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The biblical portrayal of darkness, explored in Part One of this essay, is multivalent. While some passages portray darkness as a negative force trying to overcome the light of God, others portray darkness positively as not only the abode of God, but also a cloak that makes communion with a blindingly radiant God possible. The latter portrayal has informed my experience of waking up to painful memories night after night, and invited me to consider the possibility that a God-imbued darkness could manifest its own distinctive light. The darkness of night has not only exposed the broken pieces of my life but brought its own peculiar grace by giving me time to examine these pieces. Like a kintsugi artist, I take them up, gild them back together, and restore the vessel of my soul.

Many of these memories involve my relationship with my father. My soul was not at rest.

A Liturgy of Body Washing

Toward the end of his life, my dad suffered from congestive heart failure and memory loss. He declined rapidly, and we placed him under hospice care at Porter Hills in Grand Rapids. He died shortly thereafter in the early morning hours, seven years ago now.

Soon after his death, the hospice nurse called our family together, and we made our way to the room where his body lay. We shifted him from his side to his back and closed his jaw that had gone slack in death. We stood there whispering and grieving around his deathbed. Weak and utterly exhausted, my mom returned to her room. The hospice nurse then turned to the rest of us–me and Judy, my two brothers and their spouses–and asked if we wanted to participate in a washing of the body, a liturgy in which we would wash in sequence his eyes, nose, mouth, heart, hands, and feet, and she would read a corresponding blessing:

May your eyes be blessed. We honor and remember the way your eyes looked upon us with love.

May your nose be blessed. We honor and remember the vigor with which you breathed in life and encouraged us to do the same…et al.

We hesitated briefly for we were a bit befuddled in our grief, and this ritual was unprecedented for us. But we agreed, and the experience helped us to honor my dad’s life and express our grief.

In this ritual of body washing, I had been assigned to wash his hands. As I did so, the hospice nurse pronounced the corresponding blessing: May your hands be blessed. We remember and honor the work of your hands. Hearing “work of your hands,” I slipped away into another realm. So much of my relationship with my dad had been determined by his hands.

Working Hands

My father’s hands were hard-working hands. In 1922, when my dad was just a year old, his parents boarded a ship and immigrated from the island of Texel in the Netherlands to Grand Rapids, Michigan. They arrived weeks later, homeless and penniless, and sought their fortune along with other Dutch immigrants in the old BrickYard neighborhood of Grand Rapids. Third Reformed Church helped them find lodging and work. They had not attended church on Texel, but they never missed a service at Third Reformed for the rest of their lives.  

My grandparents took any work available, and they worked hard. My grandfather was a ditch-digger and my grandmother a house-cleaner. Work was their salvation; hard work gave them life and their children a future, a life and future that was only a dream in the Netherlands.

Dad drank the value of work with his morning milk. His parents’ hard work had raised him up, and his hard work would raise his family up. He taught accounting and business law at Grand Rapids Christian High during the day, and he taught the same at Grand Rapids Junior College and Davenport School of Business in the evenings.

In addition to teaching at Christian High, he was the athletic director for more than 20 years. On top of all that, he kept the books for numerous businesses and prepared tax forms every March and April. I can still see him at home in the evening hours spreading his books out on the kitchen table, pecking at the adding machine, filling out forms, and balancing accounts.

Hendricks Supply Company, a sheet metal shop on the corner of Market and Wealthy street in Grand Rapids, was one of the businesses for which my dad kept the books. Hendricks made the parts that connect a furnace to the registers in a home–plenums, pipe, duct, elbows, etc. Over the years my dad became more than an accountant; he helped the founder, Herman Hendricks, run the business.

My dad arranged for me and my two brothers to work summers at Hendricks starting when we became twelve years old. I worked there on and off until I graduated from college. He wanted us to learn the value of work, which we did, but we learned much more. The people with whom we worked came from a world far different from our world of church and school. There was more color in their skin and in their language–we learned a new way to punctuate sentences and we befriended people that had been quietly excluded from our world.

Every summer Herman Hendricks would buy tons of pre-cut sheet metal, enough metal to make a year’s supply of six-inch pipe, the standard size used in home furnace installation. A crew of five would operate two machines, one machine to form the locks on each side of the metal sheet and the other to round the pipe and crimp one end. 

