Many a morning as a child I stumbled through the darkness to our family's truck, fell back to sleep, then was awakened by the sound of the truck sputtering to a halt in the Louisiana woods. I can remember, even when I was too young to dress myself, climbing out of that truck alongside my dad—the most important person in my life at the time—and stepping into the gray, early morning light to hunt squirrels or deer.
One morning ten years ago I was once again headed for the woods to hunt with Dad. But this time I was grown, with a family of my own. I had been touring for months and had promised to make a trip from our home in Nashville, Tennessee, to the swamps outside Lake Charles, Louisiana, where I grew up. Though I didn't know it, this would be no ordinary morning. It was the morning that I would find out that Dad approved. This morning he would give me his blessing.
When we got into Dad's old truck and he turned the ignition key, music began to pour from a cassette in the tape deck. I knew the music well and was surprised to hear it in Dad's truck. It was my most recent recording, blaring into the morning stillness! I couldn't help myself; I said, "I didn't know you even had this. Do you listen to it?"
His answer amazed me. "It's the only thing I listen to." I glanced around, and sure enough, it was the only cassette in his truck. I was dumbstruck! He said, "This is my favorite," referring to the song playing at the time. I let his words sink in as he turned down the volume to match the morning.
We drove in silence down the road toward the hunting spot, and I wondered at what had just happened. It seems now like such a small thing—a few spoken words. But there seemed to be something different in the air. I sat taller in my seat. I looked at my dad out of the corner of my eye and thought back to two turning points in our relationship.
One happened while I was in college. I remembered having it dawn on me that I had never heard my dad say that he loved me. I knew that he did, but I couldn't remember hearing him say so. That was something my dad just didn't do. For some reason it became important to me that I hear those words from his own lips. I knew, however, that he would never initiate it. So that summer, as I drove home from college, I determined to "force his hand" by telling him first that I loved him. Then he'd have to say it back. It would be simple. Just three little words. I anticipated a glorious new openness once I came home and said, "I love you, Dad," and then he would respond.
But simple is not always easy. The first day came and went, and I thought, I have to tell him tomorrow! The next day came and went. Then the next, and the next. Then twelve weeks passed, and it was the last day of my summer break. I was frustrated at not having said those three little words to my dad.
My little, beat-up car was packed and sitting on the gravel driveway. I promised myself that I would not start the engine until the deed was done. To someone with an emotionally open relationship with his own father, this may all seem a bit silly, but to me it was serious business. My palms were wet and my throat was dry. My knees grew weak as departure time came.
It had been a good summer visit. There was a general sadness in the house because I was headed back to school across the state. Finally I could wait no longer. I hugged my mom, my brother, and my sister good-bye and went back to find my dad.
I walked up to him, looked him in the eyes, and said, "I love you, Dad."
He smiled a half smile, put his arms around me, and said what I needed to hear: "I love you too, son." It seemed as though a thousand volts of electricity were in the air as we hugged each other (another thing that hadn't happened since I was a small child). It was such a little thing, but it changed everything!
From that point on, all of our conversations were signed off with: "I love you, Dad." "I love you too, son." It became commonplace to embrace when we greeted each other and when we parted. As plain as it sounds, it resulted in a new sweetness between my dad and me. The memory of it came back to me in the truck that morning on the way to the woods.
The other turning point came after college. I remembered that I had learned at a seminar about clearing my conscience with those whom I had wronged. This was entirely new to me—admitting guilt and receiving forgiveness from those I had offended.
Part of the process was to ask God to show me anyone and everyone with whom I needed to clear my conscience. Sure enough, at the top of the list was Dad.
So I sat down with my dad and started first with the worst things that I had done. I proceeded from there to the least serious offenses. I confessed everything that I knew had hurt him, even from my childhood. Then I simply asked, "Dad, will you forgive me?"
Just as I had expected, Dad was embarrassed and tried to shrug it off: "Aw, it's all right, son."
I said, "It will mean a lot to me if you will forgive me."
He looked right at me and said, "It has already been forgiven."
That was his way of saying that he had not held a grudge. And once again, everything changed. From that moment, Dad treated me with new respect. I hadn't anticipated it, but he also began to treat me like an adult—like a friend.
In the stillness of the morning, on the way to the woods, these things floated through my memory, and I rested in my dad's approval of my calling, my work, my music.
I had no way of knowing just how precious his blessing would become to me. One short week later, after my family and I had driven back to Nashville, I received the telephone call from my brother, Tommy, telling me that Dad had walked out onto the porch and had died of a heart attack. He had been young and healthy—only forty-nine years old. It was my darkest day.
Though my family and I tasted intense grief, I still had much for which to be grateful. I had enjoyed thirty years with my dad—some of them as his friend. He had given me a strong enough start that I knew I could meet the challenge of rearing my own children, including my son who was born on Father's Day six years later.
Even though my dad is gone, in the wee hours of that morning on the way to the woods, he had given me something of great value to pass along—a father's blessing.
None of us know the moment our Father will call us to join Him in heaven. We live as if our tomorrows will stretch on forever. We may have mistreated someone close to us or left a promise unfulfilled—yet we think to ourselves, It can wait. I'll take care of it another day.
But what if we don't have another day? What if this is our last twenty-four hours—or even twenty-four minutes—on earth? Will we enter heaven with the peace of a life lived completely, or will we carry with us an oversized package of regret because of words unspoken and deeds unfinished?
God graciously allowed an adult son to experience his father's love and friendship, as well as his approval, just a week before his death. That exchange became a precious final gift. My prayer is that you won't wait to give such a gift to your own beloved children.Night Light for Parents
By Dr. James Dobson