By Tommy Airey
“Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.”–Luke 24:31
The night before Dad vanished, I caught him in his office watching the Oregon State Lady Beavers on his desktop computer. His alma mater’s women’s basketball team was ranked in the top five and he wasn’t going to miss the action while Mom and Lindsay bogarted the TV in the living room.
The next morning, I woke up fifteen minutes earlier than he did. I fetched the paper and brewed the coffee. But I waited for Dad to make the oatmeal. Just like he always did when we visited. We usually started these days together. In silence. I would read Scripture and journal in the dining room while he read the LA Times in the kitchen. Sports page first, just like he taught me.
About thirty minutes into our morning session, Dad cracked the quiet to ask about the email he forwarded me a few days earlier. It arrived in my inbox with the subject line “Interesting very short video.” He hooked me with “short.” It was a link from his friend from Nebraska who ominously wrote, “The number and variety of things threatening our way of life as it used to be seems to be really stacking up as the years go by and generations pass.” He was not referring to climate catastrophe, the health care system, U.S. imperialism or income inequality.
The ninety-second clip featured a Harvard Business School professor giving a tutorial about how democracy couldn’t survive without religion. It had soft music playing in the background and featured shots of urban skylines with steeples vanishing, mixed in with images of men selling drugs and getting arrested. The professor ends with a warning, “Because if you take away religion, you can’t hire enough police.”
I told Dad that I was convinced that the so-called “war on religious liberty” is a manufactured issue used to manipulate older white men like him. He agreed, but as usual, didn’t elaborate. I think he respected the day-to-day lives of his Bible-believing friends, but he wasn’t really sure what to do with their paranoid ideologies. Dad was never down with Fox News or Rush Limbaugh. When he wasn’t watching Sportscenter and Jimmy Fallon, he was tuned into C-Span and Book TV.
After Mom awoke, it wasn’t long before I was interrupted by a comical debate over Dad’s watch. The battery died so he shared his big plan for the day: drive to Walmart to buy a brand new watch for $10. Mom thought Dad was whack. “Just replace the battery!” But Dad’s math mind had already taken over. He could get a brand new watch at Walmart for the same price as a measly battery. Suffice it to say, Dad set off to carry out his mission a few minutes before Mom and I drove down to the beach.
When we got back, Dad was on the couch reading The Martian. During the last year of his life, he read seventy-six works of fiction and created a spreadsheet ranking them on a 5.0 scale (only one book received a Dennis Airey 5.0, while six received a 4.9). I think those marathon reading sessions provided him with the depth and diversity that his fundamentalist Bible church lacked. Perhaps this was how he survived all those forwarded emails.
An hour later, I told my parents about my skin cancer diagnosis. It was basel cell carcinoma. Dad just kind of shrugged. He had plenty of those burned off or carved out back in the day. He was more interested in the mail that he had collected for me and Lindsay: some magazines, University of Kansas Alumni Association mailers, my semi-annual Calstrs teacher pension updates and some literature from a few peace and justice organizations we had contributed to.
Our mail was also the source of our monthly long-distance ritual. He would open the credit card statement in California and then laser off an email to me in Michigan. The last one he ever sent was on October 20, 2015 (with the size 12 Segoe UI font that he preferred for his correspondence):
new balance $2,666.25
autopay is on
will save stmt for you
How about those Spartans!
Autopay was always on. And he always confirmed it. A few days earlier, Michigan State had just beat in-state rival Michigan in Ann Arbor. The Wolverine punter fumbled the snap and the Spartans returned it for a touchdown in the final ten seconds for the win. Dad was always fully aware of what was happening in the world of sports. It was a main source of connection to most everyone he knew.
He consistently organized email contests picking winners of sporting events. His latest iteration was called Just-For-Fun-NFL-Pick-One-Winner-Per-Week. He had recruited thirty contestants, but no one really knew who was playing because everyone had nicknames. My brother and I would run into the most random people—old friends from our Evangelical youth group and little league—who would say, “Yeah, your Dad signed me up for the Just-For-Fun email contest.” Or, even creepier, “I ran into your dad the other day and he asked for my email.”