It took the crew two weeks to work its way through all that metal. The most difficult job in the whole operation fell to the one standing behind the machine that rounded the pipe. He needed to pick up each five-foot piece, fold it into a bundle of five, and stack the bundle on a cart. The rounder dropped a section of pipe about every ten seconds.

What was made at Hendricks

I remember one summer when the most difficult job fell to a boy named Denny. He was a senior in high school, big and strong, and as an eighth grader, I was in awe of him. He worked with reckless abandon, and one day he accidentally cut his forearm on a sharp edge of the metal while stacking the pipe. It was a deep cut, and he began to bleed profusely. We paused, but he motioned to the rest of us to keep the pipe coming. We all watched in amazement while his shirt sleeve and then his shirt turned red. Finally, someone ran up the basement stairs to tell my dad, who came running down. He watched Denny bleed for a few moments. Then he yelled for us to stop and arranged for someone to take Denny to the emergency room and have his wound stitched up.

As we left the parking lot of Hendricks later that afternoon, my dad turned to me and said something I have never forgotten: “Did you see that Denny? He works like the devil.”  Then he turned away and said nothing more on the way home. It seemed a strange image to me, but I realized then that if I wanted to get my dad’s attention, I’d better work like the devil.

Giving Hands

My father’s hands were gift-giving hands. Some people work hard and hold tightly onto their earnings, measuring success by how much they can accumulate. My dad worked hard but held his earnings loosely. He was a generous man. He gave of his time and his money freely to people and institutions that needed support.

He loved to wrap and give gifts and not just on Christmas day. I remember a day when my dad called me at Western Theological Seminary, which was unusual. He told me that he was organizing an excursion to Holland for 30 or so seniors at Third Church, Grand Rapids. He wanted me to reserve the sixth floor of the old library with its beautiful view of the city for a luncheon and to lead the group on a tour of The Bridge, the seminary sponsored fair-trade gift store. He had a special interest in The Bridge. He had given me the seed money way back in 1989 to get the store started.

The sixth floor was usually not open to the public, but my dad was sure that as an insider that I could arrange it. I did. After the luncheon and before the excursion to the Bridge, he surprised the group with presents for everyone, presents he had spent months selecting.

Absent Hands

Yet my dad’s hands were also absent hands. He worked like the devil. He worked so hard that it was hard to get his attention. Like so many other men who were first generation immigrants, he was often away “at work,” and then preoccupied at home. He seldom showed emotion to his children–except when we were watching the Detroit Lions or the Michigan State Spartans, happy when his team won, sad when they lost, and angry at the officials and referees for their bad calls. His hands seldom touched us, his arms seldom embraced us, and his lips never kissed us.

A few years before my dad died, I was visiting my parents at their apartment in the retirement village of Porter Hills. We shared lunch together and were talking in their living room, when I realized that I needed to return to Holland for a meeting at the seminary. I got up, gave my mom a peck on her check, said goodbye, and headed for the door. My mom followed me and said as I stepped into the hallway, “Would you kiss your dad?” Her words did not register with me at first, so she repeated them, “Would you kiss your dad?” I could not comprehend what she was saying. It was as if she were speaking a foreign language. Such a gesture was not part of my world. Then my anger flashed, and I thought to myself, “Isn’t his job to kiss me.” I reentered the room where my dad was sitting in his black, lazy-boy recliner repaired with duct tape. He turned his cheek to me and for the first time in my life I gave him a kiss.

As I left and drove home in my car, I tried to make sense of what had just happened. My mom had always managed the feelings in our home, listening to her children’s hopes and fears and tending to their needs and pain. She did the same for her husband. My dad must have expressed to her a need to feel closer to me, a son who had grown up to be remote like him in many ways. I was uncomfortable with kissing him and thought to myself: “What happens now? Will I have to kiss him every time I come?”      

I grew up in a world with a clearly demarcated inside and outside. Inside was a world of cooking and eating around the table, a world of feeling and touch, a world of bedtime reading and kisses goodnight. Outside was the world of the arena and combat, strength and survival, work and money. Inside was the world of women and outside the world of men. I was raised to enter the arena and to believe that too much feeling and too much touch would sap my strength and threaten my survival.

