20 years ago today my biological Father, Rev. Charles Beck Westerman, or Chuck as many called him, died of a brain tumor. I’ve learned he was an amazing man as I’ve got to know him through the years through his writings, old sermons, and stories from my mom, brothers, grandparents, siblings and old friends of his. In particular I’d like to thank my mom, my Westerman grandparents, my Aunt Katie and Uncle Larry, Uncle John and Aunt Sue, and Uncle Beej — all of whom have made a huge effort to tell me about Dad Chuck and give me a sense of who he was.
A quick bio on Chuck: he was smart. genius smart. Graduated from Dartmouth with honors in English Literature. Could’ve been a Wall-Street lawyer, instead became a pastor: same stress level, one-20th of the pay. After spending most of the 80s in Chicago with my mom doing ministry with intercity youth and having my two older brothers, he landed a job as a pastor in Cheyenne, Wyoming. A couple years later I was born. Exactly 14 months from that day he died of a brain tumor.
I’ve had one dream about him in the 20 years since that fateful day in May. It will always be one of the most significant events in my life. It happened my junior year of high school when I was really starting to get angry that I never got to know him, and I think if that dream didn’t happen, that anger might still have a hold on my life today.
So here is a poem about that dream in honor of you Dad. I’d like to dedicate it to your parents Hank and Rosie Westerman:
Nannie and Paw Paw, as us grandkids call you, thank you for showing me nothing but love in our times together. Thank you for embracing Dad Dan and Hannah and Abby, that wasn’t an easy thing to do I’m sure. I hope you don’t think you’re son was foolish for giving his entire life to Jesus Christ, because you know as well as anyone he was as smart as God makes ’em.
The Ink in my Veins
(any lines with a number in parenthesis next to it means there’s is a footnote at the bottom of the poem explaining the line)
I walked through a dream, to 1991 West Hollow Memory Lane.
That fated place, in that greatest state. Wyoming. (1)
The angels of spring, were blooming by the streams.
And I swore I coulda seen this house before.
The cradle, the bay window, the friendly wooden door. (2)
A man was on the street, holy tennis shoes on his feet —
White Cons — just like his death — a pure crime and too soon for my time, (3)
Those 14 months of daylight.
There was no hell in his soul, and he strangely knew my mold.
He smiled when he saw me and started singing “It is Well”
I joined him in his song, like he’d taught me all along.
The stranger seemed like a Reverend,
That for many years I reveled in.
He untangled my ball of yearn, and beamed, “My son, you have returned!”
And I’m surprised my jaw did not break in my sleep.
The dad who died of cancer. The question. Never answers.
Stood before me with his arms out open wide, me with my rapid eyes,
And it’s not for the simple sake of rhyme I say I cried.
I thanked him for my life, and for how he took his death;
Telling mom to find another man that takes away her breath. (4)
He said my life was a delightful headache to watch,
from his 9th floor cloud off of Paradise and Lost. (5)
I said, oh really? I gave you a headache… Mr. Genius brain-tumor boy?
Cancer was funny like that in this dream. (6)
He asked me if I’d like to go in and use his bed to pee…
Or had I stopped doing that now that I was 16? (7)
The punchline hit my stomach just right,
And we laughed pretty hard after that,
And then we talked Quiet American and Henry the fifth. (8)
How prince Hal’s partying was part of the plan.
How one day he quit, and became a man.
How it was knowing the drunks that made him a king.
How the greatest virtue is empathy. (9)
And as we came to the end of the street,
He said “death cannot change you are the son of me.
From my growing pains, migraines and my big flat feet,
To the ink in your veins where the blood should be.” (10)
And it’s not for the sake of being sweet when I say I started to weep.
As his fingers interlocked around the spine of me.
I think he said he loved me but I couldn’t make it out,
As my conscious was awakened by my alarm clock freaking out.
1: Dad died in 1991. He and my mom came to Wyoming because they fell in love with the West when they were about my age and they were summer counselors at Estes Park in Colorado.
2: When I actually had this dream I was walking by the parsonage we lived in when he died, but I wasn’t aware of it for awhile, I just thought it was a random neighborhood at first. Like I said I was a Junior in high school when I had the dream, and hadn’t seen the house since I was a toddler. A couple months after the dream me and my brothers drove by the parsonage and it looked exactly how I pictured it in my dream. Call it what you want, but I say that’s proof of God.
3: He always wore White Converse All-Stars, and he’d duck tape them before he’d buy another pair. Apparently when he and my mom were working in intercity Chicago, the kids they worked with, kids that grew up in the ghetto, were like “Yo Chuck! You need new shoes man!” That’s one of my favorite stories about him. I tried to work a few of them into the poem.
4: Before he died he told my mom to go out and find a good husband for herself, and a good father for us boys. And though I never really knew him, he became a hero to me in that moment. It takes a selfless heart to tell your wife you want her to find happiness with someone other than yourself, and to give a man permission to raise the sons you brought into the world.
5: A reference to John Milton’s famous poem “Paradise Lost” in which he tried to “justify the ways of God to men.” I think Dad Chuck was a well thought out follower of Christ, and tried to use his gifts (mainly his intellect) to reveal God’s glory.
6: I’ve always had a… well, “broad” sense of humor. The first time I made the ironic connection that Dad Chuck was a genius with a tumor in his head, I laughed, and I like to think that at some point after learning he had a brain tumor he found that irony as well, and couldn’t help but smile. The diction used in these lines (i.e. “tumor-boy”) is kind of reminiscent of how me and my brothers like to razz each other.
7: I’ve always felt like there’s two people watching over my life: God and Dad Chuck. So here he’s razzing me back for being an admittedly late bed wetter as a child.
8: Like I said Dad Chuck was an English Lit major. I started out college with humanities minor, after taking a humanities class first semester freshman year because everything else was full. And I fell in love with literature, not because I wanted to be like my Dad Chuck, but because I was naturally like him in some ways. That has been a great comfort to me as I’ve worked through feelings of being deprived of knowing him on this Earth. Anyways eventually I added an English Lit major to my journalism major, and someday Dad Chuck and I will talk Shakespeare and Graham Greene in Heaven.
9: In Shakespeare’s King Henry plays (Henry IV part 1 & 3 & Henry V) Henry IV’s son Henry V (Prince Hal) hangs out with the mischievous ruffian “pub crowd” in his youth. This causes Henry IV a lot of stress, but in a soliloquy Prince Hal tells the audience he’s doing this so he can empathize with the common people and be a better king.
10: Dad Chuck was a writer. Being a writer is not a profession, it is a way of living life. I am a writer, and I owe a lot of credit of whatever talent I have as a ink-jockey to Dad Chuck… I also had growing pains and migraines growing up, which sucked, but when Nannie told me I was just like my dad, I almost split my head open cracking a smile.
I’ll end with quote from Chuck.
— “If you aspire to incarnate Christian truths in artistic or broadly commercial forms, then you will have, metaphorically, to surrender the norms of proclamation, take up the norms of creation and figure that the allegiances you have formed spiritually will shine through the designs you have plotted artistically. Write, sing, paint, dance boldly– and trust God.” – Chuck Westerman, “Pastor Karl’s Rookie Year”