A Tribute to my Dad

photo of sunrise and of my Dad

I’ve been quiet on social media lately, especially in blogland and on Facebook. Let me explain. I have also not posted any sermons recently as I have been away from the pulpit. This has been a time of reflection and change, which came to a head this past Monday, May 6, around 11:30 PM. That’s when my brother called from hospice to let me know our dad had died.


Dad paddling in the Okefenokee (2015)
Dad paddling in the Okefenokee (2015)

As you may imagine, I didn’t get much sleep the rest of the night, and was up way before sunrise to walk the beach (I was staying in Kure Beach). As the sun rose, I remember all those times being with Dad on the boat running out of Carolina Beach, Masonboro, or Barden’s Inlet as the sun rose. Dad’s timing always seemed perfect as we headed out toward the sun for a day of fishing. Of course, there were other days with rain or fog… But now, they’d be no more of those adventures.

On April 30, my father had his fourth intestinal surgery in twelve days. The first surgery was on Thursday, April 18. I was in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan at the time. My dad came out of the surgery doing well and things were looking up. We had several conversations by phone. He expected to get out of the hospital in four or five days. But before this happened, his intestines started to leak and there were infections. The next Thursday, he had the second surgery. They were not able to do everything, so they scheduled another surgery for Sunday and kept him sedated. There would be one more surgery for Tuesday morning, April 30. I arrived in time to meet the surgeon as he met with my brother, sister, and me. While he expressed hope, he also warned us that our father couldn’t survive another intestinal surgery. 

Dad shooting a basketball after his 25th Wedding Anniversary celebration
Dad, after his 25th Wedding Celebration (1980)

On Wednesday, they removed the respirator and Dad slowly woke up. Things looked even better on Thursday morning, May 2. I was there first thing that morning and when the doctors and staff made their rounds. They discussed moving Dad from ICU to a step-down unit that afternoon. Later in the morning, my brother came in to relieve me. I went out to have coffee with Billy Beasley, a friend of mine whose friendship goes back to my elementary school days. While there, I got an urgent text from my brother to come back, that Dad’s intestines were leaking. Over the next hour, we learned there was nothing more they could do. Dad understood what was happening and with my brother Warren and I on each side of the bed, sniffling, he told us not to cry. He later thanked us for being there and for being good boys. They moved Dad that afternoon to hospice, where he spent the next five days. 

Fishing off Jetty at Masonboro Inlet, Wrightsville Beach
Fishing at jetty at Masonboro Inlet (~2010)

Thankfully, the first two days, Dad did well and was able to see a lot of friends and family members. My younger brother was even able to make it in late Friday night from Japan.  One of the highlights during this time was one of the visits of the pastor of his church. He is relatively new and thank my father for all he did to support his ministry and how he checked in on others within the congregation. My father said, “that’s what we’re supposed to do.

By Saturday, May 4, Dad began to slip and mostly slept. Once, he woke up enough to say, “That was nice,” after I prayed over him. They had to keep increasing morphine to keep his pain under control. Although a strong man, fate took over. Yet, it took him a long time to give up. He would eventually stop breathing when alone (my brother was in the room but asleep). 

Probably ten years ago, my father had me write an obituary for him and my mother, Barbara Faircloth Garrison, who died in 2020. I pulled out the obituary from my files, updated it (mostly increasing the number of great-grandchildren), and began editing it with my siblings. Below is the final product: 

Mom and Dad in front of a camellia bush
Mom and Dad in the 1990s the (copy of photo wasn’t the best)

Charles Albert Garrison died on May 6, 2024 from complications following intestinal surgeries. Charles loved being on the water and never felt more alive than when he was out on his boat or fishing. He and his late wife were known for their love for each other and their hospitality toward others, including annual New Year Eve oyster roasts. 

a b&w photo of dad in a cap and gown in 1942
Dad at six years of age

Charles was born on December 29, 1936 in Pinehurst, North Carolina to Helen McKenzie and A. H. Garrison. He was an Eagle Scout and while a high school student played football, basketball, and baseball. In 1955, he graduated from Pinehurst High School and two months later, on July 29th, married Barbara Jean Faircloth. Their marriage lasted 65 years, till Barbara’s death in 2020. Together, they had four children: Charles Jeffrey (Donna), Warren Albert (Sheri), Sharon Kaye and David Thomas (Monica).

