Listen to this story:
Advent is a time in which we wait for God and his activity among us. The season teaches us vulnerability and shows us our own powerlessness before a fallen world. It purifies us of our incomplete hopes and points us to our only true hope, which is a lasting trust in the grace and workings of God in our lives.
These lessons have come to mind over the past six years, as I and my family have walked with my father as he fought Alzheimer’s Disease. It’s a harsh disease that demands the highest level of a fighting spirit. And for my father, who was a retired Army First Sergeant of Cold War stalk and someone accustomed to a good periodic brawl, he was ready and excelled in such a fight.
My father principally grew up in the poverty and brokenness of the old mill towns of Massachusetts. His mother abandoned the family when he was a small child, and his single-parent home was dominated by an abusive father. There are stories of shocking neglect and utterly disturbing abuse throughout his childhood. In response to such evil, my father cared for his younger siblings and oftentimes purposely took beatings for them. He labored, and accept sufferings, to try to make things better.
In an environment seemingly without hope, he saw something beyond the darkness of his world. He trusted and relied on God’s care for him, even when it might have seemed to many that God had failed. In situations that oftentimes breed on-going cycles of poverty and abuse, my father chose to be the difference. He accepted the path of suffering as the only reliable means out of the evil and brokenness around him.
While he may not have formally composed the principles of his life, my father’s way of life showed what he believed. He chose to accept the hidden and oftentimes disturbingly passive power of virtue and hard work. He believed that, while we cannot control the fallenness of the world – for bad things will happen, we can control what we do with it, how we respond, and who we choose to become because of it.
Many Westerners today live in comfort, and have not truly experienced the full horror of our fallen world. There are, however, some among us who have experienced it – who have been hit by it by a proverbial and literal two-by-four – and many times have become its victims. Regrettably, it more often the pattern that darkness overwhelms its prey and its cycles of evil continue. There are, however, every once in awhile, a person who breaks free. The freedom does not come from an unexpected concession, or an entitlement, or some indulgence. It comes from a heartfelt decision to do good, to fight, and to accept all the attacks and hardships that come with the clashing, counter-cultural choice to do what is right and to avoid what is evil.
It’s easy to think that the choice to do good will somehow merit a temporal reward. Such things, however, only happen in artificial worlds. The real choice, which hits the pavement of life, is to accept to do good for its own sake. It is the choice to be a good person because we want to be a good person, not look like one. The real choice is to do good and to be good, and to accept the trials and tribulations that come with it, and not denounce the difficulties of such a decision as if they weren’t supposed to happen.
In a fallen world that hounded my father to be bitter, to choose the perpetuation of evil, and to wallow in darkness and self-pity, he chose to do better, to break the cycles of poverty and violence that surrounded him, to drag himself out of the cesspool, to be for others what others chose never to be for him, and to make a contribution to society and the common good.
This conviction empowered my father to enlist in the US Army, while many were trying to avoid the draft. He was willing to go to Vietnam, although he was never sent. Instead, he served in multiple units along the East-West border of Germany and the North-South border of Korea, guarding the country he loved and protecting the freedoms he cherished.
While his greatest military accomplishment was being named a First Sergeant (an honor that is recognized by any veteran), his greatest work and his most endearing labors were those that involved his marriage and family. My father didn’t know what husbands and wives were (he never knew them), or even what parents were supposed to be. He had to figure it out, and his tools were sacrificial love and hard work on one hand, and mentoring and a demand for excellence on the other.
My dad was unlike some fathers, since he had a clear understanding of his vocation and his duty as a father, namely, to prepare his children to fight the fallenness of the world without letting any of it in them, to strengthen them with determination and a love for justice, and to teach them to pursue what is good and to never give up and to never fall into despair, self-pity, or victimhood.
This past week, the fight concluded for my father. After using even Alzheimer’s to teach us, he concluded his life as nobly as he had lived it. He was always a fighter, a teacher, and a mentor. He is gone from us now, and is already sorely missed. But his faith, legacy, and his motivating lessons continue on in his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. What a fighter! What a life! Thank you, Dad!
Follow Father Jeffrey Kirby on Twitter: @fatherkirby