Robert Earl Whitehead

Yesterday, my dad turned 77 years old. Like I said in my last blog about my mother, who just turned 79, it’s so hard to believe that my parents are almost in their 80s. In my mind, they are still like 62 or something. But as I discovered the other day, my parents are older than some of my friends’ grandparents. They are aging, and that is a reality which has somehow never been easy for me to grasp.

But, back to my dad. My dad has always been an unusual character. Out of my two parents, he’s the most like me, in personality. He’s extraverted, works better with children than adults (he still teaches Sunday School to preschoolers), enjoys adventure, and tells the most interesting stories of ANYONE I’ve ever known.

When I was a child, I remember one of my cousins describing a man in an airport she had observed that reminded her of my father.

“Did he look like my dad? Like bald and kinda short?” I asked.

“No, she said. “Not at all. But it wasn’t the way he looked that reminded me of your dad… it was the way he moved around.”

“Moved around?”

“Yeah, like he stood there with his hands on his hips, turning his head in every direction, frenetically observing everything happening around him. And his face had a look on him like this 🤨.”

Yep, that sounds about right, I thought to myself.

My dad has never known a stranger. He has always spoken to everyone about anything and everything. If my dad were a cat instead of a human, curiosity would have killed all of his nine lives before he had even made it to adulthood.

My father’s stories have always intrigued my friends and I. His stories include some of the following: the time the nuns made up a lie about him in order to kick him out of the choir in Catholic school, the time he almost drowned in the ocean when he kicked off in an inner tube from the north shore of Oahu, the time when he got fired in the college cafeteria, the time he dropped a mercury thermometer and infected large quantities of tomatoes at the canned tomato factory, the time he failed sex education class IN COLLEGE, and the time he was thrown in jail in Florida on spring break.

Despite his animated storytelling and unique way of carrying himself, he always struck me as someone who perhaps has been misunderstood. People have mistaken his kindness for weakness, his ADHD nature for being unobservant, and his sense of adventure for fearlessness.

When I was in high school, a mentor of mine told me that every nuclear family tends to have a scapegoat–the person who gets blamed for everything or is picked on more than others. Upon hearing this statement, I immediately thought of my father, and realized that he was our family’s scapegoat. Something missing? Dad surely misplaced it. Forgot the one item on the grocery list we needed? Dad’s fault. People are laughing at us? Dad must be doing something ridiculous. Happy birthday rendition sounds like nails on the chalkboard? Dad tried to sing.

Everything wrong? Dad must have done something.

And here’s the thing about scapegoats–they often play along in their role. And my dad did just that. He had no problems being the brunt of jokes or being blamed for crap for the most part. He just went with the flow.

But here’s the other thing about scapegoats–they are often misunderstood.

I want to tell you a story about my father that only I can tell so that maybe I can show a side of him that not everyone knows. When I was about eight years old, we were walking out to the car together to go to the grocery store and I said, “Oh my God!” about something, and my dad froze in his tracks. I looked up at him in that moment, and the outrage I saw in his eyes made me truly afraid of him for the first, and possibly only, time. You see, my dad would get mad here and there, but I never took it too seriously because I knew he was just pouty and a little emotional. But this time, I had apparently hit a nerve. He was angry, but he didn’t scream. He got down on his knees, eye level, and told me, “Don’t you ever take the Lord’s name in vain again. You know I don’t spank, but I will spank you for that.”

And I don’t think I ever said, “Oh my God,” until I was like 33 years old after that. My dad wasn’t strict with me (that was my mom’s job in our home,) but he was apparently strict about invoking the name of the Lord.

A couple of years ago, I gave my dad a book that had questions in it that I wanted him to write the answers to. The questions were mostly about his life, and the experiences he has had. When he was done, he gave the book back to me to have as a keepsake. I am a sentimental person when it comes to my aging parents, so I didn’t open the book up until yesterday because I was afraid it would make me cry.

But it didn’t make me cry. Instead, it made me laugh a little. Mostly, it made me feel profound gratitude for having had my dad as MY DAD.

Here are a couple thoughts he wrote in the book:

“I would like everyone to remember me as a person that loved his family and tried to do everything I could to create a happy family.

I also want people to know I tried to live a life that I felt as a human could follow the love of Christ. I also tried to make life better to others that I related to. I truly wanted to not hurt others and tried to create a life that Jesus wanted me to live.”

What stood out to me is that he said he wanted to follow the LOVE of Christ. Because an awful lot of people these days are talking about Jesus as if he were some conservative dude who supported the wealthy and those in power. I am not an expert on Jesus, but one thing I learned from my dad is that Jesus showed love to those who were OUTCASTS. To those who were poor. To those who were underprivileged and not accepted by mainstream society. To those that were the antithesis of popular and respected.

And that’s the Jesus my dad modeled his life after.

So Dad, even if you are the scapegoat of the family, one thing you can be sure of is this: you will be remembered as you want to be, because that is WHO YOU ARE: someone who loved his family, always quick to forgive and the first to apologize, and someone who loved the outcasts of this world: the homeless, the refugees, children in poverty, the drug addicts, and I could go on and on.

I learned how to love others from you. And I learned what love IS from you.

Thank you for your unconditional love, Dad.

2 thoughts on “Robert Earl Whitehead

  1. Emily , I am crying as I read the special story of your father. He was ..and
    Is one of the ( most real persons I know ) thank you for the Real story..
    Bob has been a blessing in my life ,at the right time….he would ask the
    right question ….Thank you , your insight is loving and kind….Donna

    Liked by 1 person

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