In 1962, Charles went to work for the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company. He was employed by the company for the next forty years. He began his career in Petersburg, Virginia in January 1963. In 1966, he jumped at the opportunity to move to Wilmington, North Carolina where he could be near the ocean. He would live the rest of his life in Wilmington except for two overseas assignments in Japan and Korea. During his career with the company, he was an insurance inspector, an ASME Code Inspector for Boilers, Pressure Vessels, and a Nuclear In-Service Inspector. He retired from Hartford in 2002 but continued to do consulting work for another five years. He finally gave up working to care for his wife. 

Surf fishing at Cape Lookout
Fishing off Cape Lookout (Fall 2008)

Charles remained active throughout his life. In his younger years, he hunted and fished, played basketball and softball. Once he moved to Wilmington, he continued to play softball for a few years and limited his basketball to outside pickup games with his sons and their friends. He devoted as much time as possible to fishing. He often spent weeks in the fall of the year camping and fishing on Masonboro Island. Later, he would make a sojourner of a week or so to Cape Lookout, where he would camp and fish with family and friends.  

Mom and Dad with grandkids in the 1990s (notice the reindeers in the yard)
Dad with grandkids in the 1990s (notice the reindeers in the yard)

The church was always important to Charles. Like his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, he was a Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church. He served on many committees, especially the building and grounds committee at Cape Fear Presbyterian Church, where he remained a member for 58 years. Charles attended church every Sunday he was able. He and his wife made many friends at Cape Fear and often visited new families within the church. They also delivered tapes of the church services to shut-ins within the congregation. 

Basketball goal
Basketball goal (in need of a painting)

Charles was a craftsman and handy man. He restored a home in Pinehurst and added on to his home in Wilmington. In high school, he made his future wife a cedar chest which they used for the rest of their lives. An excellent welder, he built the basketball goal which still stands in his yard. His great-grandchildren now play basketball on this goal. He also welded a Christmas tree stand out of steel that would have survived a nuclear war (the tree might have snapped off, but the steel stand wasn’t going anywhere).  Charles was also known for his handmade wooden Christmas decorations including a sleigh and reindeer which populated his front year during the season. He also built many Rudolph the Red-nose Reindeer door hangers and poinsettias holders which he gave away as gifts. 

Charles also served as a leader in the Boy Scout program when his sons were in scouting and helped coach baseball. Charles continued to enjoy attending the ball games of his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. He also served for many years as a Myrtle Grove Volunteer Firefighter and as a Gideon. 

Charles was preceded in death by his parents, a sister (Martha Kay), and his wife. In addition to his children, he is survived by his brother Larry (Louise), his four children, seven grandchildren (Craig, Kristen, Elizabeth, Jonathan, Clara, Thomas, and Caroline), twelve great-grandchildren, a niece (McKenzie), and many cousins. For the last three years he enjoyed the company of Ginny Rowlings and her family. They spent many evenings at the NC Symphony, concerts and plays and eating ice cream. 

In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to Cape Fear Presbyterian Church and the Lower Cape Fear LifeCare of Wilmington (hospice).  A graveside service will be held at Oleander Memorial Gardens on Monday, May 13, 2024 at 2 PM. The Rev. Aaron Doll of Cape Fear Presbyterian Church will officiate. Charles will be buried by his wife in a plot they picked out and where his body will lie in rest near the salt water he loved and where, at high tide, it might even tickle his toes.[1]

Paddling in the Okefenokee, 2014
Paddling in the Okefenokee, 2014

Some more “Dad Stories:

Four days in the Dry Tortuga’s

Lessons from Dad (with some great photos)

Lumber River Paddle (my last great adventure with Dad)

Fishing off Cape Lookout, 2020

Thanksgiving Day Hunt

Dad’s 85th Birthday (and my last time paddling with him)


[1] Some might wonder about this last line, so let me explain. My parents brought cemetery plots in the 1980s, after coming back from Japan. His mother (my grandmother) wanted to know why he wanted to be buried so far away and not with the rest of the family at Culdee Presbyterian Church in Moore County. My father told her that he wanted the salt water to tickle his toes during high tide. My grandmother didn’t think it was funny, but I Dad (and I) got a laugh out of it.

