On Saturday, December 1 my family lost my father. It was the same day that the 41st President of the United States, George H. W. Bush died. That morning I awoke to the news of the President’s passing feeling some nostalgia for the good and decent man I believed he was. A few hours later I saw the caller ID on my phone telling me that my sister was calling from Milwaukee, WI.
Earlier this year, my dad fell and due to weakness from an illness. My wife and I travelled to see him in March knowing he might not last much longer. It was a good visit. I told him I loved him and was proud of him. I told him he did a great job raising my sisters and me. He served as a good model to me and much of what I learned about parenting came from my dad and my mom, who died 8 years ago. It felt great to see him and tell him those things.
Eight years ago when I last saw my mom alive I knew. As we drove away from the hospital, I told my wife, “I think that’s the last time I’ll see my mom alive.” A few days later she died.
I didn’t think that in my dad’s case. I planned to go to see him again some time in 2019. Living more than 12 hours away meant trips weren’t easy and I don’t like to fly.
Tribute to My Pop
Jim Purcell was born in Detroit, MI in 1936. His mother was a single mom, but soon the man I knew as Grandpa came into the picture and adopted Sydney Hungerford and gave him the name James Purcell. Dad grew up in the latter years of the Great Depression, but didn’t remember a lot about that time. He told me stories about living as a child in Detroit during the war. All the car companies that made Detroit a major city stopped car production and retooled to build the war machine that helped the United States defeat the Germans and Japanese during World War II and go on to be come the mighty world super power.
My dad would go to the factories and look at the tanks, Jeeps and planes that the company proudly displayed in their buildings. He also told me about the time that he came home after getting bullied by some kids and my grandpa took him out to find the boys. When they did he pushed my dad to engage the boys and beat them up.
A Bridge Between Two Eras of Fatherhood
That fight was an aberration because my dad was such a kind and wonderful man who loved my mom and his children. He grew up in a time when fathers didn’t say, “I love you” as much as people do today, but his actions said it loudly and with a profound certainty for his children and grandchildren.
I see my dad as a kind of bridge between two eras. His dad was the kind of man who worked hard, brought him a gruff exterior and believed a man was someone who took no prisoners and was happy to turn someone else’s cheek if he deserved it. My grandpa told me some amazing stories one night when I was a small 8-year-old or 9-year-old boy. At the time I thought they were cool stories and I wished my dad was more like this colorful character.
As a kid I didn’t always understand my father. I loved him, respected him most of the time except when I was a terrible brat. And I feared him a little bit.
My grandpa and I shared a love of baseball and he bought me a glove that I cherished and still have today. My father hated all sports, probably because people like me and my grandfather would bully him because he wasn’t athletic enough to do anything on a field of sport.
My father, however, did something that men from that former era would not do and something my grandpa probably never did with my dad. He hugged me. He spent time with me. He was kind to me. He showed me how to love a wonderful woman by the way he treated my mom. He cried. He laughed and let us laugh at him. He was one of the first men in America to live as the modern kind, loving father that was approachable and considerate. That’s the kind of example of a husband and father I knew I wanted to father.
Pop Got Smarter the Older I Got
No one ever called my dad “Pop!” For some reason my oldest sister called him “Father.” That seemed to fit that father from the older era. But it didn’t fit the man that he really was to his children. But we still called him that and I still did as an adult.
Dad called himself Pop. He would sign his annual Christmas letter with $100 checks for each of his children that way. I never asked him why, but I think it was because he wanted us to see him as Pop. Someone who was here for his children, someone we could talk to about anything and someone who would love us. Or it could be that it was shorter than the word we used – Father.
I said before I didn’t understand my Father earlier in life. I loved sports and he hated them. Then I became a believer and chose to commit my life to serve the Lord in a full-time Christian service because I believed Jesus deserved that for what he did for me. My dad was angry at God for not helping him keep a job to take care of his kids. He stayed bitter and angry at the God that I loved and wanted to serve. My best friend as a teenager was my Pastor’s son and I always imagined what it was like for them to share with one another about their ministry challenges, failure and successes.
But then I got older. The more I experienced but joys and struggles of life the more I understood my Father’s feelings. He sacrificed, suffered and struggled with the pain of life. He did it all for us. He did this to provide for us and give us a better life than he had. We went through times of little and times of much. And through it all, he was doing his best.
I’m not saying I dealt with the same struggles my dad faced. He had it harder than I did and that’s because of his sacrifices that put me into a position to enjoy greater success academically, financially and professionally. My mom and dad made me the person I am so that I could enjoy more success than he did in those areas.
