My father built model airplanes. He struggled with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and for a few years took Ritalin for it. When he was on the medication, sometimes he’d work on those models for six-to-eight hours at a time, long into the night. He had an entire glass cabinet full of them, maybe 80 or 100 aircraft, mostly from the WWI and WWII eras. True works of art, in their own way.
He dealt with his anxiety by smoking. The cigarettes gave him cancer, and his health deteriorated quickly after a few rounds of chemotherapy. Family, friends, and patients (he was a physical therapist) visited him, bedridden, at the house. He started giving away his model airplanes to visitors — a token of appreciation for their love, and a memento of “old Dan.”
After he died, a few folks contacted me, asking to stop by and pick up one of Dan’s planes. They were all hurting in their own way, and looking for solace. So was I. It was hard to part with those things, even though it wasn’t a hobby I ever really indulged in. One of his old tennis buddies stopped by one afternoon. He chose a beautiful British biplane. We chatted for a few minutes at the front door. He started playing with the thing, turning its tiny propeller round and round and round.
It broke. “I’ll superglue it back together,” he promised. All I have left of my father are his things, I thought, and here you are breaking them. He cared for my father, but he didn’t really understand him. Maybe neither did I.
What Am I Going to Do With Them?
The airplanes sat in my parents’ basement. A few years later, my mother dropped them off.
“What am I going to do with dozens of model airplanes?” I asked my wife with exasperation. She pressed me to choose a couple I liked, and trash the rest. Our garage was littered with his former possessions: airplanes, tools, camping gear, athletic equipment, custom-built knives.
My wife then suggested making them into a mobile — perhaps four or five planes, tied to wooden dowels, suspended by a string hanging from the ceiling. They could hang above our children’s beds. In short time, it was done, my son and daughter now gazing up at model airplanes built by the grandfather they never knew.
Yet we still had still scores of planes. I started offering to build more mobiles for anyone with a child interested in airplanes. Within a few months, a half dozen homes over northern Virginia were sporting mobiles displaying my father’s craft. I was thrilled, both honoring my father and letting go of his stuff that had become such a burden.
In turn, the sacrifice of time required to create the mobiles was a gift, bonding me closer to friends and their families. This, more than anything else, was the fruit of my father’s labor.
Oh, That I Could Live Longer
In one of the last, heart-breaking visits from several members of my former Presbyterian church, my father, undergoing excruciating pain throughout his body, cried out: “Oh, that I could live just a bit longer! I would love God and glorify Him. I have so much love I want to share!” He had been a man of service, sacrifice, and charity. Yet all those hours building airplanes, or custom knives, or any of the other handicraft he labored upon, now seemed less important.
God and man deserved his undivided attention. One of the elders, the same man who a few days later would practically carry my father down the stairs to his final hospice bed, said, through tears, “We know, Dan. We know.”
Through my father’s death that I came to know better who my father was. With every item of his that I give away, sell, or trash, I think he would be glad to see me place more emphasis not on things, like those images carefully glued on 1/48 plastic airplanes, but on much grander works of art, those who bear the likeness of God.
Casey Chalk is s a graduate student in theology at Christendom College, and an editor of the ecumenical website Called to Communion.