Getting Back on Track

What Do You Do When Your Life is Derailed?

Early one Saturday morning when I was nine years old, I experienced the adventurous exhilaration of watching a train as it derailed in front of my house. Something sounded slightly amiss as the familiar rumble of the train grew closer and louder, so I pulled back the curtains to watch it pass. As I did, two huge box cars suddenly buckled together, like an enormous jackknife, and the cars behind them proceeded to jump the rails and form a tremendous pile of twisted metal—just like in the movies.

With a mixture of fear and excitement, I ran down the hall and awakened my mother. She hurriedly pulled on her bath robe and we ventured outside to look closer at the mountain of destruction that had formed just a few dozen yards from our front door. I was amazed that the derailment of a train could cause so much damage. It took the railroad company weeks to clean up the mess.

On May 8, 2015, my life was derailed. And now, 8 months later, I am still trying to clean up the mess—still trying to deal with the damage that I experienced when my father died.

What I find interesting is that I didn’t realize how fully my life had been derailed by his passing. He had been diligent about preparing for his eventual death—making a will, organizing all of his personal papers, and so forth. I spent the first couple of months dealing with the last issues of his estate, and all went fairly smoothly. I handled all of the legal issues, closed his accounts, notified his distant friends, and then moved on with my life…

Or so I thought.

What I did not realize was that I didn’t fully deal with my own emotional response to his death. Over the last several months, I have been moody and depressed. I have allowed things that were important to me—like this blog, for example—to fall by the wayside. I went to work, taught my classes, and then came home and vegged out in front of my computer for hours at a time. I mindlessly surfed the web or played stupid video games—missing out on the opportunity to spend time with my family in a seemingly desperate attempt to escape from my emotions.

I started to recognize my emotional disconnect on Thanksgiving Day. I didn’t get to go pick up dad and bring him over to our house like I had done every Thanksgiving morning for the last nine years. I noticed the missing place at the table where he usually sat. I didn’t get the chance to groan at his lame “dad jokes”. And when it came time to put the leftovers away, I forgot for a moment that he was gone and I started to prepare a take home plate of Thanksgiving dinner, just as we had for the previous several years. I got choked up as I realized that I would never be sending him home with another Thanksgiving dinner plate, that I would never get to groan at his lame “dad jokes”—that I would never get to pick him up again for Thanksgiving dinner again.

Thanksgiving Day passed, and my emotions returned to normal…

Or so I thought…

The Saturday after Thanksgiving, we pulled out the Christmas decorations and set up the tree. This was another time when I would go pick up my dad and we would enjoy family time as we decorated the Christmas tree. I didn’t think too much about that this year, as we were immersed in digging through ornaments, lights, and decoration boxes.

And then…

One of the kids pulled an old red and white Santa hat from a box. It was the hat my dad wore every year on Christmas Day for the last twenty-five years. The hat he wore as he read the Christmas Story—the hat he wore while the kids ripped into their presents—the hat that I thought looked so goofy on him every Christmas.

A sob caught in my throat, catching me completely off-guard. Tears welled in my eyes, and I looked away to try and hide my reaction from my family.

I failed.

Faith wearing Grandpa’s Santa hat on Christmas morning.

Sarah, my fifteen year old daughter, launched herself across the room and threw her arms around me. The living room grew quiet. I wasn’t sure what we should do with grandpa’s hat. And then someone suggested that we put it on top of the tree instead of the traditional star. It was a perfect idea.

Christmas came and I went through the motions—Christmas Eve at church, Christmas day at home, a Christmas party at my mother in law’s home—and I just felt empty inside. As much as I tried to engage, I was miserable. Whenever I looked at the tree, I would see dad’s hat—I would feel a mixture of sadness over his loss and guilt over missed opportunities to enjoy time with him.

Last week, I got together individually with two friends—both pastors—whose wisdom I respect highly. As each conversation turned to reflection on the Christmas season, I shared my emotional reaction about my dad and how this has been such a difficult time of year for me.

Dad with Rachael at his 80th birthday party.

Both men suggested to me that I have not taken the time to properly grieve my father’s death—that in the hurry of life, I have not processed the tremendous loss I have experienced.

I see now that they’re right.

As every New Year begins, I set a list of goals—not resolutions, but S.M.A.R.T. goals—for what I plan to accomplish during the next 365 days (or 366 days, in the case of 2016). As I try to get my life back “on track” in 2016, my key goal this year is to grieve the loss and honor the memory of my dad, Gordon Stanley Becker—one of the godliest men I have ever known.

Thanks for your example, dad. I love you!