The Mr. Rogers nickname came from his high school biology students. He often wore cardigans, but it was temperance that earned him the nick name. Dad could instantly calm students down with his steadying demeanor and voice. Psychological studies have shown that the Reverend Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood (he was ordained Presbyterian pastor) calmed children and taught them important ethical constructs. In his neighborhood, children were allowed to be children – to play, to share, get angry and repent. He taught that children can choose to have a good path to follow, one that involves time to be serious, or funny, or sad, or angry, or happy and to forgive and be forgiven. Dad taught those same lessons in his classroom for 25 years, in the bookstore he and mom owned for more than two decades, and now, in retirement, still does.
Dad has to be Superman. Seventeen years ago, and no longer a spring chicken, he joined a boxing club in Seattle. He has the sense not to spar with fighters in the ring, but plenty of punching bags fear him. Instead of jogging around Greenlake, Washington, he switched to in-line skates to save his knees which, alas, are not made of steel. He doesn’t like fast food or drinking soda, he eats very little meat, prefers raw vegetables and organic, plant-based sources of protein. As a child, I was playing one time with an old mixer and got my fingers caught in the blades. He dropped what he was doing and bent the blades apart with his bare hands in a true display of steel versus steel in which he prevailed. He chopped cords of wood for our stove, and could always remove the toughest bolt, carry the heaviest load of books, lift a transmission, and move whatever piece of furniture anyone needed moving.
Here is one story of which I am not particularly proud but it shows how he is both Mr. Rogers and a Man of Steel. One day during my high school career, the angry boyfriend of a female friend of mine showed up on the doorstep of our home. My perception then and now is that he was an insecure body builder/high school student who misunderstood a note I had written to my female friend. Nonetheless, his eyes were blazing and he was intent on revenge with that high school self-righteousness we all know about. Dad talked to him on the porch, calmed him down, and sent him away. Later on, my female friend said that her boyfriend thought was dad was pretty cool and to tell him “hi” next time she sees him. Dad was my defender and calmer of angry spirits. Thinking of Dad has helped me keep my cool in difficult situations.
Dad worked at the crosstown rival High School. In my senior year, we invited his High School to one of our dances. It was a hit. We had wall to wall students on the dance floor. Unfortunately, members of the football team bumped into each other. They took it outside. Dad followed as well as faculty members of both schools. The two students were arguing, well on their way to something more serious. Dad stepped in between them and told them to calm down. Someone from behind pushed one student into the other. It knocked Dad down. He bounced back up, held the boys apart and told everyone to go back inside. Because they saw Dad go down and get right back up, everyone retreated. Dad: defender, calmer and protector.
Two weeks ago, I made a solo trip to Seattle to visit with him and mom. Dad had kidney cancer in 1986. A surgeon removed the diseased kidney and Dad kept on going. A little over a decade ago he was afflicted with thyroid cancer. The doctors removed his thyroid and he kept on going. Five years ago, we found out he has lung cancer which was more or less behaving itself and not growing. A year ago, the kidney cancer returned, this time in his lungs. A lot of people think that cancer in the lungs is lung cancer—that is not necessarily so. Kidney cancer can metastasize to the lungs and when it does it is kidney cancer of the lungs, not lung cancer. So, Dad is now in the middle of a six-month chemo treatment for the kidney cancer. The cancer is irritating to his lungs. Internally they are producing mucus and the exterior of his lungs are filling with fluid. While I was in Seattle, his pulmonologist removed two liters of fluid trapped in his chest cavity (inside the rib cage and above the diaphragm). Imagine having two liters of soda sharing space in your chest with your heart and lungs. It caused him great difficulty in breathing; five steps would leave him winded. He had to stop in the middle of sentences to catch his breath.
It had been eight months since I had seen him. The boxing, jump roping, in-line skating, box of books carrying man had changed. He was still dad. But physically, the change was dramatic in a way that I can only explain tearfully. Words escape me to tell you how it felt; when I try, I become the one who can’t breathe. But since this Reflection is about him, and not about me, let me get back to the topic.
Despite his medical condition, Dad is still the Man of Steel/Mr. Rogers. When we went to the hospital to have the fluid removed, he was more concerned about those who were poking him with needles, weighing him, and checking his vitals, than he was about himself. Dad’s steeliness comes from a faith that shapes his ethics. He truly endeavors to love God with all his heart and to love his neighbor as himself. Even when his heart and lungs are being squished by excess fluid, he fills himself with love for God and God’s creation and creatures. In fact, through these tears, I can witness to you that I’ve never seen my dad stronger then when he was getting winded talking to the hospital staff. His bravery for taking each day as it comes, his insistence to care for mom, and all of us, with each labored breath, shows his steeliness. He is at his strongest when he allows others to care for him.
Some might ask, like the doubters at the crucifixion, “Where is your God?” when they see Dad, once a physically strong man, weakened by cancer. Jesus gave up his last breath for others – “Father, forgive them,” he said. Dad is following Jesus by using what might be his last breaths in this life to help others as he has always done. So, “Where is my God?” I see God through Dad’s conviction and faith, through Dad’s concern for others even when by all rights he should be concerned about himself. That is truly the Man of Steel I know and emulate in order to show my children and the people I pastor how to follow Jesus. Dad, the teacher, is revealing to anyone who cares to look how to live in grace and peace with lung cancer. Even with shallow breath, like Mr. Rogers and Jesus, Dad is still teaching us that all are welcome in His neighborhood.
After the removal of the fluid as described above, Dad took his dog for a fifteen-minute walk. We will see in a few months whether or not the chemo is working. I will update you then. Prayer works and I ask that you pray for John and my mom Nancy. God may not be done with him just yet.