It had been almost two years since my father led us in prayer.
We were celebrating Christmas, and Dad offered the prayer before lunch, just as he’d done at Thanksgiving a month earlier. That was before his mind started to slip.
Prayer has long been part of his spiritual identity. He prayed at the dinner table, or when visiting sick friends in the hospital, checking on shut-ins or leading the congregation at church.
His were simple and humble prayers, always starting with “Our Heavenly Father,” and focused on giving thanks and helping those in need.
I listened to those prayers countless times over the years, never really appreciating his words, taking his conversations with God for granted.
Dad had bypass surgery in February 2012, which kept him down longer than expected, and soon he was having trouble finding the right words, even to explain the simplest of thoughts.
In August, the dive into dementia intensified and he grew weaker in body and mind. He had struggled with memory loss in the past, but nothing like this.
By October, Alzheimer’s had taken up full residence. Once-simple tasks — shaving, turning on the TV, drinking a glass of tea — became impossible without a helping hand. Questions were often met with a confused look, sometimes a string of meaningless words. Names were mostly forgotten.
His decline was difficult to understand — Why so sudden? Why now? — and even harder to watch.
Dad knew something was wrong but was unable to voice his feelings, as if his words were trapped. He was — we were — frustrated and sad.
There would be no more prayers from my father.
A picture of stability
Bobby Lee Williams was born in a farmhouse on June 23, 1930, in Lynn County, south of Lubbock. It was a time and place where folks lived off the cotton fields and pump jacks and not much more.
His father was an oil field worker, first a roughneck, then a tool pusher, and Dad spent his childhood living out of suitcases, tagging along as his dad chased work from one drill site to another in places like Eunice, N.M., and Wink, Texas. It was a hard life — he went to six schools his junior year alone — that denied him such basic privileges as playing football or baseball in high school.
He never complained about it, though — that’s how he was raised.
After graduating from Texas Tech University, serving in the Air Force and a stint in the Korean War, he married my mom, Mary Jo, a strong and spirited woman who grew up on farms in Knox County, learning life lessons that have served her well.
They eventually settled in Graham, about 90 miles northwest of Fort Worth, where he found the stability he so desperately craved as a child.
He was a generous and kind husband and a thoughtful and calm father, rarely raising his voice in anger.
He worked for the same oil company for 55 years and was faithful to his St. Augustine lawn, his spotlessly clean cars and the Graham Steers.
Dad taught the same third-grade Sunday school class at First Baptist Church of Graham for 56 years. In 2005, to celebrate his first 50 years of commitment and faith, the church held a special ceremony on his behalf. When the pastor asked for a show of all those who had Bobby Williams as a Sunday school teacher — or whose children or grandchildren had — practically the entire congregation took to its feet. Dad just stood there next to the pastor, quietly crying.
His influence — as a grandfather, father, friend, mentor — remains remarkable.
A few years ago, I was playing in a charity golf tournament with P.D. Shabay, a Graham native, TCU quarterback in the mid-1960s and retired executive vice president from Bell Helicopter who lives in Colleyville.
I asked P.D. whether he knew my father.
“What’s his name?”
“Did he teach Sunday school at First Baptist Church?”
“Yes he did.”
“Your father led me to Christ.”
Teaching his children
Mom and Dad have been married for 59 years — 60 next month — and she is now experiencing the “worse” part of the “for better or worse” stage of their marriage.
Taking care of her husband is a full-time job, even with regular help from hospice workers. She does it faithfully, never complaining, occasionally shedding a tear, longing for the husband she remembers well.
She wakes up early, dresses him, helps him from bed to the recliner, feeds him, gives him his meds and listens — always listens — to whatever he has to say.
Despite his deteriorating condition, Dad is filled with a sweet spirit and cherishes the steady stream of friends who come by. He doesn’t remember most of them, but he makes sure to say thanks for the time spent, shakily reaching out to hold their hand before they leave, knowing that his touch says more than words.
Dad’s mind drifts: He reminds my mom that it’s dark outside and the kids need to come in. Sometimes he’ll reminisce about working in the oil field as a teen.
He’s childlike in many ways, sometimes calling his wife “Mother.” And in the past few months, he’s grown fond of talking to a cast of stuffed animals, one group that resides on an end table in the sunroom, another bunch in his bed.
They are children, very real friends whose names change daily and who are forever by his side.
One night, when I was talking to my mother by phone, she asked me to listen to Dad in the bedroom.
In a quiet and nurturing voice, he was teaching the children a Sunday school lesson, telling them to listen to their mother and father, a trip back in time to the memory of Ephesians 6:1 — “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.”
A prayer worth remembering
During a recent trip home to Graham, my wife, Helen, twin sister, Lou, and mom sat in the sunroom with my dad, talking about our kids, our dogs, the weather — it was storming out — and holiday plans.
As we prepared to leave, Helen offered to say a prayer for the family of our niece. Her husband had been killed in a motorcycle crash, and we had attended the funeral that day.
Helen prayed for Jamie and her children, and in closing she looked toward my father, his eyes shut and head bowed.
Noticing Dad’s surprising sense of awareness, Helen asked, “Bobby, would you like to pray?”
He looked up and answered “Yes.”
Looking straight ahead, he prayed:
Our Heavenly Father, thank you for the knowledge you have given us.
Thank you for our family and friends.
Thank you for the time we’ve had together.
Thank you for those who take care of me and give me what I need.
We sat silent for a moment, then finished with a soft “Amen.”
My father opened his eyes, a tear sliding down his cheek. He was excited and surprised, with the face of a little boy on Christmas morning who’d just found an unexpected gift.
For a moment he was back with us, a proud husband and father whose dignity had been restored, whose faith overpowered his pain, allowing him once again — at least one last time — to lead his family in prayer.
For those few seconds, those 42 precious and mindful words, we give thanks.