2024 Festival of Faith and Writing

Title slide. Blooms on a tree on the Calvin campus

I started this post two weeks ago, when I was in Detour Village in Michigan’s UP. Today, I am in Wilmington, NC, , as my father is recovering from four bowel surgeries…  I know this is a long post. If you find what I say about one author boring, just skip to the next. In a way, this massive data dump is my way of summarizing what’s in my journal. I placed photos of the books which I came away with from the festival.

Pre-Conference Workshop on Wednesday

Northern Red Oak
“I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus said.
“Cut off from me you can do nothing.”
Yet, the heavy oak branch,
sheared from its life source,
fallen from the empyrean, 
decomposes slowly on the forest floor 
in a bed of rotten leaves
from which trout lilies sprout. 

Wednesday at the Festival

I scratched out the above poem in a workshop by Paul Willis, a poet I first met at the festival nearly 20 years ago. He gathered us into groups of four and set us free in the nature preserve behind the Prince Conference Center at Calvin University. We were to quietly make our way through the preserve, taking turns leading and then pointing out something of interest. We would each make notes, and another person would lead the group. After 45 of so minutes of silence, we discussed what we saw. Then he gave us just a few minutes to take one of the things we’d written about and to create a poem. Hence, the poem I wrote about a large branch of an oak tree resting on the forest floor. 

New moon, a day after the eclipse

After seeing the eclipse in South Charleston, Ohio on April 8, I attended the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing. This is my fifth time at this festival, which is held every other year. The last festival I attended was in 2012. And, because of COVID, this year’s festival is the first in-person gathering since 2018. Over the years I have heard a many great authors speak about writing and faith including Salman Rushdie, Wally Lamb, Scott Russell Sanders, Eugene Peterson, Kathleen Dean Moore, Thomas Lynch, Parker Palmer, Mary Karr, Debra Dean, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Craig Barnes, and Ann Lamott. Each year, the festival draws in around sixty authors and a couple thousand participants. While almost all the authors are Christians, the only requirement is that they write about faith. In addition to Christian authors, there have been Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and even atheists. 

Here are the authors I heard. There’s no way one can hear all the authors in three days. I tried to capture a bit of what I learned from them. I have listed the authors in order that I first heard them at the conference (in some cases I heard them speak twice): 

Thursday at the Festival

Margaret Feinberg  is a podcaster (The Joycast) and author of Scouting the Divine: Fight Back with Joy, Taste, a See.  Feinberg spoke on sustaining a writing life. She detailed two practices and drew from her own life and her book for examples: 

  • Cultivate a life of Adventure (or live a compelling life). She drew on her parents’ examples as well as on those who grow grapes. 
  • Cultivate a life of healing. Here, she drew on the work of olive growers.

Ruth Graham Born in an evangelical family, Graham now serves as a religious writer for the New York Times. Thankfully, she noted, the job of a religious reporter today isn’t focused on denominational meetings. She’s more interested in getting to the heartbeat of religious experiences. She told of a story she wrote for Slate, about a man from Dalton, Georgia, whose Bible leaked oil. She tried to tell the story, which she suggested was about a man who had a religious experience which got out of hand, in a way that is fair to all sides. 

Sara Horwitz Born in a secular Jewish family, Horwitz rediscovered the faith of her ancestors in her mid-30s working in the Obama White House. She first was on a team of writers for the President, and later became the speech writer for Michelle Obama, the first lady. Horwitz spoke about how encouraging everyone in the White House was to her desire to practice her faith (including turning off her cell phone on the Sabbath). She gave up an opportunity to help Michelle Obama with her memoir to write a book on her journey into Judaism. Religion, she said, should draw us out from ourselves and into something larger. She found freedom in the Jewish law which she interprets as a system of maintaining dignity in others. 

Marilyn McEntyre A popular podcaster and Bible teacher, Feinberg titled her talk, “Writing Through a Fog of Fear: Finding Life, Giving Words in an Alarming Time.” Acknowledging the challenges facing writers today, she spoke of our context while providing questions for discernment and strategies for publicly presenting our work. She began with two epitaphs: “Be not afraid,” -Jesus.  And “Be afraid, very afraid.” -Mel Brooks. 
Discerning questions: 

From where does my energy or sense of urgency come? 

  • Who would I most like to read this? If only one reader, who?
  • Who will take offense or be troubled? How can I address their concerns?
  • In writing this, what does it mean to me to be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves?
  • We bring our own association to every word. But the same works for others. What words of ours will be their triggers? 

