Fathers Teaching by Example

It is difficult to summarize the subtleties and complexities of the human personality, and they were unable to find the right words. Only when we began talking about specific remembrances did the personality of this patriarch become apparent. My dad provided the best evidence by writing his recollection of Grandfather Dobson's death, which I've reproduced below. Flowing throughout this narrative is the impact of a great man on his family, even three decades after his demise.

The Last Days of R. L. Dobson

The attack that took his life occurred when he was sixty-nine years of age and resulted ultimately in the breakup of the family circle. For many years after his death, I could not pass Tri-State Hospital without noting one particular window. It stood out from the rest, hallowed because it represented the room where he had suffered somuch. The details of those tragic days and nights remain in my memory, unchanged by the passage of time.

We had been three days and three nights practically without sleep, listening to him struggle for breath, hearing the sounds of approaching death, smelling the smells of death. Dad lay in a deep coma. His heavy breathing could be heard up and down the corridor. We walked the halls of that old hospital for hours listening to the ceaseless struggle, which now was becoming fainter and fainter. Several times the nurse had called us in and we had said the last good-bye—had gone through the agony of giving him up—only to have his heart rally, and then the endless vigil would begin all over again. Finally, we had gone into an adjoining room not prepared for sleep, but some in the chairs and some across the beds, we had fallen into the sleep of utter exhaustion.

At five minutes to four o'clock the nurse came in and awakened one ofmy twin brothers. Robert roused with a start. "Is he gone?" he asked.

"No, but if you boys want to see your dad one more time while he is alive, you'd better come now."

The word quickly passed around and we filed into the room to stand around his bed for the last time. I remember that I stood at his left side: Ismoothed back the hair from his forehead and laid my hand on his big old red hand, so very much like my own. I felt the fever that precedes death: 105 degrees. While I was standing there a change came over me. Instead ofbeing a grown man (I was twenty-four at the time), I became a little boy again. They say this often happens to adults who witness the death of a parent. I thought I was in the Union Train Station in Shreveport, Louisiana, in the late afternoon, and I was watching for his return. The old Kansas City Southern passenger train was backing into the station and I saw it come 'round the curve. My heart swelled with pride. Iturned to the little boy standing next to me and said, "You see that big man standing on the back of the train, one hand on the airbrake and the other on the little whistle with which he signals the engineer? That big man is my dad!" He set the air brakes and Iheard the wheels grind to a stop. I saw him step off that last coach. Iran and jumped into his arms. I gave him a tight hug and I smelled the train smoke on his clothes. "Daddy, I love you," I said.

It all comes back. I patted that big hand and said, "Good-bye, Dad," as he was sinking fast now. "We haven't forgotten how hard you worked to send five boys and one girl through college: how you wore those old conductor uniforms until they were slick—doing without that we might have things that we didn't really need. ..."

At three minutes to four o'clock, like a stately ship moving slowly outof time's harbor into eternity's sea, he breathed his last. The nurse motioned for us to leave and pulled the sheet over his head, a gesture that struck terror to my heart, and we turned with silent weeping to leave the room. Then an incident occurred that Iwill never forget. Just as we got to the door, I put my arm around my little mother and said, "Mama, this is awful."

Dabbing at her eyes with her handkerchief, she said, "Yes, Jimmy, but there is one thing Mother wants you to remember now. We have said good night down here, but one of these days we are going to say good morning up there."

I believe she did say good morning too, eleven years later, and I know he met her "just inside the Eastern gate."

His death was marked by quietness and dignity, just like the life he had lived. Thus came to an end the affairs of R. L. Dobson, and thus ended, too, the solidarity of the family. The old home place was never the same again. The old spirit that we had known as children was gone forever!

Again, this illustration reveals few of the specific characteristics that made R. L. Dobson such a powerful influence in his family; it does tell us how his son felt about him. I happen to know some of the other details. He was one of the oak trees I mentioned—a man of strength and integrity. Although not a Christian until shortly before his death, he lived by an internal standard that was singularly uncompromising. As a young man, for example, he invested heavily in a business venture with a partner whom he later discovered to be dishonest. When he learned of the chicanery, he walked out and virtually gave the company to the other man. That former partner built the corporation into one of the most successful operations in the South and became a multimillionaire. But my grandfather never looked back. He took a clean conscience with him to his grave.

There were other admirable traits, of course, and many of them were transmitted to my dad. These two men personified much of what I'm trying to convey in this examination of manhood. Then they passed those values down to me. If men today were as certain of their masculine identity as my father and grandfather, there would be far fewer lost boys who search vainly for role models in street gangs or in popular culture.

My point through this discussion has been to urge those of you who are young fathers to provide that modeling on which your boys can build their masculine identities. As you carry out the traditional roles we have described, or some version of them, your sons will observe who you are and thereby learn to serve in a similar way when they are grown. That's why any advice to dads about raising boys must begin with an examination of their individual demeanor and character.

Book: Bringing Up Boys

By Dr. James Dobson

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