My favorite moment of Dad’s last day was when we gathered around the small table in the kitchen. Just the three of us. We dipped fresh sourdough into the cheese fondue Mom had just made. It shimmered my favorite bible story, the ancient resurrection scene on the way to Emmaus at the end of Luke’s Gospel, when the risen Jesus joins the two disciples on the sad, lonely road back home. Strangely, the disciples didn’t recognize Jesus. At the conclusion, the three of them shared a meal. My dad played Jesus, who took the bread, blessed and broke it and gave it to us.
That night, my parents hosted Lindsay’s family for an early Thanksgiving dinner. Dad was more passionate than usual. He led the prayer. He expressed gratitude for his sister Kathie who had hip surgery earlier in the day. Then he threw us a curve. He whipped out a question to roll around the table, “If you were limited to just three food items to eat for the rest of our lives, what would you choose.” He confessed that he would spend the rest of his life eating vanilla, chocolate and cookies-and-cream ice cream.
Dad snuck out of the house while Lindsay’s family was leaving. He was heading to the second half of Bible study at the Presbyterian Church a mile away. He was excited about the nine-month Bible Study Fellowship (BSF) series on the Book of Revelation. BSF was started in the late 50’s for revival converts of Billy Graham’s crusades. It fueled a personal relationship with God and a passion for “the cause of Christ.” The last time Dad opened his Bible, he scripted Revelation 4, the heavenly throne scene. Surrounded by elders in white robes, four living creatures, each with six wings that covered their eyes, are singing on repeat, all-day and all-night:
‘Holy, holy, holy,
the Lord God the Almighty,
who was and is and is to come.’
Most of my friends who are also recovering from white Christian fundamentalism think Revelation is just plain creepy. I don’t blame them. But Bible scholar Brian Blount has reclaimed the apocalyptic fervor for me by carrying the last book in the Christian Scriptures in one hand and the old African-American slave narratives in the other. Appropriate since it was a book written and rehearsed by those who were violently oppressed. In contrast to an end-times rapture roadmap, these ancient dreams and visions fueled Underground Railroad resistance.
While Dad was getting a tutorial on emerald thrones and flaming torches , we were cleaning up and getting packed for our early morning flight back to Detroit. Dad was scheduled to shuttle us to the airport at 5am. I remember Mom saying, “I’m a little nervous that Dad isn’t home yet. It’s just not like him.” Then she moved on to the next thing. Not too much later, Lindsay and I were in bed. I had already taken Melatonin, but I couldn’t sleep. I felt uneasy. I rolled out of bed and into the family room. Mom was half reading and half worrying.
We hatched an on-the-fly strategy to find him. She drove down to the church and I called the police. I walked outside in the crisp, clear, forty-four degree night staring into the sky and verbally asking Dad where he was. At that point, he had probably been wearing his new white robe and gorging on vanilla, chocolate and cookies-and-cream for at least two hours.
When the cop arrived, he awkwardly parked in front of the house two doors down, where the Berberians used to live. I walked to meet him. He stayed strapped in his rig and robotically queried me for details. He pursued other possibilities. There weren’t any. Dad was always on time and he never made extra stops. He didn’t have friends to check in on. He didn’t go to bars or coffee houses. I wanted to be blunt: this is a guy who binge-watches women’s basketball on his office computer. But I didn’t go there.
Mom came home empty handed. No sign of the car anywhere. She hightailed it down to Mission Hospital. Nothing there either. After she got back, we got a call from the police. They found Dad’s car parked at the commercial offices on the other side of Oso Parkway from the church. When we arrived, the doors were unlocked and his Bible was on the passenger seat. No sign of Dad though.
We drove back to get the key to the car. When we returned to the haunted scene, we learned the battery had died. I didn’t know what to do so I started frantically walking back home, tracing his steps up Marguerite Parkway. I was calling out his name. Maybe he fell into the bushes or he got sudden amnesia and was wandering off-track. Maybe he was robbed at gunpoint and someone kidnapped him. All these scenarios were firing in my brain. Anything was possible.
