A Tribute to My Father

Howard Detrick ca 1936 - 20 years old

Howard Detrick ca 1937 – 21 years old

(Originally written for Father’s Day 2002)

Last Sunday my sister and I checked our 85-year-old father into the hospital.  He was very ill, with a temperature of nearly 104 degrees, yet his hands were blue and he was shivering from cold.  “Yes, he is my father.  Medical history?  Bypass surgery more than a decade ago, prostate cancer, slight stroke last year.  Yes, he has been here before, and yes he is taking his meds.”

As I sat next to his bed while my father was being x-rayed, poked and examined in every conceivable way, my heart was filled with a thousand thoughts and memories.

“Do it again, Daddy!  Please!”  He took me up in his arms and swung me back and forth like an old-time logger working a misery whip saw.

With his huge hands wrapped around my tiny body, he sang in his baritone voice, “Swing the little birdy in the tree, in the tree, in the tree.  Swing the little birdy in the tree, sing, sang to Donnie, whee!!!”  When he said “Whee,” he threw me up in the air toward the ceiling.  I thought I would explode with a delicious combination of giggles and fright.   I loved that game and over the years I saw my dad do the same thing with my own three children.

Another time, another place.  Dressed in my blanket sleepers, with a quilt wrapped around me, I was watching my dad fix the broken motor on the mechanical chicken feeder.  Mom was gone to a meeting for the evening.  I was in his care and too young to understand that the health and welfare of his livestock was the key to our family’s survival.   His hands looked so big to my four-year-old eyes, big enough to fix anything.  Big enough to carry anything.  Big enough to protect me from anything lurking in the dark shadows of the chicken house.  “Daddy what are you doing?  Can we go back to the house and watch television?  Daddy, I’m thirsty.  Can I have a drink?  Why can’t I help you?  Daddy, do I have to go to bed?”

It was the first time I can remember wanting something so much.  I needed that red Radio Flyer wagon in the display window of the Western Auto store.  It was just like the one Timmy had on the “Lassie” television show.  Lassie and Timmy had such a good time playing with that wagon and hauling around everything important to a young boy.  I had a collie like Lassie, too – and I just knew she would be as smart as Lassie if only I had a red wagon.   “Daddy, can I have that wagon?  Please, daddy?  Shep and I would love to play with that wagon.”

Then I remember becoming very sick.  The doctor came to our house and said I had rheumatic fever.  They poked me with needles and hooked up machines that watched my heart.  Dr. Bump said that I had to stay in bed for a long rest until I got better – but he also said I might not get better.  I was very weak, and had to take the most awful medicine that my dad coaxed down my throat with a mixture of applesauce and sugar.

One day dad came home from town.  He had been to the Western Auto store.  I was lying in bed on the sofa in the living room.  “Donnie, look out here on the porch.”  I’m sure my heart really fluttered because there before my eyes was the brand new Radio Flyer red wagon!  “It’s yours and you can come outside and play with it just as soon as you get better!”

With help from the Great Physician, and motivation from my dad, after six months I was able to go outside and play with that wagon.  My earthly father and Heavenly Father worked together to provide my healing and I have never suffered a heart murmur or any ill effects from the disease that had threatened my young life.

As I sat and waited, more memories came.  I was ten years old and an insurance salesman stopped by the house on his regular rounds.  He was always trying to sell dad a different policy, but he was always treated like a friend, invited into the house for a cup of coffee and a piece of my mom’s pie.  In fact, pretty much everyone who came by was treated the same way.  From the ubiquitous salesmen, to the field agent, to the preacher, no matter how busy my dad was or what he was doing, it was momentarily laid aside for some polite conversation and some of my mom’s ever-available dessert.  My parents had the gift of hospitality and they passed it along to their children.  It is part of our inheritance – their legacy to us.

Although not old enough to participate in the conversation on that day, I was old enough to eavesdrop and understand much of what was being said.  I knew times were hard and things were bad on our farm, but until that moment I didn’t realize how bad.

“We lost thousands of chickens ready for market during that last hot spell,” my dad was saying.  “Besides that, the price we pay for everything keeps going up, while the price the co-op pays us keeps going down.  I don’t know how we are going to make the mortgage payment and pay the bills, let alone buy another insurance policy.  I just don’t understand it.  You try to live right and work hard, and then things like this happen.”  His voice trailed off.

