I thought this was a beautiful example of a Christian marriage where the two were truly made one. It's lengthy...but very touching.
The Rodgers & Hammerstein musical "Oklahoma!" includes a song that asserts "June is busting out all over." Indeed it is. This is the month celebrated in Western nations as a time for love and marriage. It seems appropriate, therefore, that I share my favorite romantic story with you in what I believe to be the 350th monthly edition of my letter, going back to 1978. I think you'll be touched by what you're about to read.
The year was 1934. A beautiful, young girl named Myrtle was being courted by a struggling artist who had just graduated at the top of his class from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. He had come home to pursue his dreams. Unfortunately, the Great Depression was underway in the United States and in most countries around the world. It was a scary time in American history, when huge numbers of people were out of work. Businesses failed, banks closed, and opportunities were few and far between. (Sound familiar?)
Jimmie was one of the millions of Americans who couldn't find a job of any type--much less one in his chosen profession. He was finally hired at a Texaco service station out on the edge of town where cars rarely came. It was his job to pump gas and wipe windshields. He earned one dollar per day. It was a humbling experience for a man who wanted to be another Leonardo da Vinci.
What was more distressing to Jimmie was his unrequited love for Myrtle. He couldn't seem to get anywhere with her. She toyed with him and treated him badly. One night when they were together at her parents' house, Myrtle was especially insulting. Jimmie was a proud man and he had finally had enough. He stared at her for a moment and then quietly got up and walked out the door without saying goodbye. It was over and they both knew it. Destiny hung in the balance that night.
Jimmie later recalled that when he was about a block away he heard the patter of bare feet approaching him from behind.
Myrtle had a sudden change of heart, and she was running after him. She would adore this sensitive, lanky (6-foot-4-inch) man for the rest of her life, and when he died many years later, she literally grieved herself to death. But I am getting ahead of my story.
Jimmie and Myrtle soon began talking about marriage, which seemed impossible. He hardly made enough money to feed himself, much less support a wife, and they certainly could not afford to rent an apartment. Finally, the couple decided to marry secretly and continue living with their respective parents. For three months, they maintained the charade. Not a soul knew they were husband and wife--that is, not until Jimmie was at Myrtle's parents' house late one evening, sitting together in the living room.
Everyone else in the house was asleep except for Myrtle's elderly father, who was worrying about the chastity of his daughter. He sneaked out the back door and crawled onto a fence to see what was going on in the living room. There was nothing much happening by today's standards, but Rev. Dillingham was so shocked by what he saw, he nearly fell off the fence. It must have been a hilarious scene, with the old man wobbling there and witnessing what he imagined was leading to his worst nightmare. He came tearing through the front door to confront Jimmie, who informed the good Reverend his daughter was now Jimmie's wife. Rev. Dillingham was over 70 years of age at the time, and the two severe shocks he received that evening could have been fatal. It wasn't long, however, before Myrtle's family embraced her husband as a son. Soon after, Jimmie became manager of the Texaco station, and he and his new bride were able to rent their first little apartment and begin married life together.
Have you guessed by now that James C. Dobson Sr. and Myrtle Georgia Dillingham were my father and mother? I came along two years later. I was born by cesarean section, and my mother was advised not to risk another pregnancy. That is why I was an only child. But if you think that was a liability, look how great I turned out!
The most serious problem that my parents faced in their early marital life was spiritual in nature. They had both been raised in Christian homes but weren't living out their faith. In fact, my dad had a secret that he had not shared with his wife.
He was fighting a call to the ministry. He had wanted to be an artist since he was 3, and that ambition had became a god to him. Then one day as he walked along a street during his 16th year, he seemed to hear the Lord speaking to him. It was not an audible voice, of course. But deep within his soul he knew the Almighty had addressed him. It was a simple message that conveyed this thought: "I want you to set aside your great desire to be an artist and prepare for a life of service in the ministry."
My father was terrified by the experience. He replied, "No! No, Lord. You know I have my plans all made. I want to be an artist."
He quickly argued down the impression and convinced himself that his mind had deceived him. But when he got it all resolved and laid to rest, the urge would reappear. Month after month, the nagging thought reverberated in his mind that God was asking--no, demanding--that he abandon his dream and become a preacher. It proved to be one of the greatest struggles of his life, but he shared it with no one.
For two years this inner battle went on. Then toward the end of his senior year in high school, the time came for him to select a college to attend in the fall. His father told him to pick out any school in the country and he would send him there. But what was he to do? If he yielded to the voice within, he would have to attend a college that would prepare him for the ministry. But if he followed his dream, he would go to art school. Would he obey God, or would he have his own way? It was a terrible dilemma.
