A Gracious Goodbye to Mentors

by Bill Putnam on April 22nd, 2017

It is refreshing when strong, intelligent men like Bill and Jared 
( ​http://graciousgoodbyes.org/blog.htm ) choose to be transparent.  I am thankful for them, their perspectives and what they have chosen to share.  (Jill)
​It’s been twenty years, this spring, since I explained on the phone, to the very solemn county sheriff that “no, I couldn’t come right over to the apartment because I lived three and a half hours away” and “can you please just tell me what’s going on? I can leave soon but it will be a while before I can get up there.” There was an uncomfortable silence on the other end.

The officer on the line was probably searching the faces of his colleagues to get consensus on how to proceed with the call. Perhaps with nods of ascent, he informed me, “Mr. Putnam I’m sorry, but your father has died”. I had taken the call on the phone in the bedroom so I wouldn’t have this conversation in front of my six year old daughter and her four year old brother. I already knew instinctively what I was going to hear. I hadn’t spoken to my dad in a few days and at that time in our lives we rarely went even 48 hours without a call between us. I had no idea how I’d react though.

I have some recollection of that room becoming very big and quiet. As I hung up the phone, having presumably made arrangements to drive up to Virginia and begin the process of logistically taking care of a parent who had just died three and half months past his fifty-sixth birthday. Those logistics involved running down a lot of paperwork, meeting with the sheriff, coroner, investment officials, house contractors, ministers, extended family members I hadn’t seen in years and talking and talking to everyone in the world, except the one person I wanted to hear from, my dad. How would he handle this situation? What I needed was a mentor.

 “An experienced and trusted advisor”, as Webster defines mentor, implies that person you’ve observed experiencing life as you seek to experience it and doing so in a manner you admire and strive for can also be trusted to guide you to do the same. At least that was my basic understanding of mentorship. So, as an active member of a faith community, it made sense I’d be attracted to an amazing teacher and community builder of a pastor. When I was wearing my U.S. Coast Guard uniform there was never any shortage of someone above me in the chain-of-command who was leading people with confidence and empathy who I might strive to emulate. As a father and a husband I was fortunate to find many models of excellence in both those arenas.

In being me, looking a quarter century into the future though, in all that might entail, I needed another mentor. Things like surviving a divorce, sending children off to college, retiring from an almost 30-year career, co-planting tomatoes with the right vegetable in USDA growing zone 8a, and all the other myriad of things I would embark on years after somebody I always saw myself being, could only be taught by that person I saw myself being and now he was gone.

I mentioned I was active in a faith community at the time. I remember that so clearly because dad died on Palm Sunday when the Christian church is shouting “Hosanna!” for a coming king, I was saying goodbye to a man who had reigned as king of my world. I was able to say that goodbye, I told myself at the time and for many years later, because of that faith. Because somehow there must be this heaven that would magically facilitate a reunion in the future if only we believed, in that appropriate manner, it to be true. What was true, for me, was that only deferred a grief process for me. And in that deferment I had to struggle with the fact that I would never get to see that man again.

That man who took me out for donuts and a coke when I was a toddler, in the front seat of a Chevrolet Corvair convertible without a seatbelt, let alone a car seat. The one who taught me baseball and was my first Little League coach. The father who handed me a quarter, for years growing up every time I left the house, so I could call him to come get me should I ever need help. That man, who I really would like to call now, was gone and none of those things to come in my future would happen with him offering any guidance other than the million and one “lectures” I’d be able to recall him giving me, popping up in my head from time to time.
That faith community, which I left about a decade ago, was certainly not without value for that situation and many others. It was a phenomenal community of loving people who stood with my family during that time and did so with love and sincerity. And many of those people still do, or would today. My irreconcilable differences were with the institution which somehow could not exceed the sum of its parts.

Those differences were brought to focus this past year as I lost another mentor; Jim, the spiritual one I had mentioned earlier. The teacher and community building pastor who had actually officiated over one of my dad’s memorial services. He lost his long battle with cancer. The world lost a wonderful man who had a genuine wish for people to experience love in ways that enriched their own lives; and not because they were prescribed by some other entity (re: the church). Despite his devotion, and years of faithful service to the church and his denomination, he understood and appreciated its shortcomings more than most, I think. So, in him, I will miss a welcoming embrace into a faith that he believed was vast enough to love all manner of adherents in whatever coats they wore. He was, unfortunately for me, an exception in that practice and not the rule.

I had not been great about keeping in touch with Jim after he and I had moved from the same town in North Carolina in the late 90s. Facebook brought a reunion of sorts and we kept track of each other through that means mostly for the last several years. I wrote him a long letter after I learned of his cancer the first time. He invited me down to his farm where I’d spent many retreat weekends. He invited me to hear and talk about family and faith and the struggles and celebrations. He reached out and offered to listen, as a great mentor always will.
Since I retired from the Coast Guard a couple years ago, my professional mentor relationships have also gone away. I find myself in a strange place. I turned 50 last year, I remarried a few years ago, and my wife who didn’t have any children and I decided to try and have a baby. So this year, as I’ve retired from a 28-year military career, as I have two wonderful children in their mid-20s on their own journeys, as I have a fantastic new partner to hike into my next half century with I am also a brand new dad of a three and half month old baby girl.

When you go looking for mentors traditionally, I’ve found, it’s somebody older, more experienced who has perhaps walked where you’d like to go, can offer support and advice at times and an ear to listen. Would it surprise you that there doesn’t seem to be a large demographic of men in their 50s, newly married, having a “second round” of children and working as a stay at home dad? No? Yea, it doesn’t surprise me either. So I don’t want a mentor to tell me how to navigate that, if in fact there was one that could. I want a mentor to help me be in the present, appreciate all that there is in my life in the right now and find the joy in that. I want one who will model how to be and feel younger, not to grow older in a manner that’s supposed to look right. You know who my mentors are right now? My adult children are my mentors. I see them loving unconditionally, serving their communities, understanding that having fun doesn’t have to mean being irresponsible but can sometimes anyway without hurting others. They each celebrated the birth of their new baby sister with abounding joy that I might not have had any good reason to expect but received anyway because they love me and they want the best for their family in whatever description that takes.

While I enjoy my children in their adulthood becoming what I thought I had lost, I continue to grieve the loss of a father. But I see him in them, I see him in myself. I continue to say goodbye. I say goodbye when I see a new granddaughter he’ll never get to hold, when I hold my wife who he never got to meet, when I hike paths he never got to walk on with me.  In each goodbye I also realize how he’s remained in my life. That process has steps but, as others have noted in this space before, those steps can be walked on many times and in many directions. Grief doesn’t have a recipe card to complete. It has a story to be told and in being told, lived through and appreciated.

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