the dining room, he came right over to each of us with his huge smile and gave each of us a big hug. And again, hugs weren’t completely unusual but it certainly wasn’t the norm. I can picture the entire scene right now, and am thankful that this memory has been preserved.
A few months after my father died I received a letter from the man who had seemingly led my father to Christ on that retreat. The letter was brief and said only that he thought that I would like to have the postcard that my dad had sent him after the retreat. Here it is.
Did you know that there are quite a few papyri fragments of the New Testament dating back to the 2nd c.? And the latest report is that there has been one found that dates back to the 1st c. You can read about that and its implications on our understanding of the bible and what it says here. Imagine reading the actual letter that Paul sent to the Romans. Wouldn’t that change the way you thought about what it said?
That’s kind of what this feels like for me. I have, in my dad’s hand writing, a note that says the Spirit lives in me and will forever. I know that many people do not have the same confirmation about their loved one’s faith though they doubt it no less. Yet I am blessed to have this and as I retell the story of his death it is a great comfort to me.
I was preparing to start my freshman year at VCU and my mom and sister had moved to Mississippi for a the job my mom had just accepted. My dad was staying in Virginia a little longer to sell our house and wrap up his work as well as seeing me off to school. We lived in Roanoke and were about a half hour’s drive from Smith Mountain Lake. We had a little ski boat and we would go about every week during the summer to the lake to ski and play in the water. I mentioned that my dad swam at the collegiate level and my sister and I both grew up on the swim team. We were all excellent swimmers and had no fear of the water whatsoever. At the place where we would put our boat in there were these cliffs that were popular for jumping off of into the water. They were about 50 feet high and every trip to the lake included jumping off of them. As far as jumping off of a 50 foot cliff goes it was as safe as it could get. The water was plenty deep and it was a straight drop from cliff’s edge to the water, there were no outcroppings that needed to be cleared. I did it and I enjoyed it, but I had to psyche myself up for each jump. When you’re standing on top of something it looks a lot further from the top looking down than it does from the bottom looking up, especially as you consider hurling yourself into that void of space. My dad however, showed no fear as he made that jump. He would run and jump. He would climb a tree to get another 20 feet into the jump. He couldn’t get enough of the adrenaline that it provided and like any drug it took more and more to satisfy.
Our next adventure, and the more satisfying jump, was to be a train trestle that we figured to be about 100 feet off the water. It was easily accessible by boat and we checked it out a couple of different times. The water was at least 35 feet deep directly under the bridge and there were no obstructions. I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t have even considered jumping off something that high but my dad was particularly excited. The week prior to his death we were over at my Young Life leader’s house for dinner and I remember the enthusiasm of his demeanor and in his voice as he told them about the possibility of jumping off this bridge.
It was Sunday August 19th, 1990 and the summer and my childhood were coming to a close. In two days I was supposed to show up for freshman orientation at VCU. I don’t remember if we went to church that day. I remember riding in the passenger seat of our big black Chevy van as we towed the boat to the lake. I remember an overwhelming sense of anxiety as I sat there on our 30 minute drive from home to lake. I asked my dad if we had forgotten the key again. Earlier that summer we had gotten all the way to the lake and had put the boat in the water when we realized that we didn’t have the key, my dad drove back to get it while I waited in the boat for over an hour. He assured me that we had the key this time but my anxiety didn’t dissipate. I didn’t connect my anxiety to the prospect of jumping off the bridge.
When we got the boat in the water and started off across the lake my dad asked if we should ski first or jump off the bridge first. We decided to jump first and even joked about how it could ruin our day of skiing if it didn’t go well.
We got to the bridge and checked the depth of the water again and swam around to see if any trees had floated in making it an unsafe jump. It’s curious to me how careful my dad could be about so many things yet willing to risk so much to get his fix of adrenaline. It really does paint the picture of addiction.
My dad wanted to go first, I think he was even beginning to understand how serious a risk this was and wanted to make sure he did it and it was safe before he sent his son up. We had tied the boat to the big concrete bridge support that was coming out of the water and he climbed up the bank. It probably took him 10 or 15 minutes to scramble up the side and walk out to the middle of the bridge. I was treading water and was about 25 yards from where my dad would go in. I was there to make sure he was in the right place and to be able to help if there was a problem.
I think my dad was overwhelmed at how high he was above the water. I learned later that the trestle was about 120 feet off the water. I think when he looked down and thought about jumping that he realized that this was far more serious than anything he had ever done. I think he had to psyche himself up to have the courage to make that step into the void. What I know is that he ended up leaning forward before his feet left the bridge. It was like he couldn’t convince his body to do something so outrageous and his feet stayed put even when his mind said go.
He fell at about a 45 degree angle, leaning forward. He knew that it wasn’t good and so did I. He was waving his arms around and I was yelling at him to straighten up.
I’ve done the math in my head over and over again throughout the years. 120 feet = 36.5 meters / 9.8 meters per second. Under 4 seconds. That’s all he had to try to correct his position. I’ve also in my head over and over again through what if he had … what if I had …
He hit the water at about that 45 degree angle, he couldn’t correct his lean. There was a huge splash. The coroner said that the impact probably knocked him unconscious. The coroner also said that he had severe bruising along his torso and head from the impact with the water.
My dad liked to brag about how he didn’t float. Throughout most of my growing up he was pretty fit and when he had died he had recently run his first marathon. He dreamed of competing in the Iron Man Triathlon. He didn’t float that day.
I was about 25 yards away. As a competitive swimmer, and being pretty fit myself at the time, I know how long it took me to cover 25 yards, less than 15 seconds. As soon as he hit the water I started sprinting towards him. When I got to the place where he went under I took a quick breath and dove.
I remember clearly the sun trying to pierce through the murky green water of Smith Mountain Lake. I remember the pressure in my chest as I tried to swim further down and frantically looking around for my dad. I remember looking for bubbles trying to find him. I remember the fear as I had to go up to get another breath and dove down again.
I came up a second time and screamed for a boat that I saw in the distance to come help. They came over and dropped off two guys who just floated there in their life jackets as the boat went to get help. I screamed at them to do something but they just looked at me seemingly paralyzed. They never said a word.
I climbed up onto the bridge support and I sat there with my back against the steel beam, my elbows on my knees, and my head in my hands. I was in shock. It didn’t make sense. It had been at least 5 minutes since he went under. I said out loud, “My dad is dead.” And I had to say it again out loud because it was too surreal, “My dad is dead.”
I don’t remember the next hour or so, nothing, that hour is gone. I was in such shock that I didn’t see the boat come back. The next thing I remember is standing in our boat with a park ranger looking at my dad’s driver’s license. It was as if seeing his picture snapped me back into reality. I looked around and there were at least a half dozen boats there and one of them was this little green John boat with two guys in it who were dragging the bottom with this awful grappling hook device. When I saw that I turned to the park ranger and said that if they found him with that hook that I couldn’t be here. The park ranger took me to a marina where I called my Young Life leader and he and a guy that I was in a bible study with came and picked me up from the lake.
This story has taken longer to write than I expected. I’ve told it many times but never written it out. I’ll tell you about the rest of that day and week and some about that first semester at VCU in my next post. It’s a story about mourning and grief, about the Church being the Church and loving me and my family well, and mostly about God again proving himself faithful to his children. Thanks for reading.