I found the picture in the small bible that sits on my nightstand along with a vintage copy of Charlotte’s Web, a book of poetry by Rilke that my friend Melissa sent to me, and a Henri Nouwen book on prayer. It was tucked into the pages of Philippians, near the thirteenth verse of the third chapter – reminding me to not look back and keep pressing on. In that little bible you’ll also find the 1950s-infused names my mom had dreamed about for her children when she was no more than a child herself. Randall Raphael for a boy, and Darlenia Doreen for a girl. Both of those dreams would fade when I was born.
Instead, I would be named after a famous actress, with a quick “maybe she’ll grow up beautiful and blonde and happy” wish on a star. And there would be no more children. Fractures were already showing in the marriage that would be held together not by love but out of sheer determination.
The picture is more than a girl in her senior year of high school. It is a snapshot of an era when curling irons were making their clumsy debut and feather stoles were a rite of passage into adulthood. It was a photo I had signed and laminated and given to you, dad, as I prepared to walk the stage in gown and mortar board. I’m not sure why I felt it was important to laminate it first, but the symbolism isn’t lost on me now as I read the words penned on the flip side of the smiling young woman who was determined to become a journalist and change the world.
“I know sometimes I’m nothing but a hassle, but I’m glad you understand.”
For decades, I carried the first portion of that sentiment deep within me because of words spoken – words shouted in fits of drunken anger, words soaked in tears. I didn’t understand why so many words were barbed and jagged, or what I had done to cause them to be wielded like weapons. I wondered what I had done to disappoint you, what I could have done to make you happy.
Children carry the weight of words, you know, wearing them like a wardrobe. I didn’t realize it then, but I was carrying your weight.
The weight of the words spoken to you.
As a child, you wanted to be a pastor. You loved to tend to people, and you wanted to do it well. Your parents said things changed when you served in World War II, that you came back hardened and cruel. They gave up on you then, saying there wasn’t much hope. They grieved the loss of you as a “good Sonny boy,” and prayed your children wouldn’t end up like you. They wondered why you weren’t fond of coming to visit, and they never thanked you when you opened up your home to them in the final years of their lives when they needed full-time care.
But the weight of the words began pressing in much earlier than that, didn’t it? Rather than getting to do “kid on a farm” things like helping your dad feed the cattle or going fishing in the early mornings, you were told it was your responsibility to tend to your mom. Delivery had been difficult for her, and she reminded you often that you had made her sick and frail and unable to bear more children. She talked longingly about the day she would escape the pain of this life, and she demanded that you listen every time.
Dad, If I could lift the weight of those words in any way, I would. I would tell you that you were not a hassle.
I would tell you that the longing to be a pastor kept living in and through you. Our home was a safe haven for prostitutes and hit-men, for kids estranged from their families and for wide-eyed wanderers with big plans. You delighted in personally going to the grocery store week after week, because you wanted to make sure there was always food in the house for whoever might need a meal. You didn’t know what to do with the mercy inside, didn’t know how to balance it with the need to be a self-made bootstrapping businessman. You raged against it and tried your best to deny it. But it couldn’t be contained.
I would tell you that, even when the alcohol and prescription drugs had ravaged your soul and spirit, there was still life in you longing to be lived. There was still love in you longing to be felt. The weight of the words did its best to destroy you. Yet, the last words you spoke carried a different weight.
They were words of affection. They were words of hope.
If I could, I would speak those words back to you now, to remind you that you were far more than the weight you carried. You were not a hassle, dad. Your legacy has instructed me to embrace life and not withhold love. You teach me still to be unafraid of the gifts within me, and to give space to their presence no matter the cost. The life you lived has taught me the impact of my life on those around me.
On the back of that laminated photo, I wrote:
“I know sometimes I’m nothing but a hassle, but I’m glad you understand.” Those words, written and then sealed.
You did understand, didn’t you? I understand now too.
We were not a hassle. God has redeemed our stories, dad. He has lifted the weight of the words.
Other writings to my dad (Wayne V. Sellers, 6 September 1925 to 15 July 1993).