Blessed With Many Fathers
(reprint from August 2017)
May 1, 2020 | View PDF
Columnist John Sophocleus learned of his earthly father's passing while writing his piece for this month’s issue. Adamant about his submission these past ten plus years, he requested The Alabama Gazette reprint “Blessed with Many Fathers” under the circumstances. We hope you find it a worthy (re)read. Editor’s Note: Our prayers & sympathies are extended to John & his family at this time.
Empty screen before me now, heavy hands upon the keyboard, I struggle to type this month’s column… informed hours ago of the death of my father-in-law, Dale Miller, via phone from my bride. She immediately flew to Indiana a week ago to be there for his final days of a life well lived after her younger sister completed the onerous task of telling her older sister their father received Last Rites. Since joining the esteemed group of Alabama Gazette writers in 2009, I’ve never missed a deadline. I’m certain Dale would not appreciate using his passing as an excuse/reason for failing to write or meet my classes, which he thought much more important than just earning an income. Never really understood the pride he seemed to find in my efforts as writer and teacher, but it sure was comforting. The issue in last month’s column (1 for 30,000 HoR rule) was the source of some of our most compelling conversations these past decades.
I've been abundantly blessed with many fathers. My Heavenly Father I hold most dear, my earthly father, my grandfather, Godfather, founding fathers and of course my father-in-law. The power of our "Kyrie Eleison" prayer became very clear saying it with all my being for my earthly father years ago and it was well granted. This simple yet powerful prayer rolling through my mind and spirit these past days attenuates the sadness. Yet another Father (Michael Condos, priest at Annunciation in Montgomery) shepherded me well to find comfort in the powerful Kyrie Eleison “Lord have mercy” prayer when my father was in a coma. Wanting my father to remain in this world was obvious, but clearly not in my control. If He was going to take him, take him peacefully and with minimal suffering; if allowed to remain with us, return him to us well. The added years God is granting allows me to further contemplate the relationship between father(s) and son.
Most important is my Heavenly Father. It is difficult to reconcile – think how Joseph endured witnessing Jesus taking His path to our Heavenly Father. Truly remarkable I’ve never felt any jealously from my earthly father knowing I hold my Heavenly Father most dear. In fact, my father did well putting me on the path to my Heavenly Father. One of the many lessons he instilled was a quarter from my allowance each week went to support the church, which I think was instilled in him well by his mother, a major force in the “Philoptochos” (friends of the poor) at Annunciation in Baltimore. The circle was unbroken.
My greatest fear meeting the ‘awesome judgment seat of Christ’ is to be found guilty of burying my talents. I don’t know why that yearly gospel compels me more than any other. When I wore a younger man’s clothes this judgment was a source of great fear, but after witnessing man’s judgment of 12 member juries, jurists like Myron Thompson, the 2010 US Supreme Court’s decisions against me, I take comfort in the possibility of a merciful judgment from Jesus who suffered worse than I can imagine. I similarly pray my earthly father doesn’t think I’ve squandered the gifts and efforts he exerted in my life. I was blessed with a good father who earned a son that would become a good man. Sadly, my efforts failed toward finding/making a place worthy of a child.
I have indelible memories of my grandfather. The oldest memory I can conjure in my mind’s eye and ear is Papou Sophocleus singing “Christos Anesti” (Christ is Risen) with me as a young child then picking up his banjo (an accomplished bouzouki player, he traded it for a banjo in transition to being an American) to play delightful Greek folk songs. Shame on me for not learning much Greek, he would sing a song I felt he thought important for me to hear/learn. It evoked names like Aristides, Miltiades and Themistocles, which perhaps had something to do with the ten generals at the Battle of Marathon. With a name like Sophocleus, Papou probably expected me to continue to translate and assimilate our Greek culture into America. A quiet child to the frustration of some - it was because I knew I wasn’t even remotely prepared to say a word. At family reunions in Raleigh I would marvel listening to uncles talking seamlessly of parallels between the Peloponnesian War and war between our States. Still trying to live up to that wonderful hope of my grandfather.
As for my Godfather, there’s none better! He took his responsibility of instruction on identifying and following the Holy Spirit seriously. He was always trying to hone my ability to think and solve problems. Spending a week each summer with his family in Ocean City, MD was when he exerted great effort to improve my chess game and talk to me about navigating the snares of this world. I remain amazed at his patience answering my childish questions as we listened to the Watergate hearings and explaining the wrongdoings of those in power. All my fathers stressed not to trust authority as truth, but respect Truth as the ultimate authority, which will prevail in the end.
