It was the summer of 1984, as I remember it.
I was twenty-seven, living in Dallas, Texas and working as a chaplain at Baylor Medical Center. My father was pastoring at Westbury Baptist Church in Houston. The ties between us were strained a bit, in large part because I was working hard to figure out who I was distinct from the man I was named for, much as he had had to do with Milton the First when he had been my age. Actually he had to figure it out earlier because his dad died before he was twenty-eight.
Some time that summer my father called and asked to come see me. He drove up from Houston and we went to dinner. He told me a story I knew already but I could tell somehow he needed to tell it again. My grandfather lived longer than any Cunningham male and he dropped dead of a heart attack (that was the phrase Dad always used) at fifty-seven. As we talked, I did the math in my head: my father was months away from his fifty-seventh birthday. He knew we were still figuring things out between us and he was on a sort of farewell tour, just in case fifty-seven was his number as well. We had a great evening together. As he left he told me he loved me and he was proud of me. And then he went on to live until a month before his eighty-fifth birthday.
This Friday, December 12, I will turn fifty-eight. Or, as my father always pointed out, I am finishing my fifty-eighth year.
Though the number didn’t scare me quite as much as it did my father, this is a moment worth marking: I am the second male in my family to live beyond fifty-seven. I am grateful for the life I have lived and hopeful for the days to come. I am planning to follow in my father’s footsteps and stretch this out for awhile longer. And tonight I am also grateful for both Miltons who preceded me, who begat me, who helped shape me.
Here’s to beginning number fifty-nine.