Will’s work phone rang. “This is Will,” he said, more interested in continuing to look through the stack of papers on his desk than finding out who was on the other end.
“Hi, hon. This is mom,” came the cheerful voice.
“Hi, mom!” he replied. Will’s mom, Connie, almost never called him at work; time zone differences and her own sense of what was appropriate were just two reasons why. Even so, he was not alarmed by the call. He was just happy to hear from his mom, who he loved like crazy. It had been a week since their last phone conversation. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“You are?” Will replied as he continued thumbing through his papers. “Where ya going?”
She hesitated. “I’m leaving your dad.”
Just one hour prior to her phone call to Will, she was in the embrace of her husband of 42 years, George, whom she had told over weeks of awful fighting, pleading, and defiance, that she had fallen in love with another man and she would be leaving. It was Friday morning. She had told George that this would be the day.
He held her close and begged. “Please, honey. I have to go to work. Please be home when I get back tonight.” Tears rolled down both their faces. She made no promises—she couldn’t. George walked out the door that morning with all the certainty of a man stepping off a cliff.
When George arrived home that night, he found a closet full of ironed shirts and a refrigerator full of food. But she was not there.
She never came home again.
It began a level of suffering nobody in the family could have expected. The emotional blast laid waste to George. He could barely pull himself off the ground. The full spectrum of their lives together played over and over; memories like car tires running through his helpless mind. Meeting at church when they were teenagers in 1948. Their wedding day. Children. Church. Hymns. Vacations. Car trips. Prayers. Promotions. Birthdays. Hospital visits. Grandkids. Life.
His prayers felt like feint and meaningless vocalizations that didn’t even reach the ceiling.
George’s lifelong attitude of can-do had met its match. He found that with his emotions on fire and personal infrastructure in tatters, he could do little. He couldn’t sleep or eat. His prayers felt like feint and meaningless vocalizations that didn’t even reach the ceiling. His screams resulted in only heightening the pain, but he was helpless to stop them. Reading the Bible was bombarded with thoughts of his wife in the arms of another man. He had nowhere to turn. His daughters, devastated by the separation, couldn’t be their father’s keeper. After a lifetime of being in the workforce, he had neglected to maintain close friendships, and therefore had no friends on which to unleash the torrent of emotions. He was alone, like a man in a raft in the middle of an ocean with a very fast leak.
The only person he had left was Will, who, like his sisters, was devastated by their mother’s leaving. But he lived on the East Coast. Will saw that his dad was in need of someone to talk to and understood why his sisters couldn’t do it. He figured that since his dad and the entire family were on the opposite coast, the time and space would be a buffer that would keep him from being pulled into a place of his own emotional damage. He concluded that it was doable.
And so, Will stepped into the deepest, darkest parts of his father’s heart not knowing the dam that was holding George’s emotions was about to crack down the center.
The following months were an emotional outpouring that for Will, was like standing in a category five hurricane wind. Since George did not have a computer, he handwrote his thoughts on paper and faxed them to Will who happened to sit close to his company’s fax machine. All day long, over and over, he heard the familiar sound of a fax machine receiving. He knew the chances that it was a fax from his dad were nearly 100% and dashed to get it before anybody else could. There he would find a multipage fax covered in tiny handwriting expressing the contents of his dad’s heart: anger, disbelief, heartache, rage, pleas, strategy, cries for help, scripture, hopelessness—each a dagger to Will’s own heart. There was no way for that much writing to occur without it being virtually the only thing his dad did throughout the day. Hour after hour, the fax machine was going off and Will would run to find pages of brokenness spitting out. Some days they would even show up on his desk. It seemed like the entire company had wordlessly caught on to what was going on. Will expected to be called into the manager’s office at any moment.
Then came the phone calls at home each night that although Will never let on, devastated him even more than the faxes did...
Then came the phone calls at home each night that although Will never let on, devastated him even more than the faxes did—to actually hear the pain and anger in his dad’s voice. Will and George were communicating many times a day over one, solitary topic. Friends advised him to cut if off, that it was going to cause him irreparable harm—that children don’t emotionally hold up parents without suffering in some way. But he couldn’t do it. His dad was barely hanging on.
To add further pressure, George admitted to getting little-to-no sleep—nights alone brought out the ghosts of fear, failure and regret.
Deeply troubled by the thought of his dad suffering throughout the night, Will prayed on bended knee. But night after night, George got no sleep. He fought his demons by occupying his mind with writing.
Will felt the weight of his father’s burden pulling him down into a dark place. He prayed for strength and resolution, but received no response. His words felt cold and stiff coming from his mouth.
“Lord, are you there?” he asked the God he desperately wanted to see—even if God was sitting with His arms folded and not saying a word—he just wanted to get a glimpse.
On this night, he would.
The final fax of the day arrived around noon—far earlier than any other day. When Will arrived home, there were no messages waiting for him. He started to worry. It was a welcomed break, but Will couldn’t keep his mind on anything. Why had his dad suddenly gone silent?
Around 1AM, Will got out of bed and walked to the phone in the dark of his apartment. It was now 10PM on the West Coast. He picked up the phone and dialed.
The phone rang six times. The outgoing message clicked on. Hi, this is George.
Will didn’t know what message to leave. Was his dad not home? Or was he finally tired of writing and talking and just wanted to be left alone? Or was he finally asleep?
I’m not in right now…
Should he try to be cheerful? Empathetic? Encouraging? Careful not to allow his fear to show?
So if you’ll leave your name and number…
Should he just hang up? Was his dad OK? Why hadn’t he heard from him? Would this message direct the course of his night?
I will return your call. Goodbye.
That’s when Will did the only thing he could think of. He prayed. It took all of one second. “Lord, help me know what to say.”
“Turn your eyes upon Jesus,” Will softly sang, the old hymn cascading over him like a fine mist. He didn’t know where it was coming from or even if it was him who was singing into the phone. “Look full in His wonderful face. And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of His glory and grace.”
Will’s eyes quickly darted back and forth. What just happened?
“Goodnight, dad,” he whispered, and then quietly hung up the phone.
George, who had visited his own elderly mother because she feared he wasn’t eating, wearily returned home a half an hour later to face another night alone—and he was dreading it. When he listened to his son's message, he broke down and cried. He turned off the lights, pulled the message recorder onto his bed near his face and played it—over and over and over—late into the night until the ghosts were quieted and he finally fell asleep. God, through George’s son, sang him a lullaby.
George did the same thing every night for the next three months. The nights of suffering had come to an end and God had revealed Himself.