Last night, my mom reminded me…nineteen years ago today, my father died.
My sister called me that afternoon (or was it morning), a call that was not unexpected, seeing as how I’d said my good-byes to him a couple of weeks earlier. Jimmy Joe Berryman (1934-1988) suffered from leukemia, and I’d been called to Texas earlier because doctors believed his death to be immanent. But as if often the case, he rallied, and I had to go home, back to Seattle.
Amy, my first child, was born one month and three days later.
Now Amy is almost nineteen, home from her first year in college, and my son Daniel is a senior in high school. One of my most vivid dreams is to someday introduce my children to my father. It is an emotional image, obviously, as I stand cross-like stretching my hands to past and present, to father and child, trying to link my histories, my loves, my partners in being in the world.
He was a good man, my father. He rose out of a fatherless childhood, his own dad having apparently abandoned him and his mother, and so he came to his relationship with me with little understanding of what father-son was about. Nonetheless, as my sister said last night as we talked, he went to the Bible and studied hard, pursuing as best he knew how a relationship with God, and by extension, trying to figure out how to live. He discovered a lot, made tons of progress, enough to merit my uncle’s observation upon his death. “He was the best man I ever knew.”
Nineteen years later, I think maybe that’s a bit romantic–I’m not sure he was the best man I’ve ever known. (I’m sure I won’t be the best Amy and Daniel come across) but Dad was a man of, and in pursuit of, God. Not perfect, perhaps a bit misguided theologically (he and I certainly wouldn’t agree on things God-related), and he died musing over why we talk so long of heaven, and then when the end comes, work so hard to avoid the trip. I have his journals from his last days, and to read them is to see a man of faith struggling to let that faith have its say in the face of death.
It was unexpected, Dad’s journeying with me during the days of performing Leaving Ruin. In manner and gesture and gait, it’s him up there as I traipse around the stage, and in my imagination, and perhaps more, he watches me, comes to me in very particular moments of the play, and I think he’s probably as he always was. Bemused by his son, not understanding at all, but oddly tolerant, and perhaps even, on occasion, glad I was following the paths that called to me.
When I said good-bye, after a tearful prayer around the hospital bed–“Take care of your family, son”–I walked out into a world in which my father would no longer be there. It was a crushing sensation, a lonely thing, and I remember stopping as I exited the hospital, and bending at the waist, the sheer weight of walking alone, walking without him, pressing me into the earth. My sister Jody stood with her hand on my back as I tried to grasp the passage I was locked in, tried to comprehend that I could, I would, I must, move forward with hammer-heavy pain.
I look around the world today, and know that God is watching and participating in hundreds of thousands of such passages today, and every day. Each one precious, each journey devastating to someone, each one speaking to the essential mystery of life and being.
Someday, he and I will talk of it all, and know each other as we never did on this side. That, too, is a mystery. But it is my faith.
Nineteen years into your forever, Dad…Godspeed…