Strategies for speaking into fear:

  • Study your favorite risk takers (suggest reading Gaza Writes Back)
  • Have meta-conversations where you can. Talk about language behind our words to help people better connect.
  • Listen to the call of the moment.
  • What does it mean to be faithful? Do you put a name to what you are faithful to?
  • You don’t have to go into anger. You can model debate, hope. Let your style be modelling.
  • Be responsible to speak to the complication of the issue. What do we want people to hear? Honor complexity of beliefs. 
  • Don’t under-estimate the power of beauty.
  • Be surprising. Change up our writings with exhortation, humor, lament in the same piece.
  • Change genres. Try out new genres.
  • Offer authentic antidotes. Try following Jesus’ example and speak into issues. 
  • Stories are important. Stories help disarm.
  • Acknowledge the emotional weight (Susan Sontag writing on the pain of others)
  • Play with paradox. Be a gentle alarmist, a light-hearted doomsayer.
  • Be a prophetic trickster, a Riddler.
  • When you have the privilege from writing with safety, remember those being killed for their speech. We can speak because they can’t.
  • Write with others.
  • Pray for clarity, for when and to whom to write, for obedience, courage, and passion. 

Tracy Smith (keynote). Smith provided the Thursday night keynote address. A graduate of Harvard and Columbia, she also was a Stenger Fellow at Stanford. She has served as nation’s poet laurate (2017-2019), has been awarded the Pulitzer-Prize and has published poetry, a memoir, and non-fiction. Currently, she teaches at Harvard, and has recently published To Free the Captives: A Plea for the American Soul

Her speak focused on reading certain poems and reflecting on how they came about and how they might be interpreted. In her introduction, her work was described like “Jacob wrestling with God” and how our “paradoxical wounds can heal.”  The poems she read and reflected on included: “Hill Country,” Weather in Space,” “We all Go Chasing All We Will Lose,” “Political Poem,” “The United States Welcomes You,” “The Fright of our Shared History,” and “Wade in the Water.” 

Sadly, all her books of poetry had sold out, but I came away with a signed copy of To Free the Captives and look forward to exploring her vision of a better world. 

Friday at the Festival: 

Mary DeMuth spoke on “stories as healing.”  Telling the truth, she proclaimed, is the key too both good writing and good living. She provided six things to consider if we fear sharing a story:

  • Discern timing. “Don’t vomit on the reader.” A story never told can never heal, but we should remember that our call is to first write, not necessarily publish.
  • Exactness is not the same as truth. We must remember that it is our story and no one else can tell the story in the same way as we can. Storytelling is an effective truth delivery vehicle. 
  • Expect opposition. While we should welcome helpful feedback, we also take a risk of putting our work out there. Sometimes, when you tell the truth, you engage is spiritual warfare. She finds having a prayer team helpful as they both pray against attacks but also help keep her humble.
  • Name our fear.
  • Expose evil but love your readers.
  • See the benefits (God gives us glory in our weakness).

If we don’t tell the truth, we misrepresent people.  Our job is not to enlarge villains but to enlarge Jesus. 

Matthew Dickerson and Fred Bahnson titled their conversation, “Ecology Imagination and why stories matter.” Dickerson part of the conversation was often based on Tolkien. I haven’t read Tolkien since college. Bahnson (I’ve read his book Soil and Sacrament), drew more from Wendell Berry and Barry Lopez, two authors I continue to read. Bahnson described how the richest life is found where rivers meet oceans, and how writers need to put themselves in such uncomfortable and risky settings to best flourish. 

Diane Mehtu spoke about Dante and Virgil (Dante’s guide through hell). This was a fascination lecture even though the presenter read from a paper. She uses powerful language. She presented the idea of the friendship of the two poets, who lived over a Millenia apart, and what she’s learned from repeatedly reading the Divine Comedy.  What made the lecture even more interesting to me is that I had been listening to an unabridged reading of Augustine’s City of God and had just heard Augustine dealing with Virgil. 

Karen Swallow Prior titled the lecture I attended, “Imagination: It’s not just Hobbits and Hobby Horses.” She questioned how we often consider imagination as something playful within our childhood and mostly individualist. This she challenged, suggesting that we often inherit language structures (language is based on imagination) without understanding how it came about. This she applied to evangelicalism, of which she was critiquing and suggests needs to embrace imagination to work its way out of its crisis. Another criticism of evangelism is that it tends to draw more on American ideals than the Christian faith and is a product of modernity and late-stage capitalism.  She also critiqued evangelism’s emphasis on the end times, suggesting that we don’t need stories about the end but about how to get there. The early Christians, who called themselves “people of the way” understood this. 