One morning a few weeks before graduation, he got out of bed to prepare for school. The minute his feet touched the floor, my father heard the voice again. It was as if the Lord said, "Today you will have to make up your mind." He wrestled with that issue all day at school. After his last class, he came home to an empty house. He paced back and forth in the living room, praying and struggling with this unrelenting demand of God. Then he suddenly turned his face upward and said, "It's too great a price, and I won't pay it!"
My dad had his way, and instead of going to seminary, he enrolled in the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. On graduation day, his paintings were on display with a large banner marked "No. 1" draped over them. As he walked down the aisle to receive that award, the Scripture rang in his head, "Except the Lord build a house, they labour in vain that build it" (Psalm 127:1).
For seven years, my dad lived in spiritual rebellion before reluctantly attending a revival service at their church. He and the family arrived late, and every seat was taken except those on the front row. As they traipsed in, a woman was singing a song that touched my dad's heart. Instantly, he yielded to the call.
Then the Lord seemed to say, "Son, are we going to do business again?"
My dad said, "Yes, I want Your will in my life."
The Lord spoke again. He said, "Then we'll pick up where we were on that afternoon in the living room."
My dad said through his tears, "Yes, Lord."
From that moment forward, my dad was absolutely committed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It carried him through all the trials and challenges of the years to come. The wonderful thing is that after my father accepted the call, the Lord gave him back his art, and for the rest of his life, he used his talent in the ministry. You can see some of his paintings in a gallery when you visit our campus.
Here is the most incredible part of the story. Right at that moment when my dad had been desperate for a career break, the president of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh wrote him a letter and offered him a job as an instructor at the unbelievable salary of $300 per month. It was precisely what he had dreamed about since childhood. But somehow that letter became misplaced on the president's desk. The man later found and mailed it with another note saying he had wondered why my dad hadn't even done him the courtesy of responding to his offer. But by the time the second letter came, my father had grown sick of his lofty dreams and was committed irreversibly to the call of God. If he had received that letter, I would not be writing to you today.
But what about my mother? How did she receive the news that the ground had shifted beneath her? Well, she had her own little spiritual rebellion. She brazenly told the Lord there were three things she would never do. One of them was to marry a preacher. Actually, she wound up doing all three, although, technically, she married an artist. It was quite a jolt to find out that her husband was going to be a minister, and she was to be the preacher's wife. So much for dreams of marrying another Michelangelo. Once she accepted that reality and made her own peace with God, she never questioned it again. Mom served alongside Dad until the day he died, and I never heard her utter a word of complaint about it.
This couple remained devoted to each other until the tragic day of his death 43 years later. Throughout those four decades, my mom, whom Dad called Myrt or Myr-teel, built her entire life around this one man. And he treated her like a queen. He also taught me how a man should love and respect his wife. I saw their relationship "up close and personal," where it is impossible to hide the truth. What they had together was pure gold.
After committing themselves to the ministry, my parents quickly embarked on this new journey as a lowly, inexperienced pastor and his wife, a new mother, in a small, struggling Nazarene church in Sulphur Springs, Texas. It was an inauspicious beginning. I learned just how difficult their lives were from some old financial papers and various writings that I found after my mother died in 1988.
Sulphur Springs was still locked in the Depression, and many of the surrounding farms didn't even have electricity. The church consisted of 10 members, which my dad said wouldn't have been so discouraging if they had not always been the same 10! No one had any money to spare. My father received 55 cents after preaching his first sermon, and averaged $8 per Sunday for the next 52 weeks. He led 18 people into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ during those 12 months, which thrilled him. He was paid $1 for presiding over his first funeral. Dad earned a total of $492.82 during that initial year in the ministry and, remarkably, gave $352 back to the church. He and my mother lived on a small inheritance that came to them after my grandfather died in 1935. Throughout their lives together, they would give more than they could afford to the cause of Christ, and were an easy touch for anyone who appeared to be more needy than they.
What a godly man my father was. One of his dear friends was a man named Noble Hathaway. He was 16 years old when my dad went out to a dirt-poor farm where Noble and his parents were trying to hack out a living. My father knocked on the door, was invited in, and soon introduced this humble family to the claims of Christ. Every one of them became believers. Noble stuttered so badly that he could hardly talk, and yet the Lord called him to preach. He and my dad served together as best friends in ministry for many years.
