I reflect on pictures my mom kept of me posing on grandma’s front porch, my three-year-old little body donning a Fiesta dress with intermingled colors. They dance with each other far from lament. Dad’s sailor cap is tipped over my face, covering my left eye, making me giggle as I reach up to catch it from falling. Under my left arm, I clutch the American flag that was used to drape over his coffin. It’s nearly the size of my entire body and it is folded in half the way I would soon find myself doubled over with questions about why God would allow me to grow up without a father.
My father died in what was then America’s largest peacetime tragedy, an accidental plane crash on the U.S.S. Nimitz aircraft carrier in the Atlantic Ocean on May 26, 1981. He had just turned 25 years old. I grew up not knowing what records he enjoyed, what his favorite books were, or what his life was like before the military. His death left a gaping hole inside of me, and I searched for decades trying to find him in every face, every man, every granddaddy’s laughter. I tried to fill the empty ache with relationships I had, hobbies I filled my time with, and buying things I couldn’t afford.
My mother and grandmother coped by thinking he hadn’t really passed away, and they thought I would process it better if I had some hope he was alive. They would comment, Maybe he has amnesia, or Maybe he’s that viejito who sits in front of the mall and just stares at your mother until she walks through the door.
With their well-intentioned hopes, I kept searching. I wanted to find him, but instead I kept running into God. I repeatedly tried to go around Him, to avoid Him. I blamed Him for what I could not find, and I stubbornly kept looking past Him for another answer, but He reminded me time and again that what I needed could only be found in and through Him.
Three months ago, my dad’s friend contacted me through Facebook. Social media can do grand things in the midst of broken links and missing stories. He had been the one who had escorted my father’s remains home, and now he had something more of my father to give me. He told me the story of how my dad died, why he died, and the hero that he was. The documents containing this information had been declassified, and I got to hear him tell the stories of that 50 page document.
My dad should not have been on the flight deck. He may have lived had he not been “helping.” I choked back tears when I heard this. It took a few minutes to really process what was being said. The possibility of my dad surviving the tragedy shocked me. But as the news sank deeper into my heart, relief swept over me. I had a piece of my dad’s story, of my story, and the ache I used to feel started to heal. I knew then that no matter what other pieces I was missing, I would have to trust that God would help fill them in.
Healing happens in miraculous ways— through photos that give a glimpse into a lost part of time, through people who tell us the stories we didn’t know. I had so many unanswered questions about my dad, but God, in healing my wound of fatherlessness, gave me a picture of my dad I can hold onto. My dad was a helper. His life ended because of it, but now I find him not in faces or things but in serving others. I see him in me whenever I help someone else, and though stories are still missing from my life, I know God is the one who can fill in those spaces, that it’s His grace that can heal my innermost parts.