A Job Worth Doing
Discovering My Father’s Unspoken Spaces
My father can not smile. His face is missing.
The left half slumps like an ice cream cone surrendered to the sun. The right side of his face — mostly functional — strains on behalf of his misshapen mouth whenever he speaks. Stop staring.
I’m at my parent’s place. A 1960s 3-bedroom ranch with plenty of Texas pecans outside and wood paneling inside. The previous owner died here and my parents plan to do the same. The ancient dining table between us takes up just enough space to camouflage my unease. I panic at the possibility my house visit is an inconvenience to them, or worse, an obligation for me. I knew I should have just called.
The call — no, it was a freakin’ text message — one week earlier from my mom said something was wrong with dad. Right there in the Mt. Pisgah Church pulpit, she wrote, “his face dropped and he was numb on the right side of his body.” It had been months since we received news of a friend or family member in the hospital or worse. It must be the Parker Family’s turn.
“I thought I should let you know your daddy is a little sick…” she continued in the text. My lungs filled with cement as terror stampeded closer. In 40 years I had never seen my dad in a hospital. Shit, we’re out of time.
“Thought it was a stroke but it wasn’t,” she typed. Oh, thank ya, Jesus!
“He has Bell’s palsy and he is on steroids to help…” her text concluded. What the f — is that?
Bell’s palsy is a mysterious yet temporary paralysis of the facial muscles. The cause is unknown. So when the palsy fairy decided to visit Reverend Parker’s face, no one knew a half-sagging head with nerves on furlough could be anything but a stroke.
Now I watch myself exhale at the table, making room for relief as the certainty of his full recovery becomes more and more real. What started as a horror movie has become a medical drama and then a family sitcom. I’m happy I’m here. Dad is not dead.
Small-talk about small things affords us time to do the father/son dance. We discuss work routines, weather patterns, church programs, and grandkids. Caleb just turned 6 too fast, Chloe will be the only child who keeps me out of a nursing home and Chandler is now big enough to wear Chloe’s hand-me-down dresses. God is good all the time. Life is great.
The truth is: I’m barely treading water at work. I make more money every month than most earn in a year, and it comes at a steep cost. Faith has become a ritual, like brushing my teeth. I cherish my wife and kids but I suspect they might be better without me. God is not near. Life is not great. I’m debating how mine should end.
My mom, at her invisible nurse’s station next to him, is calculating when she’ll endeavor another doctor-ordered blood pressure test. She is calm, almost reverential, at this moment that is happening between us. Her eyes know there is more to be said.
The right side of his face is still Reverend Parker. The man who spent every Sunday perched atop pulpits in holy spaces wrapped in heavy wool suits and over-built oak chairs. His name is practically fossilized into the Book of Life. He demanded discipline, devotion was optional.
“A job worth doing,” he reminded us often, “is worth doing right.” With 8 mouths to feed, we could never quite make ends meet but we hustled nonstop to get close.
“Life is not fair,” he’d shrug as we griped about things beyond our control or, more precisely, beyond our means. I did not know we were poor until a 5th-grade classmate, Toni, informed me our family’s $36,000 annual income “ain’t shit.” Later, I cringed when my dad picked me up from school in Nelly Bell, his nineteen-seventy-god-knows-when Chevy Malibu. I’ve been trying to outrun my lessness ever since.
The King James Bible says “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth”. We were obedient over-achievers.
The first image of God was my father’s face. I’d glance up from the football field in between plays, peek down from the humid choir stand, and prolong Petruchio’s onstage Shakespearean dialogue, all to find his face. For ages, his approval has been my audience.
As my father and his father before, we were homeschooled in the language of violence as punishment. Spankings became butt whippings then beatings then head slaps and chest punches. My son, Caleb, must inherit this birthright to fully appreciate how Black male bodies are treated in America.
Dad didn’t spare the rod and neither did our neighborhood. The Southside was where good church-going men met no-good women in the forgotten house next door. Every spring Black daughters became new mothers and blue graffiti announced whose son, brother, father, or uncle was now R.I.P. My children must never learn the Southside’s soundtrack — sirens, gunshots, and helicopters — but should be versed enough to survive it if necessary.
But now in this space — with a hemisphere of facial movement absent — dad is unrecognizable. The very man who defined manhood is mortal. The Baptist minister who preached and punished more like a colonel than clergy was, in fact, human. The left side — the palsy side — is crudely adorned by a single squinting eyeball drooping down into the caramel cliffs of his frozen lip. In godly Greek irony, this half resembles Melpomene’s mask of tragedy.
“I just remember wrestling with God,” he said, piercing the small talk. “For a very, very long time.”
