By Rev. Wendy Fambro
Rev. Fambro is an ordained American Baptist minister who retired 2 years ago after serving a variety of churches and campus ministries. She now works full-time teaching tai chi and wellness classes to older adults in the Finger Lakes region.
Scripture: Deuteronomy 34:5-12; Matthew 25:14-21
On October 14, 2001, my father, Donald W. DeMott, died following nearly three years of health struggles beginning with fluid on the brain and ending in a series of strokes. I was fortunate to have had an uncomplicated relationship with Dad, he was my father, my mentor, and my hero.
During most of my growing up years, our family lived in Geneseo, New York and traveled fifty miles to our church in Rochester. We were quite active in the church, and this often meant several hundred miles of commuting each week. I remember one Christmas Eve, returning late at night to our house on the hill. We lived in the country, and the only lights were those of the stars and a few strands of colored bulbs wrapped around a couple of the tall pines in the yard. Our driveway was quite long, and on that particular night, by the time we arrived home, it was piled with snow about three feet deep. We had to leave the van parked near the road and hike our way down to the house – my sisters, mother and I in our Christmas dresses and stockings. It would have been a miserable walk except that my father went first, leaving deep footprints in the drifts for us to follow.
Keeping our eyes just one step ahead, stretching our steps to meet the length of our father’s and landing neatly in his prints, we were able to make it to the porch with only a dusting of snow sneaking into our boots to numb our toes.
As Christians, we also find it helpful to be able to follow in the footsteps of those who have gone before us. When someone asked Tony Compolo why he was a Baptist, he simply named these faithful disciples of Christ: William Carey, Roger Williams, Walter Raushenbusch, Martin Luther King, Jr., James Forbes, and others – all of them Baptist, and all of them people whose faith had changed the course of history.
There is no doubt that I, too, inherited much of my perspective on faith from the people in whose footsteps I follow, most especially those of my father. I have indeed been privileged in my life to walk closely with one who walked closely with God.
For the year prior to the event I am about to recount, my father had been gradually losing his ability to walk. Unable to lift his feet more than a couple of inches and increasingly unsteady in his balance, my father, would shuffle along looking much older than his 72 years.
Although Dad would only speak of it privately to my mother, we all knew how painful this was for a man who had spent his life as a physically active person. Whether he was teaching his college students, working on our small subsistence farm, building houses or boats, or simply hiking with the dogs through the surrounding woods, he trusted in the natural strength of his own body to carry him where he needed to go. As his body began to let him down, he found his spirits struggling to stay up.
Perhaps the most difficult reality to face was the unlikelihood of his ever again making it to the top of Cat Mountain in the Adirondacks to speak with God. Ever since I could remember, my father had made an annual pilgrimage to the top of this particular mountain overlooking Cranberry Lake, where God awaited him. There, beside a well-hidden stone outcropping. Dad would receive his divine instructions for the coming year as to how best to follow God’s will. It was hard for all of us, but especially for my father when we realized that to make the hike now seemed beyond his aging abilities.
During the years of our growing up, my father had led a coming-of-age experience for each of the five of us kids when we turned twelve. That special year, marking our entrance into adolescence, my Dad would take the one of us who had reached that point for a week alone with him in the Adirondacks, camping on an island he had named “Paradise,” cooking over a fire, and listening to the loons. Besides learning nature survival skills, we would also climb Cat Mountain, where Dad would leave us alone on one side of the peak – something we never told my mother – while he visited his stone altar on the other side for a few moments alone with God.
It was a significant week for each one of us, so when our own children hit that magical age, my sister and I longed for them to have such an experience themselves. So, in August of 1999, my older sister, Laurie, and I asked Dad if he would be willing to make one last effort to climb the mountain with us.
My father agreed to come, though I know he had deep reservations about it. There would be six of us and a dog on this trip: my father, my sister (Laurie), her son (John), me and my daughter (Michael Anna), a family friend (Lana) and Lana’s dog. It might not have been exactly the intimate sort of trip we had done in previous years, but the upside was lots of cumulative camping experience between us.
Laurie, Lana, and the dog left early in order to canoe to the island. Dad and the kids and I packed the small aluminum boat with all the camping gear. We held our collective breath as Dad primed the engine and pulled the cord. Six or seven yanks later, the ancient three-horsepower motor gamely coughed to life, and we began the hour-long trip through the channel into the waters of Cranberry Lake. When we arrived at Paradise Island, we set up camp, dug a latrine and started the cooking fire that, with careful nurture and a lot of luck, would last the week.