Noble came to visit Shirley and me after my parents were gone, and he told us wonderful stories about them during that first pastorate. He indicated Dad was known in the little town of Sulphur Springs as "the man with no leather on the toes of his shoes." It was true. He wore out the toes before the soles, because he spent so much time on his knees in prayer. At 24 years of age, he felt totally inadequate to lead his flock unless he spent many hours every day in prayer. The Lord must have been listening, because He blessed my father's ministry abundantly. The church in Sulphur Springs had grown to a congregation of 250 four years later, before my family moved on.
Time and space do not permit me to tell the entire story of the intervening years, except to say that the love affair between these two devoted people continued uninterrupted for more than four decades. But all too quickly, it ended. There, within my mother's diary, we found her account of my father's last full day on earth. He had suffered a massive heart attack 80 days before, but seemed to be recovering. He had recently been released from the hospital and was enjoying life to the fullest. Nevertheless, Mom lived in terror that her husband would suddenly be taken from her. She would not let him out of her sight for fear he would be stricken again. He chafed a bit under this scrutiny, but usually yielded to his wife's anxieties. This is what she wrote to the memory of her loving husband exactly 12 months after his death.
[i]My precious darling. One year ago today you spent your last day on this earth. One year ago we spent our last night together. I have recalled our concluding activities throughout this day. You wanted to go to the shopping center to take your daily walk, although I thought you really wanted to look at the fishing rods. We window-shopped for a while, and then you said, "Myrtle, you have to let go of me. Let me be free to go in and out of stores by myself ... just to wander about free and alone." I took your arm and said, "Go where you want, but let me go with you. Just let me walk beside you." You shrugged and allowed me to tag along for a while. For nearly three months I had been with you constantly. I seemed to know that you were to be taken from me suddenly, and I wanted to be there--perchance I could do something to keep you alive. But a few minutes later you said, "Look down this long mall. You can see to its end. I want to walk down there and back again."
With that, I relented. But wouldn't you know, you took an escalator to one of the upper floors of the mall, removing you from my line of sight. Frantically, I finally found you coming toward me with a grin on your face. You took me to a furniture store on the third floor and showed me a new chair that you had selected for my Christmas gift. It was your last day. Your last big fling.
The following afternoon my father suddenly crossed the chilly waters of death. This is how Mother described his passing:
On Sunday, December 4, 1977, you dressed early and then went downstairs to sit in your chair. I spent the morning upstairs. I wonder what you did those two hours. I know you read your Bible ... what else? If I'd come down, you would have talked to me about it. Later we went to Bud's house [their nephew] in Kansas City. You looked so handsome in your sports coat and beige slacks. I sat saying nothing, just watching you manipulate your long arms, legs and body. You held the baby ... not too gracefully ... since it was never easy for you to hold an infant. At the table, you sat by me and told a funny story about us. You prayed, and then gently, quietly, leaned toward me. Then your head and arm touched the table. They laid you on the floor. Bud breathed for you. He said you smiled once ... your only sign of life.
What did you see? Where did you go? My only comfort is that your last act on this earth was to lean toward me. You had said in the past, "When I'm sick I know you'll do everything possible to make me well. You'll know what to do ... who to call." I know I kept you alive again and again. But, my darling, I couldn't save you this time. You went so quickly. I wanted to be near you, but they wouldn't let me. Others were trying to save you ... but you slipped away.[/i]
The years that followed were marked by indescribable grief and loneliness for my dear mother. She simply could not cope with his passing. Her writings during those painful years are devastating to read today. I sat on the floor after her passing and wept as I read and comprehended, perhaps for the first time, the depths of her love and the agony of her loss. These are her words:
[i]One day I realized that he did not exist anymore. His name was removed from the church register. The bank took his name off our checks. Our home address was rewritten to include only my name. His driver's license was invalidated. He was no more. Then I recognized that my name had changed, too. I had been proud to be Mrs. James C. Dobson Sr. Now I was simply Myrtle Dobson. I was not "we" any longer. I became me or I. And I am alone. He was my high priest. Inside I'm broken, sad, stunned, alone. My house has lost its soul. He is not here![/i]
Shortly thereafter, some disturbing physical symptoms appeared that resulted in a five-day stint in the hospital as a medical team searched for a diagnosis. Two physicians then visited her bedside to say, "It's not your physical ailments that are destroying you, Mrs. Dobson. It's your grief and sorrow. And they will kill you if you cannot release them." She couldn't do it. She never did. She loved too deeply, and her life was too entwined with her man to ever extricate herself from his memory. Soon, she would be diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, followed by a long, slow decline.
Some would see a contradiction between Mom's inability to harmonize her dependence on God with her emotional and romantic needs. I do not. God was the author of my mother's love for my father, and He melded the two of them into "one flesh."