Yaa Gyasi (Friday evening keynote) This “conversation” between Gyasi and Jane Zwart focused on her two novels and how they deal with grief and loss. Gyasi was born in Ghana, but grew up in Huntsville, Alabama. Her experiences seem to provide her a unique perspective even though I haven’t read her books. Quote: “Prayer and writing comes from the same place.  From your pen to God’s ear.” 

Saturday at the Festival

Christian Wiman is a professor of communication arts at Yale Divinity School (and former editor of Poetry).  I attended his lecture titled “The Art of Faith, The Faith of Art.” Wiman read several of his poems  and reflected on the faith and art within them.  Sadly, I was running late and missed part of this lecture.


Danielle Chapman  I heard Chapman speak twice. The first session was a discussion with Jim Dahlman on Southern literature. While both have published books which I came away with, I questioned their representation as a Southern writer. But her poetry is engaging as is her memoir, which I have already started and will review.

 I later heard her talk on memory in non-fiction and poetry. 


Sonya Bilocerkowyez gave the best lecture I attended outside of the keynotes. Sadly, it was also one of the least attended lectures. An American-Ukrainian, she’s the granddaughter of Ukrainians who were displaced during the Second World War. She happened to be teaching in Ukraine in 2014, when the Maidan Revolution kicked out the Russian puppet government and Russia invaded the Dobast and Crimea. Afterwards, she published a collection of essays titled, On Our Way Home from the Revolution: Reflections on Ukraine. 

Her lecture was titled, “Whose Manuscripts to Burn? On the Role of the Writer during Wartime. Drawing on “cancel cultural” and “imperialistic language,” she spoke passionately about how Russia once again attempts to cancel Ukrainian identity. She credited her grandmother for teaching her an 1840 poem against Czarist imperialism.  

She made four points on the role of the writer in war:

  • The role begins before the war.
  • The role is to document.
  • The role is to save lives. 
  • The role is to free the land (Decolonization cannot be a metaphor).

Throughout her lecture, she drew on Ukrainian writers (such as Oksana Zabuzhko and Victoria Amelina, as well as those from Bosnia and Gaza.

Stacie Longwell Sadowski lead a lunch circle dealing with the use of social media for writers. As she and her husband maintain a site that encourages people to explore the outdoors, I joined her group and learned a bit more about what I am doing wrong Smiling face outline with solid fill. Actually, I did learn a lot from the luncheon circle. However, since I am not into monetizing my site, I’m not changing much. Check out her website, \Two Weeks in a hammock.  

Anthony Doerr

Anthony Doerr (closing keynote)  Doerr was the reason I decided to make the trek to Grand Rapids for the conference this year. I am still amazed five years after reading his breakout novel, All the Light We Cannot See. He began the final keynote of the conference, before a packed house, speaking about similes.  Doerr questioned if the age of similes is over. quoting polls and exposing outrageous similes he’d come across in his reading. He drew upon Homer and Superheroes and made fun of the mistakes he’d made in his slides. 

Doerr was by far the funniest speaker I had heard at the festival.  He was very free in his presentation which was given in Calvin’s fieldhouse. At one point, he pauses and looks up at the banners hanging around and says, “Calvin’s girls volleyball team must have really been good.” At another point, in this long diatribe on similes and metaphors, he pauses and looks around at the crowd and says what many were thinking, “You thought you were going to hear the bald guy talk about All the Light We Cannot See, didn’t you?” 

Then Doerr made a serious turn. His talk about similes was to point to the interconnectedness of our violent and conflicted world. He suggested reading as a way for us to get beyond our self-centeredness and to make connections with the larger world. Next, he called for leaders who could make such connections. Then he encouraged writers, who have the advantage of metaphors, to bring these connections out in our writing. He advised us to tell stories, which are needed to bring our world together.  It was a simple message that extended to 45 minutes through his humorous antidotes. When he was over, he received a standing ovation. 

After the lecture was over, I met Bob, a friend of mine from Hastings, and the two of us drove up to Detour Village in the UP, arriving a little after midnight on April 14th. More about that later…