Transferring the Life (Nov-Dec 1997)

By Matt Dabbs

by Brent Abney
November – December, 1997

29I was in great spirits as I hopped into the front seat of our beautiful, red and white, ’67 Plymouth VIP. The windows were down, the air was cool, and the expectation of a two-hour adventure with my dad was almost as good as it got.

We were going to my grandparents’ house to meet up with the rest of my family. I had stayed behind to ride with my dad after he got off work. I was ready. I was excited. I had even packed us both a snack. I knew he’d really like that. My expectation was so intense that I was bouncing up and down in my seat as we pulled out of the driveway and began our drive into the setting sun.

I immediately began to pepper my father with meaningless questions and incoherent stories. I couldn’t help it. I was just so excited to be with him, alone. He was a special dad, and even at a mere seven years of age, I sensed his uniqueness and loved him beyond words. He loved me too. Evidenced by the fact that he ooohed and aaahed at all my trivial stories and boastings. Boy, I liked him.

As we exited greater Atlanta, we began clicking along the concrete, two lane highway that connected our hometown to the State of Alabama. The road was crowded by steep, muddy banks and tall pine trees and, as the twilight set in, the combination created an eerie channel to drive through. I scooted closer to my dad. He responded by turning on the radio and honking the horn to the beat of the music. This lightened me up considerably. Then unexpectedly, he flipped off the headlights and we whisked through the channel as if we were a submarine in the great dark deep. “Stop it!” I screamed, and Dad flipped on the lights like it had been an accident. We both laughed and laughed.

Eventually, things began to quiet down. My stories got slower and even more incoherent as we neared our destination and my bedtime. I was yawning. But just before I closed my eyes for good, my dad’s voice changed tone and he said, “Brent, I want to tell you a story now.”

I felt the privilege of the moment. My father, arguably the greatest story-teller that had ever lived, was about to bless me with another tale. I put my head on his lap, looked up, and waited for the blessing.

With my body comfortably situated, the resonation of tires clicking on the cement highway was peaceful and relaxing. All was right in the world.

“Son,” he began, “when you were four years old, and your sister Danna was eight, and Terri was seven, they found tumors in my chest. Now, son, that was 1970, and tumors meant cancer, and cancer meant death. I was scared, son.”

I was too, all of a sudden. I listened on with all my heart. “I made a vow to God right then and there, son; I said to God, ‘God, just give me enough years to help my children love you with all their heart, soul, mind and strength.’ I made that vow, son. My part is to teach you.”

For the first time all night it was silent in the car. We didn’t speak again until we arrived and waved hello to the grandparents. Something significant had taken place in that car, and though I didn’t understand just what, I locked the memory of that conversation away in my memory vault. And life went on.

Eighteen years later the tumors were back, and so was the memory. Dad and I were huffing and puffing our way up a “bald” mountain midway between Knoxville, Tennessee and Asheville, North Carolina. My parents lived just outside of Asheville at the time, and the outing was planned in advance by my father. Dad was leaning on me heavily as we walked. The tumors were squeezing his breath from him. We would take a few steps up the trail, stop, take a few more and stop again. Traveling in this manner, it took over an hour to cover a distance that either one of us could do, when healthy, in less than 15 minutes.

The place is called Max’s Patch. From the pinnacle, it affords a view of six states. It is treeless and covered with picture postcard wildflowers. It also hosts a beautiful segment of the Appalachian Trail. The trail is marked with shoulder-high cedar posts. One of those cedar posts marked the highest point on the mountain, and reaching it became our joint goal.

Although neither of us said it aloud, reaching that post became symbolic and important. When we made it there, my father dropped to his knees, and I spread out a blanket for him to lay on and rest. I then unpacked the snacks I had brought for both of us, and after catching his breath my dad began to eat. I stood while he ate and used my pocketknife to carve an exclamation point in the cedar marker. I asked him to help me carve the dot. The cedar post ceremony was symbolic of our joint conquest of the mountain, and the hope of beating the cancer.

We sat and enjoyed the scenery for a long time. I urged him to retell the stories that had enriched and enchanted my world as a child. I knew my request was emotional, but graciously he obliged. We faced different directions while he spoke, neither feeling strong enough to deal with the tears from the other. When I felt I had a firm grasp on the stories, I thanked him. For those bedtime tales would be my most treasured inheritance.

Dad quickly turned the discussion to serious matters. “Son, I’ve loved you since before you were born.” And with that opening, he began to tell me every instance he could recall that had made him proud of me. He canvassed my entire life. I was astonished at his memory. Next, he went on to discuss his love for my mother. He did the same for each of my two sisters. When he was finished, I had no doubt of his love for his family.

He immediately followed those statements with words of encouragement. he said, “I think I have done well in these aspects of my life, son,” and he listed a few of his best qualities. “Please try to emulate me in these areas.” And then his demeanor changed and he looked at me intensely, and gave me this stern spiritual warning. “Son, these are the areas in which I have weaknesses. you mind yourself – you be careful, or you will inherit them without realizing where they came from.” The list was frank and revealing.

As he finished, I knew what Dad had been doing. He was passing the baton. Saying goodbye. Transferring the life. I knew it and it hurt, but I tried not to let my emotion show. Instead, I looked him in the eyes and said in my firmest and most respectful voice, “Yes, Sir.”

With that out of the way my dad stood up and lifted his shirt. There under his arm, where it had been smooth the very night before was a lump the size of an egg. When I saw that cancer under his skin I lost all composure. I wheeled around spread my arms wide, and begged God to save his life. I yelled into the clouds, with what I have often imagined was Elijah’s posture, and petitioned God over and over in King James English – desperately wanting to be taken seriously. Quickly I then turned back to him – he was still holding his shirt up – and asked his permission to put my hands on the tumor. He nodded, and I prayed like a faith healer. My sobs were drowning out my words. I prayed as hard and with as much faith as I have every mustered in my life. My dad just hugged me. We stood on the mountain and embraced each other for a long, long time.

That was the last time I ever saw my dad alive. I certainly still miss him. It has been six years now. But I knew what was happening on the mountain, and the chance to say good-bye was accepted with indescribable gratitude. He transferred life to me up there. But not just there. he had been transferring “the Life” to me for over 18 years. He had kept his vow, and God had kept his.

Today I am a missionary in Uganda, East Africa. Regularly, I get a chance to sit on the ledges of cool, green Ugandan mountainsides with close Ugandan friends and disciples. What a blessing it is to tell them of a Father in Heaven who loved his children so much as to transfer “the Life” to them.

Even more exhilarating though, is watching my two young sons grow, laugh, and play. They don’t understand it yet, but their father has made a vow to God. A vow that is going to be kept. And “the Life” will be transferred again.Wineskins Magazine

Brent Abney

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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