Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Happy Birthday, Daddy

On January 5, 1914, a newborn's cry bounced around the walls of the home on Samuel McCallum’s little farm in Union Church, Mississippi. It was a boy! Sam and his wife decided to call their new little baby William Melville—although Billy is the name that stuck. That little baby was my father. Had he survived his second round of cancer and whatever other ills might have befallen him, he would be 96 today.

My daddy did not live a storybook life. Had Shakespeare written the script, most would call his life a tragedy. There were good moments, plenty of broad smiles and laughter along the way, but on balance his life was tragic in so many ways. There was a succession of losses around his fourteenth year: his father, his mother, and his boss, who had become like a father to him, all died. His dad was a local marshal in Lake Village, Arkansas, and was killed in the line of duty. His mother couldn’t take it, got sick, left her kids in Arkansas and went home to Mississippi where she died a few years later. And his boss died of a heart attack, I think. All significant people in his life, all people he needed, all people he depended on. Now, at his formative age of fourteen, all dead or missing. And as if that wasn’t enough grief and hurt to deal with, his first wife left him while he was dodging Japanese sniper fire on the Solomon Islands during World War II. My dad found this out when he opened a letter she had written him only to find she had put a letter to her new stateside lover in my dad’s envelope. There were good times in all those years, but the weight of loss took its toll on his soul.

And that wasn’t the end of it either. Thirteen years into his marriage with my mother, she felt the need to leave him too, and she took their three sons with her. My dad was in Arkansas. The rest of us were in Missouri. And he really had no visitation rights to speak of. From 1964 till his death in 1987, I bet I didn’t see him twenty times. He did pay for my first three years of college. And after I had kids of my own, I took them to see my father, and we struck up a relationship marked by occasional phone calls until his death.

My dad was a decent, honest man, a good citizen. He was a very hard worker and an exceptional civil engineer. But he was not very good at relationships. He was fine with work relationships and casual neighborly relationships, but when it came to the people closest to him, he was all thumbs. He hurt me a lot—like when he told me he was coming to my high school graduation and later to my wedding, but didn’t show at either one. Like when he said he was coming to spend a few days with my family and see my kids but called me the day I was to pick him up at the airport to say he wasn’t coming. He was no better with my two brothers than he was with me. Tragic.

I did talk to him the day cancer took his life. I told him I was coming to see him, but it would have to wait until after Christmas (a busy time for a pastor). He told me in our last conversation that he had always loved me. And in spite of so many things we needed to say to one another, that was the last time we ever talked. After his death we found every card and picture we had ever sent him scattered about his apartment. He cherished those things, and we never really knew if he cared at all. People who knew him told us how proud he was of us boys and how he talked about us often. It really looked like he was as hungry for a relationship with his sons as we were for a relationship with our father, and yet none of us really knew how to make that happen. Tragic.

As I’ve matured I’ve learned to better understand why my dad was the way he was. He had so much loss and what he must have felt was so much betrayal in his life that he just couldn’t or wouldn’t trust people. He wouldn’t let people in. He wouldn’t allow anyone to get very close. He was protecting himself—ironically, protecting himself from the very thing that could have saved him in so many ways. Tragic.

Having grown up with a father like him, I tried to do a better job with my kids. I think I did all in all. But like him (and my mother too—whose life was also marked by much tragedy) I’m very slow to let people into my life and I find it very hard to get too close with anyone. It would be easy to be bitter about these things. But I’m not bitter.

In fact, I’m grateful—scarred in many ways, but grateful. I’ve come to accept the fact that in light of the circumstances of my dad’s life and the demons with which he wrestled, he did the best he could. I am grateful for that. And I’m grateful that because my dad claimed Jesus as His Savior, one day we will see each other again. One day, we will truly get to know one another. And we will do that in the place where the tragedies of this world are swallowed up by a joy that lasts forever. So, Happy Birthday, Daddy. We will talk again.


  1. John, God has given you so many wonderful gifts. One is heartfelt storytelling. You teach so much to so many. May God bless and keep you!
    Ronda W.

  2. Thanks, John, for sharing your dad's story and for letting us in on your story, too. God has put your past pain to very good use, blessing others and helping them make sense of their own.

    Looking forward to catching up with you this spring.

  3. I love this story. You have so many gifts, and storytelling is one of them. I really appreciate your sharing yourself with us through your stories. I can certainly relate to your story about your Dad..... Valerie Mansbridge