The last time I saw my father alive, he lay dying in a veterans hospital where he had been taken for surgery. The family had been called in, and I had come back from the West Coast to the deep South, to the little Depression-era home where I had been raised with my sister and two brothers; to the home where the missionaries had found my mother shelling peas under the huge chinaberry tree in the backyard and introduced her to the gospel. Shortly after Mother’s baptism, the rest of the family had also been baptized.
When I arrived at the hospital, I found my father withered with age, racked with pain, and unconscious from medication. He looked so small and frail. Born in the Old Country before the turn of the century, he was brought to the United States as a child. His parents died shortly after their arrival, and having nowhere to turn, he took to the streets at age 12. He traveled widely as a young man until he met and married a young orphan girl in Arkansas, who became our mother.
In the summertime he would leave the house at six o’clock in the morning, walking to his shop a mile away to make the necessary preparations to have it open for customers by eight o’clock sharp. I slept by an open window at the back of the house and would often hear Papa leave by the back door. He would pause by the fig tree and pick and eat his breakfast on the spot. Often he stopped to admire his little garden and even pulled a weed or two before going on to work.
When he returned in the evening, he would often go straight to his garden to take advantage of what little sunlight remained. We would let Mother know that Papa was home. By the time the dusk settled over the garden, supper would be on the table. Supper time was our best family time together. Our family was our world. Peace, comfort, and security, if not abundance, reigned supreme.
It was during that special hour each evening that we would talk. Papa had nicknames for each of us. No one recalls how it came about that he called me “Doojee,” but I was stuck with it until about the time I started school. Later, after I was grown and returned home for a visit, he would sometimes reminisce, “What did we used to call him, Mother? Doojee! That’s it, Doojee.”
He did not like to talk about himself. “Son,” he would say, “that was long ago, and times were hard. Just be grateful you have a papa and mama to teach you right from wrong.” Still, we would press him to tell us how he came to this country and how he had survived all alone during his teen years. He would talk of 12-hour days in the mills of Boston earning $3.15 a week. Two dollars and fifty cents a week bought his tiny room.
We would ask him about the great war in the trenches of France, the land of his birth. He would tell us stories that were both fascinating and frightening. And then he would show us his medals and prizes—and a picture of him in uniform marching with his comrades into Paris. It was as if his suffering had made the experience and memory sacred. To me, he seemed sanctified by the ordeal.
It seemed we could do nothing in our little town without his knowing about it. If we had been careless and run in front of a car or picked someone’s green peaches across town, he would have a comment about it at the supper table. We had a name, a reputation to live up to.
As I looked at my father in the hospital bed, I was not prepared for what I saw. His brown eyes had always been so alive and piercing. I could never lie to those eyes, nor fool them. They had been calm, knowing, and understanding. Now they seemed bewildered.
Mostly he slept. My older brother had arrived first and chatted with him briefly during one of his more lucid moments. I sat watching him and waiting for my chance to greet him and let him know that I had come. When a nurse came in to awaken him, I leaned over, kissed him, and said, “Hello, Papa.” He gave me no special recognition but in his usual way merely said I should not have gone to so much trouble to come. Then he called me by my brother’s name and drifted off to sleep again.
The scriptures say that the Lord knows his sheep and will call each by name (see John 10). The impact of that thought never found home in me until my own earthly father failed to recognize me and call me by name. Later, my younger brother arrived, and as circumstances would have it, he walked into the room and directly over to the bed as Dad roused a little. Dad took his hand and called him by name and said how pleased he was to see him but that he should not have bothered to come so far.
During the rest of the day we sat and watched and waited. The doctor gave us no hope, but, he said, death could still be weeks away. We each had our turn to comfort, soothe, or get Dad a drink of water. Occasionally he would rouse and say, “Thank you, son.”
After a few days, I was satisfied that there was nothing more I could do. If death were not imminent, I had to get back to my own family. I comforted my mother and prepared to leave. Finally I shared my concern with her: Dad had not called me by name. I was not sure he even knew I was there. He had always been there when I needed him, and it was important to me that he know I was there when he needed me.
Mother and I approached the bed and waited until Dad began to show a little sign of recognition. I bent over, kissed him goodbye, and said, “Papa, I love you. I am going now, but remember that I love you.” He nodded a little but said nothing. “Papa, do you know who I am? Who am I, Papa? If you know me, say my name.”
For a brief instant I saw that old sparkle again in his brown eyes. “Mother,” he whispered, “what did we used to call him? Doojee! That’s it, Doojee.”
He settled back, and unconsciousness took over. I left for home. Not long after, I came back to dedicate his grave. Even now, when I return to that spot, I remember that he kissed me and called me by my name.
“And he calleth his own sheep by name. … He goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice” (John 10:3–4).