That day I grew a little bit and learned a lot more.  I’d never seen my dad cry before, but there were tears in his eyes and his voice trembled as he talked to the insurance man.  I’d always seen my dad as invincible, never afraid of anything, able to pull us through any situation.  But that day I learned that he was vulnerable to discouragement and I needed to do what I could to help pull our family through some tough days.

As they usually do, circumstances improved in time.  Now I was thirteen.  Dad and I were riding in the truck, going to McMinnville to buy supplies.  “Son, you’ve worked like a man this summer.  We couldn’t have accomplished what we did without your help.”  My dad was a man of few words and even fewer words of praise.  As if he had reached his absolute spending limit on such extravagances, he next did what he normally did as we rode together.

“Oh I want to see Him, look upon His face.  There to sing forever of His saving grace.  On the streets of glory, let me lift my voice.  Cares all past, home at last, ever to rejoice!”  On the seat of a tractor, or the seat of a pickup truck, my dad always sang.  He loved the old hymns and gospel songs.

But my mind wasn’t on the song; it was on his words of appreciation.  To tell you the truth, spending most of your summer daylight hours at the controls of a tractor isn’t exactly torture for a teenager.  But at least for a few moments, I felt vindicated; like I’d paid my debt to the family for all the times I’d been a slacker and complained about life on the farm.  A little bit of praise goes a long way to improve a thirteen-year-old boy’s perspective on life.  But that wasn’t all.

“Hey, where are we going?”  Instead of pulling into the feed and farm supply store, we were parking in front of the local Honda motorcycle shop.  I had to pinch myself to be sure I wasn’t dreaming.  I couldn’t believe it as we walked in together and I saw my dad plop down cash money to buy me a Honda 90.  I wouldn’t have been happier if someone had given me a million dollars!

Fast-forward another five years to 1973.  An eighteen-year-old high school graduate is spending a hot August day loading his car with most of his worldly possessions.  He has seldom been outside of his own state.  But tomorrow he will leave this home where he has spent his entire life and begin the drive to Dallas, Texas.  There he will attend a Bible college he knows only from a catalog he has pored over and prayed over.

“Son, I know you’ve got to do what you feel called to do.  You do your best and stay in touch.  But I want you to know there is always a place for you right here if you should change your mind.  You might be able to use these.  I can remember my dad using these same titles in the ministry, studying them for his sermons.”  He handed me two brand new books:  a Matthew Henry commentary and a topical Bible, both purchased (by him for me) from a traveling Bible salesman.

I was shocked.  I knew dad really wanted me to follow in his footsteps on the family farm.  At the very least he had encouraged me to get a back-up profession like a teaching degree or perhaps even go to law school after college.  But that day he gave me a precious gift – the gift of affirmation and the freedom to go and be the person I believed God was calling me to be.

Ten years later I was packing again – this time a moving van.  Jodi and I were leaving behind our home church where we had spent the past four years as associate pastors.  In fact, for the past six years we had lived and ministered close to the home place with both of our parents nearby.  Kristi and Mark were born during this time, and Jana was in the hopper.  Now we were moving to Toledo, Oregon – a new church assignment.  Even though I had more details to take care of, more boxes to pack, and more furniture to load, I took a few moments and drove out to the farm.

I wanted to see my dad.  More than that, I wanted his blessing.  Over the past years, our relationship had grown and in the process I’d grown to appreciate his friendship and advice.  Now I was moving his precious grandchildren more than a hundred miles away.

As usual, he was busy at work when I arrived, but not too busy to talk.  We walked and talked and did a few chores together.  “You know, I talked to the District Superintendent a few years ago about you.”

Trying to hide my surprise, I said, “Oh, you did?”  I couldn’t imagine my dad having a conversation with the Superintendent of the Oregon District of the Assemblies of God, and certainly couldn’t imagine him keeping it a secret for the past few years.

“Yes, I was over at the District Office to fix the roof for them and as he was showing me the leaks, he was talking about you.  He said he thought you’d be pastoring one of the greatest churches in the Northwest one day.  And I agreed with him.  Son, I know we’ll miss having you around here, but I think you are doing the right thing by going to Toledo.”  Once again my father gave me words of affirmation, a gift I have since treasured through some rough moments in the ministry.

“Mr. Detrick, we are going to have to keep you overnight and run some more tests.  Your lungs are clear, but your heart is going in and out of a fibrillation and there are some other things we need to check out.  Maybe your son here can gather your things and the nurse will move you down to another room.”  The doctor’s pronouncement brought an end to my trip down memory lane.  But it did not diminish the admiration I felt for the old man we were wheeling down to room 130.

