After my parents divorced Dad moved out, and we stayed to live with Mom. However, this is where things became unusual, and this is where I really learned even more about responsibility from both parents. During the school year, Dad came to Mom’s house every morning to pick us up and take us to school; this made Mom’s schedule easier, and it also gave us the opportunity to see Dad almost every day. We typically only stayed at his new place every other weekend, but we got to see him all the time. So far as I know, Dad was never late on a child support payment, he still came to see as many of our activities as he could, and as a result of that, we children had a much easier time than others who have been through the difficulties of a divorced family.
This responsibility also extended into areas of life that are not usual for divorced couples. For example, in addition to going out of their way to make sure we got to see Dad, my parents were also very unusual in that we continued to celebrate holidays together, mainly Thanksgiving. We’d all gather at Mom’s house for a meal and then spend much of the day just sitting around and spending time with each other. This respectful relationship between divorced parents made a huge impact on me. Yet it still wasn’t the most lasting lesson; that came later.
When Dad was in his mid-sixties, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Throughout the process of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Mom helped take care of him, as did my sister Julie. Mom and Dad had been divorced for a decade by that point, and yet Mom still helped Dad as much as she could—and because Mom had been a nurse for her entire adult life, she was a tremendous help. As Dad was getting worse, he met with my sister, my brother John, and me one afternoon with a request that I did not expect, but in hindsight I probably should have.
Dad had several different life insurance policies that he had accumulated over the course of his military and civilian careers. We had talked with him about them some, because he wanted to make sure that we knew how to go about accessing them and also to avoid any potential issues between siblings. Thankfully, there were not any of those disagreements anyway. What did occur and surprised me was that was that Dad asked us to give Mom an equal share in each of the different life insurance policies.
Again, keep in mind that my parents had been divorced for over a decade by the time of this meeting. Yes, their split had been amicable, and yes Mom had certainly helped take care of Dad over the past couple of years. But in the paperwork, the only beneficiaries named were the children. Here was Dad once again doing the unexpected by helping take care of Mom long after he had any legal reason to do so. As far as I recall, none of the children objected, and we didn’t go through the legal trouble of redoing any of the paperwork. Dad simply made his request, we agreed to see that it was done, and that was the end of the matter. Even long after divorce, and long after we were adults, Dad was still doing what he could to take care of us.
I often still experience days when I find Dad continuing to look out for me years after his death. For example, this past winter when it was freezing and frosty outside, I needed to scrape the ice off of my windshield. What I didn’t have was an ice-scraper—until I remembered that Dad had one in an old toolbox that was now in my possession. I went and got the ice-scraper, took care of the car, and said a prayer of thanks that Dad was continuing to take care of me. His lessons in responsibility certainly made an impression on me, and those lessons became even more applicable when I went through my own divorce a few years later.
Because of Dad’s example, I knew that I would need to be willing to go out of my way to help make sure my children were taken care of and that their mother was taken care of, even though she and I were no longer together. My mom’s willingness to celebrate holidays with Dad, and Dad’s willingness to do the same, inspired my now blended family to also be willing to celebrate holidays together as one large group. I know, without a doubt, that I am responsible for my choices and the consequences that come with them, and that is because of the lesson Dad taught me when I was in middle school and both parents continued to teach me as I got older.
Action Step: Ask yourself what you need to take responsibility for today that you have been avoiding. Once you have figured it out, set about making things right as well as you can, even if it is uncomfortable.
Principle 6: “Others come first—always.”
At our wedding, my wife’s father Ted said something that has stuck with me every day since, and it was the way in which he defined love. He stated that, “Love is choosing someone else’s ultimate good above your own.” This definition goes well with the scriptural definition and explanations of love, and it fits perfectly with the way that Dad lived his life in service of other people. As we saw in the previous chapter, Dad was consistent in making sure that Mom and the children were looked after. This was true both in terms of looking after his family but also in being willing to help others as part of his lifestyle.
As a child, I remember showing up early and staying late to almost every school and church event, and the reason is because Dad was always one of the people helping set up before and then helping clean after these events. I wondered about that as a kid, thinking, “Why does he always get stuck doing those things?” It wasn’t until later that I realized he was volunteering to do them, in order to serve.
Dad’s most obvious willingness to serve was in his military career; when many others chose to dodge the draft by fleeing to Canada, Dad chose to serve in the Army. Having said that, Dad also had the utmost respect for those who objected to the war legally, such as the great Muhammad Ali. Though Dad chose to serve, he didn't ever judge those who chose differently. After being drafted, Dad realized he enjoyed the military, and he made a twenty-year career out of it, finally achieving the rank of Lieutenant Colonel before he retired. After leaving the military, he continued to serve others by teaching Sunday school classes and by working with our local Boys and Girls Club as a volunteer and later as president and a board member for our county.