The next day dawned clear and beautiful, so we decided that we had better take advantage of it and climb the mountain right away. After breakfast around the fire, we filled our canteens, grabbed the “gorp,” and the first-aid kit, and climbed back into the boat. We motored around the point and across the lake to Janex Landing, from which we would enter the trail. Before we began, my father said to us, “I know how much this means to you, and I will go as far as I can, but I’m not making any promises about getting to the top.
Now, I will tell you what I didn’t tell my father. It was painful for me to watch this man who had always been my hero, my rock, my strength, take up his well-traveled walking stick and begin to shuffle up the trail. His illness had progressed to the point where he could lift his feet only an inch or two off the ground for each step, and his balance was even more precarious on the uneven trail. I was not yet ready to be stronger than him and, at the same time, I shared his anger and embarrassment as he tripped over roots and stumbled across log bridges. In my mind this trail belonged to him, and somehow it should magically have smoothed before him, welcoming him home.
Laurie, John, Lana, and the dog went on ahead, waiting for us at various points along the way. I walked directly behind my father, prepared to help him if I could, watching every step he took like a hawk while trying not to hover. Michael Anna was wonderful as she chattered away, giving a sense of normalcy to the grindingly slow journey and moving us past the awkward moments when Dad would lose his balance and tip over. Dad did his part to break the tension by sharing from his wealth of knowledge about the formation of the forests around us – pointing out new growth versus the old growth and commenting about the cycle of life that embraced the trail. At times he would pause and warn us again that he probably would not make it. But then he’d take another sip of mountain spring water and lift his hiking stick to feel out the next step up the incline.
Finally, we circled past Gatsby Pond to a clearing with conveniently situated stumps and sat down for a rest before facing the final steep ascent to the top. It was then that my father looked at us and said, “I want you to know that I no longer think I will make it to the top. I’m determined to get there.” I grinned back at him and assured him that, if necessary, I would push him up the side of the mountain.
With that, we heaved ourselves up off the stumps and with fresh determination took up the trail once again. Only a few yards later, Dad fell backward off a large stone and gashed his arm open on an exposed root. The blood was enough to send Michael off in such a burst of squeamish energy that she shot past Laurie, Lana, and John and reached the summit first. Meanwhile, we wrapped up Dad’s arm in a makeshift bandage and set off again.
At this point, however, the trail took a steep turn upward, and we discovered that Dad was actually able to climb more easily than he could walk, so I only had to give him one small push before we too were at the top.
Never before had the view seemed so clear or the breeze so fresh. We ate the lunches we had carried to the top, gazed out over the lakes and forested mountains surrounding ours, and simply breathed. And then Dad stood. It was time to make that final journey to his altar but this time, because it would likely be his last time, Dad invited us to come along to see the place where he went to be with God. I have to admit, I felt a bit like Joshua following Moses around the face of Mount Sinai, not quite sure what to expect.
We had to cross through some brush, and low-hanging trees to find the small, nearly hidden trail that led to a large rock perched on one of the many plateaus around the face of Cat Mt. Laurie and Lana wandered off a ways to enjoy the new view while the children and I sat and listened.
Dad explained the ritual he had followed for all of these years: First he would remove his shoes, then he would share communion with God by pouring some of his spring water onto the rock and sipping some himself, before praying. He told us some of the things God had told him over the years, some of which were simple confirmations of what he was already doing, and some of which were, in his word, “astonishing.”
Dad also told us of the only other person to have been invited to the rock – our foster brother, Walter. Walter came from a troubled family in inner-city Rochester and had come to live with our family for a few years. Dad brought him to the top of the mountain and showed him the stone. He asked Walter to wait while he went to pray but the first thing God said to him was, “Send Walter to me.” So, Dad went back and told Walter, “God wants to talk to you.” Walter warily disappeared around the boulder, reemerging less than a minute later. He sat down again while my father returned to the altar himself to hear what more God had to say to him. It was a quiet hike down the mountain with Walter until my father finally gave in to curiosity and asked, “Did God have something important to tell you?” “Yeah,” said Walter, “He told me to quit stealing bikes.”
After the story, John and Michael Anna sat quietly as their grandfather then bent to take off his shoes and to walk barefoot to the place where he would meet with God, most likely for the last time. I stood watching my father, a man who had walked humbly with his God for all of his life and for all of mine. I watched as he poured water onto the stone in offering and then swallowed some himself. I watched as he knelt there to pray. And there on that mountaintop, I wept tears of wonder as I felt a Presence descend, and I overheard the voice of God saying, “Well done, O good and faithful servant.”