Roll Up for the Mystery Tour

My dad, Robert Gregory Childers, passed away on May 22, 2017, from complications of throat cancer. He was 61. At his memorial service at the Joliet church of Christ, Joliet, Illinois, on May 27, I had the honor of delivering this eulogy. The Joliet church is where both he and I were raised; he was laid to rest in the same room in which he was baptized and in which he was married to my mom, the same room in which I was baptized and first preached the gospel.

It doesn’t take much for me to become nostalgic. In the defining and transformative moments of life, when we return home and are reunited with loved ones from days gone by, it’s only natural that most of our hearts get carried back on waves of wistfulness into the past. For me, though, it doesn’t take a day like today to send me back in time. I can be at Jewel’s buying Dean’s cottage cheese in the rectangular containers they came out with a few years back and start daydreaming about the good old days when it came in round containers—like it’s supposed to. Then my mind will jump to how my dad and I in our bachelor pad days could both live for practically weeks at a time off of cottage cheese and pickled beets—on the same paper plate, but not mixed together; we’re not animals. Then my internal time machine will kick into turbo mode, and I’ll think of how that cottage cheese and beets never tasted better than when they were sharing a plate with my grandma’s pot roast on a Sunday afternoon, the whole family gathered around the table, except for my grandpa, who was sitting enthroned on his easy chair around the corner.

My dad worked a swing shift for years, so he’d only be able to join for Sunday dinner every few weeks. How many Sundays like that were there? Dozens? Maybe a hundred? We don’t really notice them as anything special. World News Tonight doesn’t report that the Childers family is having pot roast. And cottage cheese and beets. But standing there in my time machine in the dairy cooler at Jewel’s, sort of breathing in my whole life all at once, events and ideas that I thought were so big, so important don’t even register, as if my priorities somehow perfectly managed to consistently bear absolutely no relationship to reality, and those little, ordinary moments, moments like my dad being off on a Sunday and being with us around the table, or sitting with us around the TV after a long day’s work, or tossing my brothers up in the air and catching them, or making goofy home videos, or watching Rumble in the Jungle and the Thrilla in Manilla for the thousandth time, which he accidentally taped over some of his goofy home videos, and seeing him box in his seat along with the fighters, making his unique and absurd punching sound, or picking up his guitar about once every ten years, flawlessly playing a song he just heard on the radio start to finish without any practice, or, lately, calling and spending an hour talking about what we each made for dinner, talking just long enough to make sure that our dinners got cold. These moments that don’t seem to matter all that much, it turns out, are the only ones that do.

On November 27, 1967, the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour album was released. Whether my dad, then 11 years old, made it to the store the day it came out or just very soon after is one of those facts that the great chroniclers of world history, in their negligence, failed to record. The Beatles provided my dad with the soundtrack for his life. I can vividly remember my dad’s devastation when John Lennon was murdered. I was only a year old, so that memory has to be imaginary or from a dream, but that I would somehow put together such a false memory and have it feel so real is a testimony to how deeply steeped my dad’s heart was in the Beatles’ body of work. In the title track of that 1967 album, with their distinct and hauntingly beautiful harmonies, the Beatles called out the invitation to roll up for the Magical Mystery Tour.

I expected that picture of a magical mystery tour to strike me as an image of the end of this life and the transition to what comes after. And maybe it is. But that’s not the way that song has been speaking to me the last few days. It reminds me less of this life’s end than of its beginning. For my dad, for all of us, life is the real magical mystery tour. As a 23 year old train engineer with a young pregnant wife at home, he couldn’t have expected to be laid off, to greet the birth of his first son pumping gas part-time and struggling to rebuild his life when it had barely begun. Like all of us, he couldn’t know what twists and turns life and health and love would take him down. Like all of us, he couldn’t know what would greet him around the next curve and the one after that, whether it would be a moment of joy or a dragon to face. It’s no secret that my dad’s mystery tour put him face to face with a number of dragons, and that those dragons often left him deeply, deeply wounded. But there is no shame in being wounded in battle. His wounds just made it that much more honorable, that much more noble, when he got back up and continued to fight. That’s what a champion does.

And that is who my dad is. A champion. Our champion. Whatever life threw in his path, even when his struggles were at their greatest, even when his wounds were at their deepest, there was not one second—not one second—when we didn’t know that the driving force in his life was his love for us, for my brothers and me, for his grandsons, and most recently, for a granddaughter that’s on the way. No macho nonsense ever prevented him from showing and expressing his love freely and openly. There was never a question that the reason he could get back up and fight the dragons of life again was so that we wouldn’t have to.

For the last few years, and especially the last year through multiple rounds of cancer treatment, false hopes and fresh disappointments, my dad has suffered through great sickness. Despite how sick he was, though, this last year has been, in a sense, in the most important sense, the healthiest he’s ever been. He used the time to reflect deeply on the relationships and events of his life story, of his magical mystery tour, and awakened to a real sense of meaning, a real peace, a real and well-earned sense of completion, that his has been a life well lived. He reached out and strengthened his bonds with family members separated by miles and years. His eyes were reopened to happy memories long obscured by later hurts. Though the thanks I owe the people of this congregation extends back much further than the past year, it means the world to me and to all of my family that he had your friendship and love to accompany him on this last leg of his magical mystery tour.

It was love’s voice calling through the Beatles that extended to him the invitation to make a reservation. It was love that called out to him to roll up and let it take him away. And for 61 years he did. May his love continue to echo through this world in our lives.