Readers of my columns these past years know the founding fathers have also been patient with their writings trying to instruct me toward understanding the path toward a more perfect union. I’m ashamed to admit how poor my progress has been these past decades. Which brings me back to remembrances of my father-in-law. The child he parented here on earth is the greatest blessing in my life. When others asked how our marriage has continued so well through some difficult times, my reply is simple. We both love something greater than each other – God. I can’t imagine what it was like for a father to see a beautiful angel like the one he shepherded into adulthood leave his dominion. I do know he was looking for someone who also loved God and would take care of this precious soul. I think he understood (as anyone could easily see) his daughter earned someone special in her life. Indeed she deserved a better man than I, but it seemed a ‘thin market’ for good people and shrinking. I’m far too poor a wordsmith to convey what it is like when you’re completely certain of finding the angel you want to take before God to marry and realize you’re not really good enough; the only thing you can do is earn every special moment and try to improve every day.
Hard to admit being this far along in life to finally realize the biggest blessing of all the fathers in my life has been shepherding me to be a better man. Hope my father-in-law found me worthy of his precious daughter, even in the toughest of times. Imagine how strange it is to have a son-in-law teaching for 1/6 of what he’d earn continuing in his former job? When the federal government was in the process of wrongfully taking our home - he was down to
Alabama a.s.a.p.! Wish I could’ve sheltered my family from federal despotism better. After being made homeless for almost a year and living on a friend’s property, Dale didn’t quibble on why someone making $25k/year refused to settle for a large amount of money because we wanted the courts to continue ruling correctly (as the US Supreme Court did in 2005) so others wouldn’t suffer as we did. When an issue of well-defined right and wrong arose my father-in-law was uncompromising.
Dale’s common sense attitude, which morphed into effective action, was most admirable. He had the most delightful laugh. Whenever we’d visit, I’d hope Seinfeld was on just so I could revel in hearing his laughter. One of my favorite moments discussing what the federal highway bureaucrats were saying and what they were doing, prompted his wonderful laugh to say, “well John, with most people when it is all said and done; more is SAID than is done.” He seemed to know when I needed a little break from the 13 year fight at the same time confirmation I wasn’t being unreasonable under the circumstances. When I was on the Parish Council having problems with getting and keeping a priest, it was like talking to an old seasoned veteran with all his past efforts sustaining his church through the toughest times. I pray to do a fraction as well offering sagacity to others expecting it from me in my senior years. Also hope I can keep my good humour and Spirit when BOTH son-in-laws (NOT devotes of Mr. Lincoln) turn Abe’s bust facing the wall when he’s not looking to be discovered later…
Of all the memories folks have shared these past difficult days, “Dale is a one of a kind person. He is considered MAYOR of his neighborhood. He has watched over my mom and her husband for years. He is a good man, friend, husband, father and grandfather. God Bless him,” is my favorite. Simple, accurate and to the point. Mayor of his neighborhood indeed! The Dale Millers of this world are what make a town special and thwart the demons and tyranny waiting to prey upon it. He was a Christian activist, in other words with Dale more is DONE than is said. No one was going to be mistreated where he could see it; no one truly needy was going to go hungry, cold or without shelter. It is said to judge a society on how it treats their lowest and most vulnerable individuals – Mayor Miller made sure his neighborhood would be well judged. Historians noted the politburo in Rome hated then feared the Christians as they were held in higher regard than those in authority because the general population realized who truly cared about them. Similarly, no one (including those in authority) wanted to be on the wrong side of Dale in HIS neighborhood.
The George Bailey character (played by James Stewart) in “It’s a Wonderful Life” gets to see how different Bedford Falls would be without his being born. I wouldn’t want to see a world with even one less Dale Miller in it. There are and have been many towns of Brazil’s characteristics on US Route 40 just outside major cities across the nation. Some get sucked in by the quick buck of a developer and shady politicians to experience the short-run euphoria of unsustainable growth inevitably followed by the cancer which slowly eats away at the town. Others, like Dale, dig in who aren’t easily duped and carry through the tough times to make something good last in hopes the next generation will do the same for themselves and their posterity. Can’t help but recall some text from Matthew 25:21 – “Well done, good and faithful servant: enter into the joy of thy Lord.”
I delighted in telling my father-in-law of the first time I took his daughter to my church where the choir was singing a beautiful repetition of “Kyrie Eleison” prompting her to say, “I didn’t know they sang Latin in the Greek church.” So I don’t think my good catholic father-in-law would take any offense in my closing with the traditional Greek orthodox saying, “Eonia Imnemi” – may Dale's memory be eternal through Christ he held so dear. He was a strong man in mind, body and Spirit. We've lost one of the most steadfast, relentless advocates for the Holy Spirit I've ever known. What better thing can one leave to those they hold dear than a life well lived and sound forecast they’ll be kindly welcomed and mercifully received before the judgment of our Saviour Jesus Christ? I ask all – esp. those who've also enjoyed the blessing of having this good man in their lives – to say a prayer for my father-in-law and all our fathers who served our Heavenly Father well with a full heart. I know Dale will be dearly missed by parishioners at Annunciation Catholic Church (Brazil, IN) he held so dear.