"How Can I Say 'Thanks'?"

  I had just flown halfway across the country and driven another hour to see a man who was now in his early 80s. As my wife and I drove up to the senior living facility, I knew I would recognize him from photos posted online — although, he frankly hasn’t changed all that much in the more than 45 years that have passed since I first met him. I was nervous about how much he would remember and what we would talk about once we got past the initial pleasantries. Bill had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. When I heard that news I knew I wanted to see him before the disease took away his capacity to meaningfully engage. I wanted to thank him for changing the course of my life.
   I grew up in a family that could best be described as angry and dysfunctional. We had some great times together, but most of the time my brothers, sisters and I lived in fear of our father. His routine was to make sure everyone knew that his comfort came first. If we were loud or boisterous, we were told to shut up and be quiet. If we were sad and perhaps in tears, we would be told to stop crying before he gave us something to cry about. It was all about him. Of the six children, three boys and three girls, our lives played out the way you would expect in a highly dysfunctional and angry home. I have a brother and a sister who are homeless and distrustful of everyone and everything. Another sister medicates herself with food and is morbidly obese. One sister died of cancer in her early 40s after marrying an alcoholic and seeking out therapy. My other brother has wrestled with alcohol before turning his life around. I have wrestled with my own demons, and while life is not perfect, I can tell you that I would never have had the life I do without Bill’s influence. 
   Bill was the Young Life leader and a math teacher at my high school. I had been kicked out of junior high school, and as a freshman in an unfamiliar high school, I was determining which crowd I would hang out with and which directio
n my life after high school would take. Bill became my surrogate dad. Not only did he lead the Young Life meetings each week, but he and Marion, his wife, would host kids in their home after the Friday night football games to just hang out and see what discussions would develop. On one of those Friday nights, one of the girls commented, “I wonder if heaven is going to look just like Bill and Marion’s basement?” I was completely curious about their relationship. I didn’t think they yelled at each other or fought or did any of the things that were fairly common at my house. They appeared to genuinely care for each other and for dozens of other people with whom they would share their home for several hours each week. I thought, “I want to be like him. I want to have relationships like he has.” I watched him, studied him and his family and thought about how I could emulate him. As our relationship grew, I would talk to him about things I would never feel safe discussing with my own dad. I also got to know some incredible kids involved in Young Life who seemed to care about others.
   At one of the Young Life meetings, Bill mentioned Frontier Ranch and the opportunity to spend a week there during the summer. If Bill suggested it, I already thought it was a good idea. My own dad loved the mountains, and I thought I could convince him that a week in Colorado with other high-schoolers was a good idea. I worked after school and on weekends to save the money I would need to pay for the camp, and when summer came, I was ready. The week at Frontier laid the groundwork for a pivotal decision I would make the following October. After most kids had left one of Bill and Marion’s Friday night gatherings, one of the seniors asked me about my relationship with Christ. I wasn’t quite sure what he meant and said so. That led to a clear explanation of the Gospel and a decision on my part to commit my life to following God. By my sophomore year, I was not known as the angry kid who got kicked out of junior high (in fact most of that junior high went to a different high school, so I had almost a clean reputational slate in high school). I was elected class president and spent hours in discussions about God, how He works in our lives, forgiveness and the problem of evil. I made some lifelong friends. 
   In college I met my future wife because I was wearing a Young Life T-shirt and she asked me if I was a believer. We became friends through college and then after college began dating and eventually married. I remember writing Bill and Marion a long letter (long before email!) about her and hoping for their encouragement to pursue the relationship. I still viewed Bill as more of a father figure than my own father. Together, my wife and I have raised three amazing children and have been blessed with two grandchildren. Cindy is a school nurse and I have had a successful career. And, as life rushed on, I lost touch with Bill and Marion and they moved out of Illinois to Colorado. Fast forward many years, and I was rushing to see them before we ran out of time. More than anyone else, they have literally changed the course of my life and that of my children who grew up in a very different home than the one I did. It was in Bill’s living room that I committed my life to Christ. It was his involvement on a weekly basis that allowed me to see how a man should treat his wife and children. He led Bible studies and times of great fun. His encouragement led me to spend six weeks at Frontier Ranch as part of the 1970 work crew. How could I say thanks for that? 
   As we pulled into the drive at the Colorado senior living facility, I hoped Bill would remember. Cindy and I agreed we would take them to lunch, but neither of us was sure about what would follow. Would we run out of things to say? Would it be awkward? Would it be fun? Would they want to spend more time with us or would we exhaust them? One thing I knew was that I did not want Bill to live the rest of his life without knowing how much I appreciated him and what he and Marion did for me. If that were all I said and all he heard, that would be enough. Our lunch stretched on and then they asked about getting together for dinner. After dinner, they asked whether we were heading back or would be around for Sunday. We ended up going to church together on Sunday and then arranging to spend more time on Monday. We did not run out of things to talk about. One memory triggered another and it turned into one of the most satisfying three days I can remember. One of the things Bill was proud of was that he taught mathematics for 40 years and he also received an honorary doctorate from one of the universities. Before we left, Bill told me he and Marion had talked and they wanted to make me and Cindy their honorary son and daughter-in-law. That was perfect. He was my model for what a father, husband and man should be. And by simply living his life the way he did and allowing me to see him as he was, he was one of the most influential teachers in my life. I got to tell him how much he meant and that I loved him. That was enough.