What I know now that I didn’t know before my dad died

One of my earliest memories of my dad is sitting on the bathroom counter in my footie pajamas and watching him shave. He smeared shaving cream across his face and, with a Santa-like grin, said, “Good morning, Sunshine.” As he began to scrape the razor across his whiskers, I mimicked his movements in the mirror, flattening my cheek against my jaw and tilting my chin up when he did.

Soon, he began to speak-sing, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy, when skies are gray. You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you. Please, don’t take my sunshine away.”

Maybe that’s why, 25 years later, the sight of his scruffy whiskers was so painful to me. As I entered his room at the care center, I clutched a plastic bag containing BIC razors, aftershave and a can of Gillette shave gel.

My dad’s room was bathed in afternoon sun from a large window facing a lawn with beautiful, old cedar trees, but he sat in a wheelchair facing the wall, his eyes closed. There was evidence of breakfast on his t-shirt and sweatpants. His beautiful silver hair floated around his head like he had slept on it when it was wet. A thick, bristly beard encompassed his face. His nurses said that he became combative when the nursing assistant tried to shave him.

For years his disease had slowly but methodically peeled away the layers of his identity. Physically, his body was weakened and bowed while the disease had made Swiss cheese of the frontal lobe of his brain: the part that affected impulse control, reasoning, personality, memory.

Ultimately, I could not help him remember that he loved my mom or that he was really very gentle and loving and smart. But I could make sure he was clean-shaven and his hair was parted on the correct side.

After he died, one of my biggest fears was that the latter memory would eclipse the former, that somehow the strain and distress caused by his illness would overshadow my other memories of him, that I’d remember him more as sick and feeble and disagreeable.

Recently, my family gathered at my dad’s grave on what would have been his 80th birthday. We passed around black licorice and oatmeal raisin pecan cookies and A&W root beer — his favorites — and talked and laughed and cried.

As we reminisced — some of the memories happy and some of them sad — I remembered a work assignment I had to cover the funeral of Elder Bruce D. Porter, who had been serving as a General Authority Seventy. During the services, President Russell M. Nelson, who was then serving as President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, invited Elder Porter’s family to remain close to their father. “Now family, we invite you to keep close to one another and to continue to stay close to your dad, to your husband, to your grandfather, because he lives. He will be pulling and praying for you from the other side of the veil,” President Nelson said.

As I listened to my siblings and mom and nieces and nephews remember my dad’s love and kindness and testimony and warm, encompassing hugs, I understood a little bit better that my dad is still a vibrant part of his children’s and grandchildren’s lives and his testimony and his priesthood continue to bless his posterity. And I know now, better than I knew before, that because of my knowledge of the Plan of Salvation, the bitter does not overpower the sweet.

— Rachel Sterzer is a Church News staff writer.