Stricken by the poignancy of the moment, and the reversal of our roles, I was reminded of Malachi’s prophecy.  When I was a boy, I really didn’t understand my father.  I saw him as a good provider, but a workaholic.  And I’m not sure he always understood me – especially during my longhaired teenage years.  But over time, and by the grace of God, my heart has been turned to his heart and his heart has been turned to mine.  That’s really what our Heavenly Father wants from all his children as well.

As if you couldn’t tell, my father has a giving heart.  That’s how he has always expressed his love, by giving selflessly, expecting nothing in return.

But over the past few years he has grown to express his love in other ways – hugs, and kisses, and the precious words, “I love you.”  As we were leaving him behind in the hospital room last week, his parting words were for his ailing bride of 63 years.  I knew part of the pain he was feeling at that moment was his inability to be at home to care for her: “Be sure and tell your mother how much I love her.”

POSTSCRIPT: Father’s Day 2014

Howard & Madeline Detrick 50th Anniversary Jan 2, 1989

Howard & Madeline Detrick 50th Anniversary Jan 2, 1989

Little did I know when I wrote this twelve years ago, that both my mother and father would be in heaven within six months.  I am thankful I was able to deliver this tribute to my father personally, and see the tears in his eyes as I read it to him.  Up to this point in their lives, my parents continued to abide on the same farm in Newberg, Oregon where my dad had lived for 75 years, since moving there as a boy in 1927.  Although their health was failing with age, they still lived independently, Dad still drove, and they made it to church every Sunday.

Within a few days of writing this, my mother was hospitalized and placed in intensive care.  A combination of cancer, diabetes, and low sodium levels left her in a near comatose state.  Dad had recovered somewhat and drove to the hospital daily to sit by Mom’s side. One day, the nurses came into the room and found Dad slumped over in a chair.  He had suffered a stroke. So within the course of a week, my parents went from living independently to being hospitalized–and they never came home. Because of the severity of their health conditions and their need for constant care, they were moved from the hospital into a care home.

Although this was a difficult time for our family, two poignant memories stick out in my mind.  First, after Dad’s stroke, family members gathered around his hospital bedside.  The doctors did not know the severity of the stroke or the prospects of recovery. Nearly 86 years old, Dad was in a very weakened condition and in a comatose state. We knew he might be able to hear us so a number of us spoke to him and told him how much we loved him and prayed for him. Then, our youngest daughter Jana said, I want to sing to Gramps.  She began to sing, “On a hill far away, stood an old rugged cross.”  As she did, the most amazing thing occurred—Dad started to sing along!   We all joined in and then began singing, “Amazing Grace.”  Although his voice was weak and trembling, he didn’t miss a word.  Nor did he open his eyes or show any other sign of being cognizant.  When the singing stopped, we all stood in amazement and tears, while Dad slept on.  He didn’t really awaken until days later.

Mom and Dad shared twin beds at the care facility. Mom went to heaven on August, 28, 2002. Before she died, Dad crawled into her bed, and gently cuddled next to his bride of 63 years. He was so sweet as he stroked her forehead and hands, and repeated, “I’ll meet you in the morning, on the other side. I love you and tell all the family I’ll be coming soon.”

A few months later, on November 12th, Dad went to be with the Lord and to see those family members who have gone on before. I spent the night sleeping in the room with him the day he died. Although he has been gone for nearly twelve years now, hardly a day goes by that I don’t think about him and his impact in my life. They say that grown men are just little boys in a bigger body. Even today, when I close my eyes, I can see my Dad holding me, a little boy in his arms, swinging me way up high as I giggle and say, “Daddy, do it again!”

Originally written June 18, 2002, Postcript June 15, 2014 – Father’s Day © 2014 Don Detrick  

One thought on “A Tribute to My Father

  1. Susan Johnson

    This is the most beautiful tribute I’ve ever read! Having a difficult time losing my own father 3 yrs ago. My Dad was a wonderful quiet honorable hard working man just like your father. Your story brought me to tears. My dad had a chicken farm, 2,500 chickens and the state said his chickens were contaminated. They needed to all be destroyed within 24 hrs. After a couple of months it came back that they made a mistake and non of his chickens were contaminated. He too lost entire crops because of hail or drought. We could not afford insurance and were very poor. However none of us felt poor because of our rich heritage. Anyway, your writing took me back to the 6 weeks that all of my siblings and I moved back home to take care of him until the angels took him to Jesus. I think I may try to write a tribute to him… if I can find the words. Thank you for sharing!

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