I do not believe the Lord blamed her for those deep longings for my dad and the life they had shared together. Remember that Adam enjoyed the company of the Creator in the cool of the day, yet God pronounced his situation "not good" and crafted a human companion to meet his needs. In Mom's case, she called her specially designed companion "Jimmie."
My mother's writings continued throughout the long months, including this note I found on a simple yellow pad:
[i]People have told me the first year was the hardest. It's been one year and three days since you died, and tonight I am frantic with longing for you. Oh, dear God. It's more than I can bear. The sobs make my heart skip beats. I cannot see the paper. My head throbs. The house is lonely and still. Visions of you have been as real as if you were here and had not left me. Today, I thanked God for letting an angel watch over me. But how desperately I missed you![/i]
It is very cold outside. Last night a sleet storm covered the earth with ice and then froze into a solid crust. The streets are slippery and dangerous. I hate it. It makes me feel blue, frightened and alone. I dread the winter to follow. It will last for three more months.
I moved into the smaller bedroom today. I wish you were here to share that room with me. There are precious memories there. When I was ill four years ago, you prayed for me in that bedroom during the midnight hours. You lay on the floor, agonizing in prayer for me. We both knew the Spirit was praying through you. Later, the Lord led us to a doctor who helped me find my way back to health. Oh, how I loved you. I love your memory today.
Benji [my father's little terrier] misses you, too. He sits on the bed with ears pointed upward. His eyes are fixed on the stairs. Sometimes he growls. Sometimes he barks loudly. Sometimes he walks to the head of the stairs and stands motionless, as if he expected someone. He is puzzled by your absence.
In 1980, my mother moved to Pasadena, Calif., to be near Shirley, the kids and me. She found solace in the Bible in those years and seemed to struggle to her feet, momentarily. For example, she wrote in her diary on December 10, 1980, that the Lord had given her a Scripture in the middle of the night. One of the verses she loved was as follows:
I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy (John 16:20-22, NIV).
My mother obviously held tightly to these promises of God throughout her final years of struggle, especially those relating to eternal life. They are precious to me, too.
Because of those promises of life beyond the grave, my parents' love song did not end in tragedy. It concluded with a shout of victory. The wretched disease that held my mother captive soon lost its paralyzing grip on her mind and body. The tubes and bandages and medications fell aside, and she was swept into the loving arms of the Savior. You can be sure my father was there to meet her on that day, too. I know he embraced her in one of the great reunions of all time. And they will be forever with the Lord!
Now, why have I told you about my parents' great love for one another? It is because on June 13th of this year, they would have celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary, had they survived. How I wish that could have been possible. From another perspective, however, I think they celebrated the occasion anyway in the Great Beyond.
They are no longer experiencing suffering, or tears, or disease, or pain, or loneliness, or grief, or separation, or death. Their spirits are free, never again to be shackled in a fallen world. The beauty and grandeur that they are enjoying today cannot be expressed in human terms.
My parents are waiting now for the arrival of the rest of our little family on Resurrection Morning. We will be there. I promise you that. We will be there.
Do I, you might ask, really believe in this "hope of glory" beyond the grave for those who have been covered by the blood of the Lamb? You can be certain that I do--with every fiber of my being. I have banked everything of value to me on the certainty of that promise. Isaiah laid it out for us in unmistakable terms: "Your dead will live; their bodies will rise. Awake and sing, you who dwell in the dust! For you will be covered with the morning dew, and the earth will bring forth the departed spirits" (Isaiah 26:19, HCB). What a magnificent promise for us all.
I draw comfort today from the fact that I closed out my years with my mother and father with no regrets nor bad memories to be suppressed. There were no bitter words, no wounded pride, nothing for which to apologize or seek forgiveness. Nothing transpired between us but mutual love and appreciation. How sweet is their "presence" in my mind.
It was my pleasure to share "a love story remembered" with you this month. I will admit that I was very emotional when writing this letter, because of the precious memories it evoked. Perhaps you found it relevant to your own family as well, whether regarding your parents or another loved one. I chose to write about this true story in hopes that it would help inspire greater commitment and devotion within marriages. Marital harmony is still possible today, even when a man and woman come together as imperfect individuals. Genesis 2:24 tells us that it is God's plan for a man to leave his father and mother, and to be joined to his wife as "one flesh." I know there are those of you reading these words who are struggling to make that union a reality, but I urge you to give it priority. If you and your spouse are having those difficulties, I pray that you will find divine healing from the Creator of families.
May your own love story be one your children will remember tenderly.
James C. Dobson, Ph.D.
Founder and Chairman Emeritus