“Jessica!” I hear his voice echo through the empty church. “Come on, it’s time to go!”
I peek my head over the smooth edge of the wooden pew and see my dad heading towards me. Running my hand along the back of the pew as I move easily through the tiny aisle, I skip over to meet him. His big, warm hand envelopes my small one and together we walk through the doors.
This is my first memory of my dad. I was probably two or three years old at the time, and I don’t have a clue as to the context of the memory. I couldn’t tell you which church it was, what city we were in, or even why we were there. But I can still remember the feeling, even after all these years, of hearing my dad’s comforting voice and not really caring about anything else. It didn’t matter what came next – lunch, maybe, or home to see my mom; we were together so I was happy.
Fast-forward a few years. I’m seven or eight now, watching my dad as his fingers skip quickly and effortlessly across the ivory keys of our old piano. The melodies blend beautifully with his voice and the sound floats through the high arches of our piano room, amplified by the wooden floors below. He sings words he wrote to the tunes he created and I watch with fascination as I try to sing along. My dad never had a lesson in his life, I think. Will I be able to create music this good when I grow up? His eyes catch mine and he beckons me to come sit with him. I climb up on the thin cushion of the piano seat and together we sing his songs… “I believe that God made the ocean, then He came and was baptized in the sea. I believe that God made the mountains and led up there to be tempted by the enemy. I believe that God made the forest, then was crucified upon a tree. And I believe that God will return, in Jesus Christ, to glorify His redeemed.”
Now I’m ten or eleven. New York is experiencing some of the worst thunderstorms I’ve ever seen in my short life. My sister and I lay shivering in our shared room, hiding under the covers as lightening slices through the night sky and thunder cracks deafeningly overhead. “Do you think the roof is going to crash in on us?” I ask my sister, whose bed is pushed against mine. The door creaks open a bit, shedding a sliver of light that breaks up some of the darkness. I see my dad’s silhouette tiptoeing in and breathe a sigh of relief as he climbs to the middle of our beds and lies between my sister and I, putting a big strong arm around each of us. He starts to sing “I Love You, Lord” and a sense of calm relaxes my body. My eyes droop shut and I fall asleep against his chest, listening to the echoing vibrations of his softly singing voice.
My dad is the very best person I know. His heart for Jesus and for people is truly unmatched by anyone I’ve ever met. He was the first one to share the Gospel with me and he is the one who has helped me and guided me in my personal walk with Jesus all these years. I can remember dancing around the living room with him, making up songs to help me remember Bible verses…and then reciting those same verses in my head whenever I was feeling lost. I can remember running through mock evangelism conversations with him while we sat side by side on the front step of our house in New York…and then using some of the ideas I learned from him to talk to my friends about Jesus. I can remember family Bible studies, reading through missionary books together, and one-on-one prayer times. My childhood was more blessed than I ever could have realized at the time, and my dad is most of the reason why.
Growing up, we never had the biggest house on the block, we never had the fanciest new car, and my parents were always trying to find creative ways to save money (e.g., getting Internet through the Comsewogue Library?? I still don’t know how that worked). But we had more than most and more than we needed. My dad gave up his dreams of stardom and musical fame to make a living for my mom, my sisters, and me. I’ve watched him graciously suffer through jobs he hated, awful bosses, and terribly long hours – all with a smile on his face and the love of Jesus in his heart. He has sacrificed everything – so much more than I deserve – to give me the beautiful life I’ve had so far.
I have very few memories of my dad where he isn’t smiling or laughing or making up very silly songs or playing funny jokes on people. He instantly becomes friends with everyone he meets and genuinely invests in their thoughts, ideas, and even worries. When you talk to my dad, he honestly makes you feel as though you are the single most important thing in the world to him. Like absolutely nothing but your immediate conversation is of any significance. Like maybe whatever you’ve been struggling with isn’t so hard, after all. Maybe, because he believes you can take on anything, you should believe that you can too. And if it doesn’t work out? That’s okay. God has a better plan for you anyway.
He has a way seeing through people’s facades, knowing what they need, and bringing Jesus’ pure light into even the evilest darkness. There have been countless times where I thought I was putting on a good show and had everyone fooled by my fake smiles and empty laughter. And maybe I really did have most people fooled, but not my dad. He would just march straight into my room and sit with me while I cried, helping me fix my broken heart and reminding me again to fall on my Savior.
Sometimes, late at night when everyone else is asleep, I walk down the silent hallway to fill my glass with water, and through the cracked back door I see my dad wrapped in his soft brown blanket, looking up in wonder at the stars that dot the sweeping Arizona night sky. I never know what he’s thinking and I never want to intrude and ask. But I imagine that maybe he’s thinking about Abraham from the Bible as he gazes up at the same stars and prays to the same loving Savior. I bet sometimes he’s praying for me, because that is just how he is.
Today on your birthday, Daddy…I just wanted to say thank you. Thank you for everything you are and everything you’ve been for me. I’m sure I don’t even realize all that you’ve done for me yet, but the older I get the more immeasurably thankful I become for every bit of what you’ve given me. Thank you for your advice, your wisdom, your jokes, your honesty, your sacrifices, and your love. You are one of the greatest blessings I’ll ever have and I couldn’t be more grateful to God for letting me be your daughter. This letter to you doesn’t come close to saying everything in my heart, but I hope it shows you just a little bit of how much you mean to me. No matter where I go or who I become, you will always be the first man I ever loved.
I love you more than words, Daddy…and I’ll always be thankful that you loved me first, too. Happy birthday. ❤
Jessica Joy (I’m a girl, not a boy)
P.S. Roses are red, violets are blue, sugar is sweet, and you are my dad. They call me The Rhymer. I make good rhymes.
Originally posted on Becoming Mrs. Iwanski (February 25th, 2014)