When Mom and Lindsay drove up Marguerite, I decided to get in the car and take the wheel. When we came up over the hill towards the light at Felipe, we saw the frantic flickering lights of four police cars. Maybe it was five. I immediately said, “Oh, Dad.” My mom didn’t know what was going on. I knew immediately that he was gone. That life would never be the same again.
I parked and I bolted towards his body lying on the sidewalk. The half dozen officers would not allow us to get closer than twenty feet from him. Like the imperial guard at Jesus’ tomb. They said it was a “crime scene.” I begged them to let us closer. We just wanted to see him. They didn’t budge. This is what happens when Dad collapses on the sidewalk in a suburb that frequently wins awards like “The Safest City in America.” This is what my father’s Fox News friends call “the price for freedom.”
My Mom and Lindsay were crying and we group-hugged on the curb next to the car. Another officer told us we had to leave. The coroner would meet us at home in a few hours. I think I drove. Mom was confused and crying. When we got home, I called my brother and left a message. It was after midnight. I called a few more times to see if he would wake-up. Nothing. We sat in the family room, on the couch where we could still feel the warmth of dad reading The Martian and where, after dinner, he was showing Kristen recent newspaper clippings of the Capo girls cross-country team.
We waited and cried. Mom was shivering. Lindsay called the airlines to cancel our flights and try to get some sort of refund. No such luck. When the coroner finally arrived, he reported no signs of foul play. Either he fell and hit his head or he had a massive heart attack. Either way, he died instantly. To be sure, he would need to conduct an autopsy.
He handed over Dad’s stuff in a plastic bag. Keys. Wallet. Wedding ring. The watch Dad bought at Walmart earlier that day. Dad won his final argument with Mom. The watch was a spiritual sign marking the season of Resurrection. I am just now realizing that I didn’t really recognize Dad until long after he vanished from our sight. It’s taken me a lot longer than the disciples on the road to Emmaus.
Some of the recognizing comes from stories, like the one I recently heard from my first childhood friend, John, over a meal in Denver. Back in the mid-70s, working full-time with two toddlers at home, Dad gave up the weekend to drive up to the Bay Area to move John’s family back down to Southern California. “Who does that?” John queried smiling while shaking his head and raising his eyebrows in shocking approval.
Most of the time, I recognize Dad as he rises up in me. The most intimate brand of resurrection. The way he would rub and wring his hands together while preparing something in the kitchen finds it’s old warmth in my own body. The way he would methodically structure his daily tasks. The way he would be present and listen without taking up space. The way he tried to connect by sharing something he read or watched. The way he would attempt to quench his voracious curiosity of the vast world on his weekly pilgrimage to the public library. These are all gifts from Dad that are making their way in me.
Grief, like Spring rain in Central Oregon, both catches me by surprise and refreshes my soul. A few days ago, I overheard someone share his Father’s Day plans. He and his dad are going to watch the entire final round of the Men’s U.S. Open Golf Championship together. I felt deep sadness and regret. I breathed with it for a little longer than usual. I let it touch something deeper. I’m learning, very slowly, that sorrow is not just a speed bump on my way to get shit done. It might actually be my most important spiritual practice. If I just let it be.
Today, I’d give just about anything for an afternoon on the couch watching TV with Dad. He wasn’t really down for golf. But you can bet your ass we’d get stupid on vanilla, chocolate and cookies-and-cream while watching replays of that Lady Beaver basketball team that made it all the way to the Final Four a few months after Dad’s battery died. During timeouts, he’d probably ask for some of my friends’ email addresses.
Tommy Airey was born and raised on stolen, unceded Acjachemen territory (“Orange County, California”), was transformed by the thin place the Ojibwe, Huron and Odawa call Wawiiatanong (“Detroit River”) and has entered the sacred “hidden waters” the Molalla and Paiute named Towarnehiooks (“Deschutes River, Oregon”). He and his wife-partner Lindsay work for Kardia Kaiomenē, a community-supported non-profit, partnering with families and faith communities to equip and accompany all those whose hearts burn for intimacy, community and justice. He is the co-editor of RadicalDiscipleship.Net and author of the recently released Descending Like a Dove: Adventures in Decolonizing Evangelical Christianity (2018).