One of the Greatest Gifts Ever

Dear Will:

My family is going through some nervousness as my sister and her husband (and their five small children) prepare to move to Turkey, where my brother-in-law has accepted a position working as a civilian contractor on a military base. We hope that it will turn out to be a great adventure for them, but we can’t help but feel anxious about their welfare.

Most anxious of all are my parents. My father will be 82 in a couple of weeks, and his body is really starting to show some wear and tear. Just this last week, in fact, he was in the emergency room with a slight case of pneumonia, a frightening condition for someone his age. It gave me a jolt, and when I saw him in his awkward gown and heard his scratchy voice, I could see clearly what I rarely see in full light: he has become an old man.

My sister’s imminent departure has caused my parents to consider the stark and upsetting possibility that after they kiss my sister and her children good-bye, they quite possibly could be doing so for the last time. Three years—the theoretical minimum length of my brother-in-law’s contract—is a really long time when you’re 82. Thus it was perhaps not surprising—even if it was disconcerting—when my dad called me to his home to “go over some things.”

My wife Dana and I were given a brief list of items my parents thought we might consider valuable: paintings mostly, the chair built by my great-grandfather, the clock that my grandparents used to have on their mantle—stuff like that. They said they wanted each of their children (there are seven of us) to pick the top two things we would most like to have once my parents are gone. Dana and I wandered through their house “shopping.” And it felt . . . really . . . strange.

They do have several pieces of art that I like quite a lot, but to be honest they mean nothing to me. The ones with the greatest apparent value are not valuable to me. And asking for any of them seemed trite and cold. I didn’t really want to play along. Nevertheless, I dutifully filled out my “order form,” but I felt like I didn’t really care whether I got the bronze or it went to one of my sisters.

When we were finished, my father showed me the location of his important papers: the will, the trust, the durable power of attorney. We stood in his office and discussed insurance policies and safe deposit boxes and burial arrangements. There was no sense of sadness as he did this, no woe-is-me, I’m-about-to-die melancholy. It was just matter-of-fact and business-like—something that had to be done.

That’s when I spied it: a tiny, 4-inch replica of a red Radio Flyer wagon. My father has had it on his desk my entire life. I can remember visiting his business when I was maybe five and playing with it in his office. He always used to keep a navy blue Superball in it. Just looking at it filled me with tenderness—and that’s when I knew. I reclaimed my form, crossed out my original choices and indicated instead that I wanted only that wagon. To have that symbol of my father on my own desk, for my own children to play with when they come to my office, would be a lot more valuable to me than any work of art ever could be.

Of course, I’m hoping that wagon remains on my father’s desk for many years to come, and that my parents stick around long after we hold a big Welcome Home Party for my sister.  Until then, I’m determined to spend a little more time in my parents home, looking at the paintings, listening to the chime of that old clock, and enjoying my mom and dad, one of greatest gifts God has ever given me.

PW

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