Al was my father-in-law. He was an uncomplicated man, easy to like. He was a natural athlete and avid outdoorsman who loved to hunt and fish. When he had a daughter (his first grandchild; my wife has no siblings) we didn’t realize how excited Al was about the prospect of taking her to the Great Outdoors with him. Until one day we were driving home from their house, where Laura had been secretly coached by Al for some time. She was a year old, and we were putting her through one of the routines that all firstborns have to endure:
“Laura, what sound does a kitty make?”
“And what sound does a doggie make?”
“And what sound does a birdie make?”
Her grandfather wanted her to know.
Al was the kind of man who didn’t mind what might get said about his wife or daughter, but he never tolerated an insult to his dog. Eppie was (to tell the truth) sadly obese by the time I knew her, but Al would never hear of it. He insisted she was a special breed—a “short-legged Lab”—and the reason her stomach was so close to the ground was not because it was so large but because her legs were too short to provide much clearance.
Al’s ragged edge ran toward the bottle. He was an alcoholic, as were his father, uncle, and brother. Not the sloppy kind, he didn’t miss work or throw away money, but it made him hard to get to know. Nancy always knew her dad loved her, but it was in his own way, a ragged way. He never said it outright. Sometimes if she told him she loved him, over the phone, he might say, “Me too, punk,” but he never volunteered it.
One fall his skin turned yellow—the shade of an overripe banana—and the doctors told him they wanted to test him for pancreatic cancer, which at the time was virtually always terminal. We were waiting at his house for him to come home with the test results. “Got it!” were his first words when he came in the door. He didn’t say much more about it. Sometimes we would see him staring out the window, but it was hard to know what he was thinking.
He had never been very concern about God one way or the other. He was’t particularly hostile,just casually disinterested. We tried to talk with him now but didn’t get far. Until one day when my mother was visiting. She talked to Al about how they shared the same grandchildren, about how life was unpredictable—maybe she would go first—but if Al should die, and the grandkids should ask someday about him and God, what should she tell them? How did it stand between Al and God?
“Fine,” he said. “Everything’s fine with God and me. Why shouldn’t it be?”
She pressed further and explained about how “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”
The light dawned, the ice melted, and Al prayed and gave his life to God.
And God began some reconstructive surgery. Al and I began to read together from the gospel of John. He would study some on his own, then we’d talk about it, and generally pray after. Once or twice we even prayed holding hands.
One day when the cancer was quite advanced Al was lying in our bed, too weak and emaciated to sit up, and we’d finished talking about Jesus.
“Now let’s pray,” Al said, which was striking because he hadn’t often initiated prayer before.
“And let’s do that hand thing,” Al said. He reached over and grabbed my hand.
And it struck me that the hand that had spent a lifetime throwing footballs and swinging golf clubs and casting and shooting and lifting countless cans of beer was more beautiful in weakness than it had ever been in its strength.
Not long after that Al went into the hospital. On a Friday night, he called for Nancy. They talked for a while, then before Nancy hung up the phone I heard her say one of the few phrases that I will remember as long as I live.
“I love you too, Dad,” she said.
I asked her if that meant what I thought it did.
Yes, her dad said he loved her.
That was on a Friday night. The next morning, Al suffered a stroke, which is not uncommon given his condition and treatment. For six weeks he was virtually unable to speak or control the simplest of bodily functions, and then he died.
The last time Nancy heard her dad speak was the first time he said, “I love you.” — Ortberg, John (2010-04-27). Love Beyond Reason (p. 27). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
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