“I realized God had a plan for me. For my children. For my family. Even though I didn’t always understand it.”
For the first time in decades, my dad is speaking to me as Donald.
It happened suddenly. Starting as a grey-black silhouette in the distance, dad spoke and the shadowy armor of Reverend Parker retired from sight. I saw Donald arriving on the horizon as I listened for his voice.
Donald Parker — I’ve rarely said those words aloud and dare not speak them directly — was a name that never belonged to me. “Donald” the name was off-limits and, growing up, it seemed more often than not, Donald the person was too. Yet, I found myself sitting across the table listening to him.
It was like meeting Clark Kent when all you know is Superman. Physically, they are the same but spiritually they remained symmetrical opposites. Both necessary for the other’s existence.
No cape. No x-ray vision. No alias. His words, weary from too much medication and too little rest, labored along in slow succession.
As if summoned by some terrible muse, he began to retrace the roots of his six-decade origin story — from Arkansas to Amarillo to engineering to ministry to seminary to poverty to pastorship. Looking inward, the oars of his memory pushed firmer, stronger out to sea. This space at the table had become a totem of truth.
Now ablaze, dad begins to testify. I’m no longer just a son, but also a scribe. Instantly I see myself in a future space rehearsing this living eulogy for my son:
“Caleb, I was 7-years-old when my dad, your G-Pa, lost his mind. Or at least that’s what everyone thought.
“With little hesitation, he moved his Israelite nation of one reluctant wife, 5 nappyhead kids — uncle Tim would be born later — and a woodgrain station wagon to Fort Worth, Texas to reimagine what a life lived for Him looks like.
“In a matter of weeks his white-collar turned blue. Trading his engineering career for seminary courses and his hard hat for Hebrew lessons, his fast-track profession (which was a rare blessing for a Black family in the 80s) became the tender of a divine transaction.
“To make ends meet while in school (again) he became a machine mechanic. Maintaining & repairing broken vending machines. Cleaning things.
“All the while hoping this position was temporary, but God, as he often does, had a different cross for G-Pa to carry.
“One year became 2.
“Two became 10.
“And then, when he looked up, the kids had grown up and moved out, mostly. I’m guessing he began to doubt this calling because another 10 years rolled by and instead of preaching as a pastor, he was often the last to leave. The first to arrive.
“Working full-time thrice so his family could survive.
“He helped fix broken things for a living. But, in the Lord’s house, these were more fragile with sensitive egos. These were God’s people. So he served them all. Scrubbing toilets, mopping floors, hospital visits, knocking on doors, evangelizing, supervising, deathbed rites, newborn dedications, changing light bulbs, teaching teachers, leading leaders.
“Helping raise kids — those that were and weren’t his. G-Pa was both a father and a father figure.
“The only thing bigger than his work ethic was his unwillingness to take credit.
“One day he looked up and realized 30 years had flown by. He was just becoming a pastor because God took the time to make him something more valuable. A servant.
“What started as a move from Amarillo to get a theology degree became the very picture of a “love your neighbor” ministry.
“Caleb, sometimes the hardest part of trusting in God is the times when He calls us to simply stand still. To be still and know that he is in control.
“You don’t have to run inside when it rains. Sometimes God’s children have to carry their clouds with them.”
I decide dad’s lyrics must become mine so, in time, it will become my son’s. This is our song of faith.
Back at the table, Dad pauses, chuckling to himself as if happening upon a misplaced joke.
“Who better to manage the church’s benevolence than a previous recipient of it?” he asks out loud to no one. I watch silently as the revelations parade forward onto the table.
“Who is better equipped to unite communities than the former president of a trade labor union?”
“Who better to lead building projects than one who maintained the buildings?”
“Who better to mentor fathers than a father of 6? Who better to mentor husbands than a husband of 40 years?”
I smile and nod slowly, signaling my comprehension and mutual celebration. A custodian of the church building became the shepherd of its believers. An engineer who built concrete dams across the country became the minister to tear down spiritual ones.
As dad stared into his rearview reflections, he saw how betrayals became blessings. How obvious exits were shut so the right doors at the right time could be open. How false hopes, doubts and hurts that rain down like rapids, were carving canyons into the flatlands of his self-sufficiency. God, his great Landscaper, always at work in him, through him, on him, and for him.
A joyful grimace finally found its way onto dad’s face. It was a sermon 60 years in the making. An heirloom, blackened by time, hardened by heat, shaken by struggle, yet wielding an incomparable power.
I helped mom figure out how to use the blood pressure sleeve and got ready to go. Dad needed rest. I hugged him and said, “I love you.”
A job worth doing is worth doing right. Dad was just getting started.