College Teacher Who Never Graduated from College
He did one thing that I always considered amazing. My dad went into the Navy and served his country. He learned to work on TVs and Radios and eventually became an electronics technician. He fixed equipment for TV and Radio stations because he dreamed of being an on-air broadcaster. He got that chance at a local radio station in Wisconsin Rapids in the late seventies. Later he started to work on medical computer systems at a company in Milwaukee. Eventually he landed as an electronics professor at Milwaukee Area Technical College. That’s right he was a college teacher and never earned a degree. He was that smart.
He eventually retired, paid off his house and helped my sisters and I on occasion with financially support when we needed it.
The End a Beginning
My sister called Saturday morning and told me that, instead of lasting a day or weeks or longer, he lasted only an hour. The first phone call telling me he was not doing well left me cold and numb. This call hit me hard and I bawled. My wife hugged me and my son got home from work and hugged me. My other son who’s in college 3-4 hours away cried with me on the phone. All of them showered me with love, but it didn’t really help.
My biggest fear was that my dad did not believe in God, at least that was what he said to us. Where is he now?
Over the years we’ve talked for hours about reasons he should trust that God loved him and Jesus died for him offering grace. My dad believed that since he suffered in life God was either not there or didn’t care. We could see it and it frustrated my mom and sisters. My wife and boys and I also felt it. Why can’t he see it?
In this last year the wall started to crumble and he said a few things that led us to believe he was softening in his heart possibly knowing the end was near. I think he was re-evaluating this faith, but he never said the words that gave us the guarantee that he repented of his belief and trusted God.
Saturday, I saw the beautiful tribute from the cartoonist who drew a cartoon of President George H. W. Bush flying his plane to heaven and receive the greeting of his wife Barbara and four-year-old daughter. Seeing that touching cartoon surfaced my fears. Was my dad greeted in heaven by a loving gracious savior and my mom or something much worse that I can’t even say?
As a young man my father sang for the Lord. He went to Moody Bible Institute and studied music. He would travel around and sing with his guitar, tell jokes with a ventriloquist dummy named Jerry and do simple magic tricks with one goal, to spread the Gospel.
When my sisters and I were small one Sunday night there was something great on TV. We never missed a Sunday night worship service. But we begged my dad to let us stay home and watch TV. He wouldn’t let us.
Christmas often included my dad singing a solo in church. The song was the spiritual Sweet Little Jesus Boy.
What if that list continued for the next 40 years instead of ending in the earlier eighties? Then my sisters and I would not worry about my father’s passing. My mom died and we cried and hurt, but we also celebrated and knew we’d see her again one day. With my dad we wonder.
As an 8-year-old boy my dad quit going to church. He said he didn’t believe that God loved him. That continued for a few more years with a brief reprieve in the earlier eighties. Then it happened again after he lost his third job in less than three years. “He’s never answered any of my prayers.” That’s why we were left wondering.
Yesterday, I told my deacons that my dad died and explained that getting through this worship service would be tough. I asked them for their prayers. One of those beloved men told me something. It was the second time he said this. He told me that we believe that once you trust the Lord and seek God’s forgiveness, you are saved. If our salvation depended on our goodness, he said, he wouldn’t be saved right now. But it’s not up to us. He told me as I feared up that, if my dad trusted Jesus as a younger man, then God’s grace was amazing enough to keep him safe and we should trust that. He repeated it. We should trust that.
For months I prayed, God give me assurance if he’s safe. God help me know that he is with you, I prayed Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning early. Then that man said those things.
I believe it, I think. I’ll never get certain factual understanding until I die or Jesus comes back. But until then I trust in the love and grace of Jesus to save me and my mom who made it clear she believed and my dad who once did, but then lost it.
There’s nothing I’ve ever done deserve the love and grace of my Heavenly Father. If he can love me and graciously promise me the chance to see Him one day he can do that for anyone. Please live your life in a way that there’s no doubt in the minds of your loved ones that you will see them again in eternity.
If that’s all true, then this end is only a beginning!
Dr. Kevin Purcell is pastor of High Peak Baptist Church, an author and writer at Church Tech Today (www.churchtechtoday.com). He used to write for a number of other Christian and secular technology and mobile tech sites. Now he's one of the hosts of the Theotek Podcast, which you can find by checking the menu above or over at www.facebook.com/theotekpodcast.