The Heart of Fatherhood: Laying Down One’s Life
by Ray DeGraw
She was 12 years old, and her death was totally unexpected.
Thus began a post I wrote in tribute to my father almost six years ago. I want to share that tribute here, nearly unedited, on Father’s Day, with the additional comment that my father’s example in laying down his life for his wife and children has shaped my own life, in practical terms, more than anything else of which I am aware – and with an invitation to everyone who reads it to consider, deeply and sincerely, how my father’s actions can be “likened unto ourselves” – even if we never are faced with a situation that is as extreme as his.
My father called this morning to tell me and my wife that my niece had just died. My sister had taken in three cats very recently, and my niece – a physically healthy young woman – had a severe allergic reaction while playing with them. She passed away before the doctors at the hospital could restart her breathing. (Apparently, I have a nephew and a brother – two different families, as well as one of my own sons – who have had allergic reactions to cats, but they weren’t serious enough to raise concerns among the family.)
My father’s words to us were concise. He is not given to emotional displays, and his natural stoicism was evident in his call. He said two things: “Treasure your children every day of your lives,” and “Keep animals out of your house.” I was struck by how this conversation with my father encapsulated him so perfectly. To understand this, you need to know my father.
My mom has a rare form of schizophrenia. My father was unaware of this, as was everyone else (including my mother), when they got married. He found out after the birth of my sisters (twins), when she was overwhelmed and her mind wouldn’t shut down and allow her to sleep. She had what was termed initially a nervous breakdown, which led to her clinical diagnosis.
From that moment forward, my dad shielded my mom from every care of the world so her condition would stay in remission. By all practical measures, he became my father and my mother. My mom wanted more children, so he agreed – knowing that meant his responsibilities would increase accordingly. He shouldered all of the financial, household, emotional, physical, disciplinary, organizational, educational, etc. responsibilities for his family and allowed his wife to be seen by their children and the community as the incredibly spiritual woman we knew as our mother – a modern Mormon saint. People in town admired his work ethic, but they never realized what he was doing behind our doors – because he never once mentioned it in any way to anyone. He didn’t want others to view his wife as anyone other than the sweet angel he had married – to do anything that would lessen her in others’ eyes in a time when mental illness was not understood.
Until her first breakdown, my father served in various leadership positions in the Church. (Looking back on it now, I realize he was on a fast track to higher leadership, so to speak.) After my mother’s breakdown, he waited nearly 30 years to serve in another position that required he spend significant time away from home – until his children were gone and my mom could function without the stress associated with raising them. He left an extremely well paying job in “the city” with incredible advancement opportunities to go back to the small town where my mom was raised, simply to ease her stress and allow her to function normally. He dug ditches, pruned trees, shoveled dung – and eventually became an elementary school janitor, taking over a 50% pay cut and focusing on loving and serving his kids – both at home and at his school.
Not holding a high profile church position, he came to be known in town as a salt-of-the-earth farm boy – a good man, but certainly not a leader. I bought into that perception until my mother’s second breakdown a few years ago, when her “sleeping pills” stopped working and her whole personality changed. It was only after this experience that I finally saw my father for what he is – as close an example of the Savior’s single-minded dedication to loving service and family as anyone I have ever known. My father literally laid down his former and future lives for the woman he loved more than anything else and took up a new life he had never imagined and would not have chosen otherwise.
Why did I share all of this when it was my niece’s death that rocked our family’s world that morning? It is because my father was able to sum up the situation for his family in such a beautifully concise way. He has a rock-solid testimony of the Plan of Salvation – that he and my sister will see their (grand)daughter again. It is such a given for him that he never even thought to mention it. He knew it; he knew we knew it; it never crossed his mind to address it. Instead, just as he always had, he saw the big picture and acted as both mother and father to his family – giving us two beautifully balanced bits of wisdom – one spiritual that applies to all and one practical that applies directly to his own children. Therefore, I pass them on to you – knowing the second one will have to be adapted to whatever dangers threaten your own children’s well-being – physically or spiritually.
“Treasure your children every day of your life.”
“Keep (serious dangers) out of your house.”
Happy Father’s Day, Dad – and every father who sacrifices and lays down his life in some way for others.
We love you!