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by Jeff Munroe
One Christmas season during my childhood, we were dining in a crowded restaurant when I saw a man stand up from his table, wobble a bit, and then collapse onto the floor. His wife shrieked, “Somebody help!”
While I was still processing what just happened, it was my father, of all the people in that packed restaurant, who got up and came to the stricken man’s aid. I heard my dad say, “He’s not breathing,” and in those pre-CPR days watched as my father performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on the helpless man. I have a vivid memory of seeing my dad deftly extract the man’s false teeth and then put his lips over the man’s mouth. That sort of intimate physical contact with a stranger was both jarring and mind boggling – yet ultimately beautiful. After about twenty or thirty minutes, an ambulance arrived, and the man, now breathing, was taken away.
I remember a waitress asking my mother “Is your husband a doctor?” My focus had been so much on what my dad was doing that I hadn’t bothered to look at my mom. Now I saw she was more in shock than anyone. “A doctor?” she said with a dismissive laugh, “No, he’s not a doctor. He works for General Motors.” Not feeling my mother’s answer was sufficient, I piped in, “We have a big first aid book at home.”
I was eight years old when this happened. Since my dad already occupied the loftiest position in my boyhood constellation of stars, I find myself more amazed now at what he did than when it occurred. Fifty years later, I marvel that of the dozens and dozens of people in that restaurant, it was my dad who acted, and it was my dad who saved a stranger’s life.
Today’s holiday has me thinking about that particular holiday time so long ago. We tend to sentimentalize the realities of our families on Thanksgiving. These same families, which symbolize hearth and home, also drive us into therapy because they never love us enough or love us correctly. There’s a gap, at least in my experience, because of all the unstated and subconscious expectations that our families never fulfill. Holidays put a magnifying glass on those emotions.
I’m going to try to flip the script this year. I intend to spend the day telling the people I love that I love them. I’m going to start with my dad, and tell him I’m glad he’s my dad and proud he saved that man’s life fifty years ago. Those moments in that restaurant are the noblest moments of my father’s life. I am very aware of his shortcomings and foibles, probably more consciously aware of them than he is. But that doesn’t matter today. My father is 85 now, and I am not sure how many Thanksgivings we have left. I have a hard time saying what I feel to him and he has a hard time saying his feelings to me. We have a football game on to save us from awkward conversations about our feelings. I’m not going to let that stop me today.
I won’t stop with him. I’m putting this in print to force myself to take every person I’m with today aside at some point and tell them how I feel.
There’s still going to be too much food and the Lions and Cowboys will still be on television. I am going to try not to follow three helpings of green bean casserole by diving into a Babelesque tower of whipped cream atop of a slice of pumpkin pie, but I can’t guarantee it. I can guarantee I’m going to tell my family I love them today. How about you?
Jeff Munroe is Vice President for Operations and Advancement at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.