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Listen to Dad's stories before he loses his hearing

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Column by David B. Whitlock

I still call my dad most every morning. While I’m driving to work, he’s slowly but surely making his way to breakfast in the retirement facility where my parents now live.

I sometimes have difficulty communicating on the phone with Dad since his hearing is not what it used to be. (Dad just turned 89.) So, I was encouraged when Dad told me he was getting new hearing aids. I thought that would make our conversations easier.

“I just got my new hearing aids,” he proudly announced one morning not long ago.

“Great,” I responded, “how are they working?”

“What? What did you say?” he asked.

I’ve learned to repeat what I’m saying and let Dad talk over me. I figure he deserves it; after all, not so long ago, I was the know-it-all teenager who ignored his wisdom and tried to talk over his words.

Our most frequent morning topic is the weather: What it is where he lives in Lubbock, Texas, and what we are having here in Kentucky.

“It’s damp here,” I informed him one morning.

Apparently misunderstanding the word “damp” for “camp,” Dad launched into a story of how he attended camp when he was 11 or 12 years old. 

I dared not redirect him: It was a story worth hearing.

Dad told of being at church camp in the early 1930s. The place was Falls Creek Baptist Assembly, located in the Arbuckle Mountains of Oklahoma. Dad’s uncle, Kenneth Harrell, volunteered to take several boys from Fletcher Baptist Church to Falls Creek. Falls Creek Assembly would grow to become the largest youth encampment in the United States. When Dad attended, they actually camped outside in tents and bathed in a reservoir.

One warm, sultry night, at the close of one of those camp meetings in the large outdoor tabernacle, the camp evangelist called for the young people to make a decision for Christ.

“Step forward and make public your decision,” he admonished the young people.

Dad wanted to walk down the aisle to the front of the assembly but was hesitant and a little afraid. An observant camp counselor, seeing the anguish in Dad’s face, came and stood next to Dad and offered to walk forward with him if that’s what Dad wanted to do. He did and that marked the beginning of my father’s walk with Jesus Christ.

After Dad told me the story, I was dumbfounded. Here was one of the most important events in my Dad’s life and I’d never heard it. All those years when Dad’s hearing was as all but perfect, I’d never stopped long enough to inquire about how he had come to his faith, and Dad was on the move too. He always has been a doer.

What I knew of his faith I learned mostly by observation: his prayer before meals, his church attendance anytime the doors were open and his volunteering as a dentist to do mission work in third world countries.

But that day, listening to Dad, I felt like I had gotten to the heart of the matter — the place where it had all begun. And I’d learned of it because of his hearing loss and his misunderstanding of one simple word.

And now I have a story I will forever treasure, one I will pass on to my kids.

That’s just what I’ll do, maybe this Father’s Day — before I grow forgetful and hard of hearing.

David B. Whitlock is a Baptist minister, education and author. He can be reached at drdavid@davidbwhitlock.com.