I hope you are enjoying heaven and that the apostle Paul leaves you alone. He can be pretty tough on Jewish men who don’t take their heritage seriously and who don’t wake up to God knocking on their door until the clock is about to strike mortal midnight.
Your death was a milestone for me. In so many ways it healed me and set me free. No, I’m not glad you died. However, I am glad for what looking at death did to you before you went into the afterlife, how it made you reach out to me and draw me into your thoughts, reflections, and story.
As I told you that morning in Ferndale, ‘Dad’ was the name of my deepest childhood pain. As a child I knew that you loved me, but I also felt bruised by the adoption papers you signed. They stated in precise terms that you wanted nothing more to do with Steven Ronald Thomsett. Your signature made me into a Gumaer. It was so final.
Then as an adult I began to wonder if you loved me at all. I know this is a bit self-centered to say, but when my first daughter was born in 1996 and I identified with feelings of fatherhood myself, I couldn’t understand how you could have let me go like you did. I told myself that I would never do that. Never.
Now I know how complex the decision was for you, and I appreciate that it was a painful one, but still, this is how it felt.
When you called me in Thailand back in 1998, I was standing in the front yard of a house we were about to sign a rental contract on. Oddny was pregnant with Naomi, and Elise was my little toddler buddy tugging at my pant legs. I asked the landlord to excuse me when the phone rang. You spoke hesitantly and told me you had a brain tumor and were given 3 months to live, time stood still for me.
Did it stand still for you?
Speechless, I mumbled something I can’t even remember and then agreed to visit you in Washington.
As you know, I was working with refugees from Burma and felt like I was finding my feet in life helping them find theirs. (It’s weird how that works. You give yourself away and then begin to find yourself.) But I dropped everything, bought tickets, and touched down at SeaTac, rented a car, and drove North on I-5 to meet you in Ferndale.
My clearest memory from that trip was when we sat staring into the embers of an hour old fire around seven in the morning. Cars were starting to pass your white house on their way to work in Bellingham or the small town of Ferndale. You had your wizened campfire face, laced with the nights tossing and turning, while you smoked a Marlboro Red and leaned back in your army green lawn chair.
I remember the sun coming up while the smoke from our fire smoldered on an otherwise perfectly green lawn. To see the commuters headed down the hill to work, craning their necks to see their neighbor Pete sitting beside a hand dug fire pit in front of his house. We were a very unique sighting in suburbia. In fact, I can still hear them sighing to themselves, “There goes the neighborhood.”
Feeling a little embarrassed I asked you about it. I’ll never forget how you said, “I don’t live to make your neighbors happy anymore.”
That kicked off a long talk about regret. I remember you telling me how you regretted that you let me go, that you kept working at a job you hated, how you wished you had kept close ties with past friends, and how you felt your intimacy with Laurel drifting. Your hunger to understand God and His ways spiked too, and I recall our talk about heaven and hell in a MacDonalds down in Bellingham. Weird place to realize how much Jesus loves you, wasn’t it?
As you talked about regret, I thought to myself how odd it is that while you are physically sound, your neighbors will bad talk you for doing anything that deviates from the norm or is at all risky. But then, when you get diagnosed with cancer, the same neighbors stop by with a beef stew and encourage you to sew your wild oats, volunteer with refugees, and do a little living before you die.
Is this neighbor code born of broken dreams? Is it because of their surrender to live in the margins of mundane and boring, but sensible and risk free existence? Is it because life is hard, fighting for dreams is terribly tough, and most people eventually give up, then turn on the dream and become dream’s enemy? I can barely articulate what your reflections meant to me dad.
You talked about embraced yet unexamined values. You described for me what it felt like to face death knowing you had barely even lived. Terrifying. You helped me see this. Your reflections helped me understand that in our society we aren’t encouraged to live until we are about to die.
Then, to see you stand up and own your new awareness was beautiful. The way you reached out to your wife, your kids, and your friends were very inspiring. I saw in those final months that your deepest spiritual core had been infused with new energy, new meaning.
On the way home to Thailand I transited in San Francisco. Walking the terminal towards my gate I passed a 20-something kid who looked like he owned the world. His confident demeanor caught my eye. I loved his t-shirt. It said Boring is over.
Walking past that kid I thought to myself that going with the flow is normal. Keeping a job you hate is normal. Getting divorced and remarried is normal. Living to retire, then being bored and without friends is normal. Being an absent father, normal too. Your story was proof. So I got back to Chiang Mai and printed my personal mission on a t-shirt. It says: Normal is over.
Thank you for restoring my hope, upsetting my dangerous momentum, and reaching out to me like you did. Like you always said, “better late than never.”
Part of me still stands still in reverence when I think of you dad.