I used to tell my students that family was their first school of theology and that their relationships with their parents would inform their relationship with God. My dad was the creator of my home-world but not fully present in it, and my God seemed the same to me, at least for a while. My dad’s absence in my life left a void that I struggled to fill and set me in a theological direction that would need a course correction.

Washing my dad’s hands that night on his deathbed, I felt a deep ambivalence. I wished he could have been more present in my life, and I realized that I had been carrying a sadness for many years, the weight of which had worn me down.

The Distinctive Light of Darkness

The scriptures affirm that darkness is the abode of God and sheds its own distinctive light. We can see things in the dark of night that we cannot see in the light of day. When I lie awake night after night and ponder my relationship to my dad, I begin to see it in a new light. 

My dad loved his work. When I recall the look on his face as he pecked at his adding machine and penciled the numbers into his books, when I see his face again as he passed out gifts on the sixth floor of the Western’s library, I see joy. This joy was the source of his generosity. True joy is generative, knows no scarcity, and withholds nothing.

Accounting was his calling, balancing books was his work. I am not sure my dad even knew who Abraham Kuyper was, but he saw himself as joining God and bringing the kingdom to the whole domain of human existence, every sphere and every square inch of the created order. Books in balance were his contribution to bringing the world into balance. All my dad’s hard work and generosity brought security and stability to our home. He was our center, and the center held in the midst of an anarchic world, unlike the households of a number of my friends.

Late in life, I have come to see more clearly that there are many ways we touch one another. While I struggled with my dad’s lack of physical touch and his emotional distance, he touched me in ways that I had not fully appreciated and that have shaped me profoundly. When I consider his call, commitment, and generosity, my ambivalence gives way to acceptance and my burden of sadness lifts.

And I am glad that I kissed my dad.

Tom Boogaart

Tom Boogaart is Dennis & Betty Voskuil Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary and a frequent contributor to the Reformed Journal. 

8 Comments

  • Tom,
    Thank you. If our family is our first school of theology, I feel like you, through your story and openness, helped me look back at my old notes this morning.

  • Diane Dykgraaf says:

    Thank you for sharing your very personal story. Many of us who grew up in this culture know what you are talking about—that work ethic was so strong, wasn’t it? Thank you for showing us new places of light.

  • Bruce Van Dop says:

    Thank you Tom. Our fathers walked parallel paths and the feelings you share resonate in my life. Your path to peace is inspiring . Take care

  • Mark S. Hiskes says:

    Thanks, Tom, for helping us see the lonely darkness of 3 A.M. as something else–a place where God abides and memory awakens to remind us of truths too delicate, perhaps, for the light of day. Your story of kissing your father was especially meaningful to me.

    Back in college my freshman year I remember being stunned in a psychology class of a professor I really respected. He must have been talking about parents and their love for us. Then he said before the class ended, “If you haven’t told your parents you loved them, you must do it.”

    I remember walking in a daze across campus, wondering how in the world I could possibly do that. We simply didn’t say such things in my family of eight kids. I knew they loved me, and I always assumed they knew I loved them. Did I really need to say it? My dad and mom, like yours, were part of the greatest generation. You lived out love through daily acts of love, not words.

    I think I wrote them a letter, but it was still hard to write and remained hard to say until their deaths over 20 years ago. My comfort is that they figured we knew what they knew: words of love are good and often necessary–and often hard to say–but the daily agenda of love is both harder and more lasting.

    Thanks again for these two meditations.

  • Cathy Smith says:

    This was so nuanced. Thanks for your thoughts about darkness (instructive) and about your relationship with your dad (heart-warming). I really appreciated reading it this morning.

  • Ron Mulder says:

    Thank you for sharing this experience–it helps me understand my relationship with my mother and my father. And, maybe how I visualize and experience God in my life. Thanks again.

  • John Breuker, Jr. says:

    Thank you for reminding me this morning of my five very enjoyable years, 1960-1965, teaching alongside your dad at GRCHS at the corner of Franklin and Madison. What coaches: Warners, Vryhof, Bykerk, Zandee, VanderMey, TenBroek, Riekena – great students, athletes and families too!

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