On a Bench with Dad

My girlfriend was off to Louisiana Christian College at the end of the summer. I had one more year of high school, but then I was certain I would be packing my bags to chase after her, even though I was unhappy in the relationship. We fought more than we laughed. I never measured up to her standard of a “spiritual leader.” Her father was emotionally abusive to her and me; and when I was with her I only thought about being somewhere else. Despite all this, I was stuck. She’d begun talking about marriage on our third date, three years ago. I wanted nothing more than to replicate my parents’ relationship, and they had started dating when they were little kids. I was already a teenager; so in a scramble to get my life on pace with the ideal in my mind, I gladly confused co-dependence for love, and fully committed myself to her. Louisiana College it was. I hadn’t considered even applying to other places.

Which is why the trip came as complete surprise. I think Dad wanted to try and catch me off guard so I couldn’t argue and fuss about leaving my girlfriend behind.  He was tired of my recent decision making, and had decided it was time to take action.  I remember he announced the trip at dinner. I was moping over my food after a fight with my girlfriend, half listening to the conversation, when he looked across the table at me and said, “Tomorrow you and I are going on a trip. Just you and me.”

My mind raced and my stomach danced. Time alone with Dad was a precious thing. Work and travel kept him busy. He tried to be around, but there were only so many hours in the day. There was nothing I wanted more than his approval. He was everything I wanted to be; but at the same time, I knew he wasn’t thrilled with my recent choices and Dad wasn’t one hold back his opinion. I was nervous about what he would say to me when he got me alone for an extended period of time.

We toured his alma mater, Baylor University, for two days. He was sure that seeing the beauty of the campus and vast opportunities it offer would change my future plans.  He was wrong.  It wasn’t the great looking buildings, the clean grounds, or the variety of majors the school had to offer that made an impact. It was being with him.

Not much had changed on campus since he left.  He knew his way around like a seasoned student returning after the summer for his senior year. As we explored each building, he told me stories – about he and my mom, about adventures he’d had with friends, about the moments that shaped him. I devoured them like a glutton at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Many of his professors were still teaching at the university. They all remembered him. I loved sitting in their offices listening to Dad update them on his life. He told them about his work in the bush hospitals of West Africa, about how he was providing health care to the poor in New Orleans, even about our family’s mission to be love in the local public school. I beamed with pride watching him talk. It was during those conversations that I decided that I was going to be exactly like my dad.

We finished our final day with one of Dad’s favorite professors, Dr. Dan McGee. Dr. McGee was a small, elderly man who wore a black, humming, personal air purifier around his neck. He had been Dad’s Ethics professor. Seated in the basement of the religion building, which Dad referred to as the “Tidwell Tower of Power,” Dr. McGee’s office hadn’t move since dad have been a study over two decades ago. I listened quietly as the two men discussed a paper Dad had recently published in a journal whose name I didn’t understand. When they were finished, I stood to shake Dr. McGee’s hand.

“Well, son,” Dr. McGee said. “When you come here, what are you going to study?”

With pride, I said, “I’m going to be a doctor, just like Dad.”

“That sounds good,” Dr. McGee said with a smile.

Following the chat, Dad and I crossed the street and sat on a green and yellow bench. We had to leave for the airport an hour. I could tell he wanted to reflect on the trip.

“Well, what do you think?” he asked with a smile.

“I love it.  I’m really excited about coming here,” I said, eager to please.

“That’s good.”  He leaned back and stretched his arms above his head. “What do you think you will study?”

The question surprised me since I had just told Dr. McGee what I wanted to be. I thought maybe Dad just wanted to hear me say it again. “I’m going to be a doctor just like you,” I said. I couldn’t make eye contact. I focused my vison on the BoBo Baptist Student Center across the street. “I want to serve in Russia though, I think. You know, go to the mission field like you and mom.”

“That would be great,” he said. While it was not the enthusiastic affirmation I was hoping for, I would take it. I smiled from ear to ear, overwhelmed with excitement at his approval.

We sat in silence for a minute, then he sent my mind into a panicked tizzy.  “But you know Jeff,” he said. “You don’t have to be a doctor.”

“What? Not be a doctor? That’s nonsense!” I thought. Quickly I assured myself that he probably just didn’t want to put unnecessary pressure on me.

“I’m a doctor,” he said reflectively “But it is not about the medicine, son. It’s about the people. It’s just a way to love people, and there are a lot of ways you can love people.”

“I’m going to be a doctor, Dad. Like you.”

“I would love that,” he said, putting his arm around me. “But just keep in mind that there are other ways to love people. You might even be a pastor someday.  Some people, God tells to go; but others, maybe you, he wants to stay. Just be open to what he wants for you when you are here. And remember, it’s all about loving people. In the mission field or the church – it’s all about loving people.”

Not knowing what to do with this advice, I said silently to myself, “I’m going to be a doctor.”

We sat together for a few more minutes, watching the wind in the trees. Dad broke the tension by asking me if I wanted to get a coke at the Student Union Building. I jumped to my feet, ready to move on from the strange moment of reflection.

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