Camp ended, and I came back home to prepare for my freshman year of college. I had always wanted to go to the University of Alabama, where dad had gone. But because of his health, I knew I needed to stay closer to home. So I enrolled at the much smaller University of North Alabama, just a few minutes from our house. Both my brothers were married by then, so it was just me at home with mom and dad.
By that fall, dad could barely walk, so he spent most of his days in a medical bed. He couldn't eat solid food, and he lost a lot of weight. Mom and I took care of him. He'd ring a little bell when he needed us.
Dad loved the football program at the Christian high school I'd gone to. He was very sick that fall but insisted on going to a game, so I took him. We sat right next to the sideline, and I held an umbrella to shield him from the sun. He wore a neck brace which helped keep his head up. My friend Amanda took a picture of us that day . . .
It would be years later when I noticed a second scene in that photo, in the foreground. Amanda says, when she took it, she didn't even notice those two sitting there. The image captures two loving fathers and two doting sons in very different roles. Beautiful serendipity—divinely inspired, I believe.
Memories from childhood are funny things. We pretty much just remember the really good things and the really bad things.
This sucks if you're a parent because kids don't remember the million tiny mundane things you did for them.
Most of our childhood memories slip away from us, slowly disappearing into the quicksand of the mind.
But God lets us keep a few. He lets us remember . . .
. . .
. . .
. . .
I remember trips to Tuscaloosa. And cold bottles of Yoohoo.
I remember wrestling matches on the floor. I was a gnat compared to your big, sturdy dad frame.
I remember you liking anything flavored like coconut.
I remember your soft spirit and coarse hands.
I remember you sitting on the couch, watching golf every Sunday afternoon until you dozed off.
I remember hanging out with you in your office at the church and playing MahJong on your computer while you prepped for sermons.
I remember you bear-hugging mom in the kitchen and a kindergarten version of me racing across the room to wedge myself in between your two warm bodies. I remember how you loved her. I remember.
I remember you planting those little trees in the front yard of the house on Oakview Street. I wish you could see how big they are now.
I remember you teaching me to mow grass with a push-mower.
I remember shooting basketball with you in the driveway on cold January mornings.
I remember you telling me I needed to learn to dribble with my left hand and you telling me not to fade away on jumpshots in the paint. "You're one of the tall guys, Brett. Go up strong with it."
I remember you talking about Jesus. And I remember how happy you were when I met Him for myself.
I remember you standing behind that pulpit in a navy suit. I remember you telling stories about me in your sermons and secretly liking it, because it reminded everyone that I belonged to you.
I remember when you apologized to me for that bad thing you said about that pastor across town even though I was the only one who heard it. I remember being in awe at your words, "Son, will you forgive me?"
I remember you had a smell. I remember saving that jacket of yours—the navy one with the gray hood—and burying my nose in it years after you were gone, trying so hard to not let that smell get away. Tears.
I remember when that waitress dropped that honey mustard all over you and it splattered yellow in your face, all over your glasses. I remember you belly-laughing in front of that terrified little waitress. I remember her relief. I remember how your laughter was grace to her that day.
I remember you never cussing, never shouting, never belittling, never striking. Now that I'm older, I can appreciate all the things you didn't do.
I remember our obsession with hunting Indian arrowheads, with walking through the muddy cotton fields of Colbert County for hours, hoping to find a single point. I remember when you'd find one and how you'd shout "Heyyy!!!" from a quarter mile away. I'd squint over a sea of Alabama red clay and see you waving at me in the distance. I remember my heart leaping and then the sprint to get to you, my joyful father.
I remember us making up code names for our best arrowhead hunting fields—Abbey Church, Heaven's Half Acre, Water Treatment Plant. No one else remembers those names, Dad, but I do. They are ours.
I remember that day in Steve Posey's field where we found 10 arrowheads in one day. 10 in a day! I still can't believe it.
I remember loading up that little flat-bottom boat and tearing across the Tennessee River to look for Indian pottery on Koger Island. I remember the look of you behind the wheel of that boat—hair flying in the wind—on the backdrop of limestone bluffs.
I remember that trip you and I took to San Francisco where we explored the redwood forest and joked about seeing Ewoks.
I remember going to Israel with you and mom. I remember sitting next to you on that boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee and imagining Jesus walking around out there.
I remember when you bought me that cherry red Isuzu Rodeo my senior year. We probably couldn't afford that, but I think a sick dad wanted his son to remember him giving one last big, outlandish gift.
I remember that thing we did when we were in the living room watching the Braves. You'd be on the couch, and I'd be in the recliner. I'd extend my hand toward you, knowing you'd take it. And we'd just sit there in silence and watch the game, connected at the fingers. I think we were both a little embarrassed because it wasn't very manly. But that was a little bond we had, and it taught me that sometimes love needs no words. I remember that, Dad.
I remember these moments, Dad. I remember your love. I remember all those years being schooled in your version of masculinity—strong, tough, tender, kind.
I will always remember.
By December of that year, Dad's health had gotten very bad. We asked everyone praying to pray harder. We were all still believing God for a miracle. And so was I.
One day I heard dad ring his little bell. I knew what that meant, so I got up to go see what he needed. I walked in, and he was sitting up in his bed, looking at me with a little smirk on his face. He couldn't talk then, so we'd gotten him an electronic device that could speak for him. A robotic voice would dictate his words aloud after he typed them into the machine (this was before smartphones). The device was sitting in his lap when he motioned for me to come closer. He then reached down and pressed play . . .
"I! LOVE! YOU!" the metallic voice said.
I remember how he typed those words because there was a little screen that displayed what had been entered. He had put an exclamation point behind each word. I noticed every one.
That's all he wanted that day. He just wanted his son to know that his dad loved him very much, even though he couldn't say it. I think Dad knew I'd never forget that. It worked.
A few weeks later—December 31 to be exact—our whole family gathered around Dad's bed for the final time. At 12:33 p.m., Brother Bill was gone. We cried and cried and cried and cried.
God had not done what we'd hoped He'd do.
It's tempting to sugarcoat it now, but that would be disingenuous. Many people were disappointed. Many felt God let us down. And I'd be lying if I said I wasn't one of them.
The Bible calls God a "Heavenly Father." And it tells us that He is a good father. But if you've been around the faith very long, you've learned that sometimes He doesn't feel very good, and we have no idea why. Still, we believe . . . we trust.
A few days later, about 1,200 people showed up to Dad's funeral.
A lot of local pastors came to show their support. It was a beautiful service and a heartfelt tribute to Dad's life.
I took a few weeks to rest and came back to school in January.
Having all this happen during my freshman year of college was rough. But I got through it thanks to some new friends and a newfound love—a love spelled with three little letters . . . 👊
B.B.P.S. - UPDATE: For Father's Day, I made a video inspired by this episode. You can check it out here.
Select photos by Sterling Graves. Copyright Blue Babies Pink & Sterling Graves.
B.T. Harman is the creator of Blue Babies Pink, a Southern Coming Out Story in 44 Episodes.
B.T. is a consultant, writer, and speaker living in Atlanta's historic Cabbagetown neighborhood. He was previously a vice president for Booster, an Atlanta fundraising company, where he helped the organization raise $150 million for elementary schools.
B.T. is passionate about storytelling, leadership, good design, Seth Godin, SEC football, Chick-fil-A, Taylor Swift, archaeology, European Travel and CS Lewis.
To learn more about B.T., visit his personal site at btharman.com.