In Memory of my Dad, K. Dane Mills
Posted February 20, 2017on:
There is lots to update you all about on my cancer journey, but on Sunday, February 5, my father died suddenly and unexpectedly at age 69. I have just returned from 10 days in the States to be with my family. I wanted to share with others who could not attend the words I offered at his memorial service. His life had a big impact on many people, and it was standing room only in the church.
Especially if you didn’t know my Dad at all, you might begin by reading his obituary here. Prior to this homily, three others spoke (his high school friend, a member of the men’s Bible Study he led for many years, and my sister). I also read written letters from my husband (reflection-by-j)and son (reflection-by-b).
What follows is my attempt to lift up my Dad’s life to God, to share what he meant to me, to capture what he meant to others, and to represent his voice and what he would have said of himself. It was an honor and a privilege to share that day, and to share with you.
Love you, Dad. Always.
Let me begin by saying, on behalf of my mother and sister and Dane’s sister Bonnie, thank you to all of you for being here today. We have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of love from our extended family, this church, the wider church, and his circle of friends, colleagues and clients. Thanks be to God for you.
We knew my dad was beloved, and that he made a difference in his church and community, but we are only now discovering the depth and breadth of the impact his life had on so many people.
This is my chance to share the impact he had on me. When I was a little girl, I wanted to grow up to be just like my dad. All the things you’ve heard in the words shared by others are true for me too–he influenced me with his generosity, kindness, faithfulness, cleverness, humor, integrity and pursuit of justice. But more than anything, what made me want to grow up and be just like my dad was his library of stories. I shared my husband Josh’s reflection on them as parables–for me, as a child, they were adventures. As I grew up, I wanted a collection of adventures and stories to rival his. Sorry, Mom, but I think this is probably why I live all the way in London. Blame Dad and his stories. If I’m honest, the desire to collect good stories has probably influenced more major and minor decisions in my life than anything else. I owe all of that to my Dad.
Dad knew that life is not only lived in the moment, it is re-lived in the stories you tell about it. My dad’s inspiration–all those crazy stories–taught me that life is not the sum of what you do (your career, your accomplishments, your alliances) or even what is done to you (the heartbreaks, the illnesses, the defeats). Your life is the story you tell about it.
That’s why this task today humbles me so, as it falls to me to tell the story of his life when he can no longer do so himself. All week long, I wrestled. There are countless stories to be told, but what’s the bigger story of Kenneth Dane Mills? What is the story of his life he would have me tell?
I first turned to fictional characters for inspiration. My father was Atticus Finch, the man of honor and integrity because he did what was right even when it was not popular. My father was Andy Griffith, the one you called in an emergency, trusting him to handle problems with grace, integrity and good humor. Even more, my father was George Bailey of It’s a Wonderful Life. He was the richest man in town–not because of money or status, but because of this–you all, who show up and tell us Dane made a difference in your life and you would do anything for my mom or any of us.
Those capture parts of his life, but none capture his true story. It took awhile, but finally this preacher realized the real story of Dane’s life is the same one she preaches week in, week out, the one from my day job. The story Dane would tell about his own life is that he was a sinner saved by grace, redeemed by Christ to live in love.
I’m so glad his high school friend Kevin spoke first, because if you only knew my dad as the upstanding citizen he became, you might not believe me–but now you know it’s true. I believe he saw his life as the story of a sinner saved by grace to live in love.
Let’s go back to the beginning. The firstborn son of Ken and Ruth Mills, born in Chelsea Naval Hospital in Massachusetts, brought home to an apartment so small his mother washed both dishes and diapers in the bathtub. At two weeks old, he and his mother boarded an airplane to San Francisco, to meet his father when his ship, the U.S.S. Dane, returned from a six-month cruise. His parents loved him and doted on him from that point on. Childhood on navy bases around the world was played out in cowboys and indians, Davy Crockett’s coonskin cap and baseball games–along with plenty of time annoying his two younger sisters, Carol and Bonnie.
Dane wasn’t a bad kid, but that clever jokester we all know–while a direct inheritance from both his mother and his father–also made him a bit of a troublemaker. When he was in his early teens, they lived in Charleston, South Carolina, and Dad’s stories from those years are ominous–a boy on the wrong path with the wrong friends, sneaking out, smoking cigarettes, causing trouble. He often speculated he’d have ended up in jail if they hadn’t left Charleston for Virginia Beach. In his story, he was a sinner, saved from himself by the grace of God.
Somehow, the school and environment here channeled his energy in a better direction, and he transformed into a young man with both ambition and ability. He discovered he was a leader–Boys State, Leadership, SCA, Key Club and all the rest at the brand-new Cox High School. Don’t be misled, here–he wasn’t a model student (as Kevin said), and his continued harassment of his sisters earned him the nickname Daney Wayne the Window Pane. He did get a bit more generous–he allowed Bonnie to drive his car, but only after she had ironed all of his t-shirts. His t-shirts! Still, his future was bright–he was headed to the University of Virginia, eventually becoming the first in his family to graduate college.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves too much–because one of the biggest moments of God’s grace and gift in his life happened in those Cox High School years. He met my mother. The young Pat Halstead was then as she is now, sitting there in her red jacket. (My dad loved it when she wore red.) Beautiful, gracious, faithful and good. She was a cheerleader, and he played football, and their first real date was the prom. They loved each other from the time they were 16 years old, and stayed together while he was at Virginia and she was at Longwood, then when he graduated and joined the Navy, they got married on a the only weekend he could get leave–December 21, 1969. They honeymooned in Atlantic City, but found everything so closed up for the holiday they decided to just drive home for Christmas dinner. They listened to Christmas music the whole long drive, and neither one of them ever wanted to listen to it again. Their song was “My Girl” by the Temptations, and it summed up his feelings for her: he had sunshine on a cloudy day, all the riches one man can claim–because she loved him. They loved each other, and it was obvious to us growing up and anyone who knew them. But my dad believed his whole life he never deserved her, that the fact she loved him at all was gift of God, a grace unearned, a sinner’s life redeemed.
I think of the next chapter of the story as the time Dane tried to build a life worthy of the grace he had received. He was ambitious in all the right ways–to be a good husband and father, to build a thriving law practice, to do good in church and community.
I, AKA Hot Shot, came along just as he was starting out in law school, and he often took care of me while my mom was teaching. Lauren, AKA Be-Bop, followed a few years later, about the time they bought the house on Virginius Drive. He worked at parenting like he worked at the law–thinking about how to cultivate the relationship he wanted with us and how to instill in us the skills, habits and values we needed. From the time we were two or three years old, he took us out on Daddy-Daughter dates, when we put on a frilly dress (which I never enjoyed) and went out to a nice restaurant for lunch, complete with Shirley Temples. We didn’t take many big vacations, but he somehow made our annual trips to Charlottesville to see my grandparents feel like a long, long, long journey, as he sought out every possible side road we could take to get there. Lauren called these his pig paths–but boy, the things we saw, the stories we collected on those crazy road trips! Dad made sure we knew how to change a tire and balance a checkbook–even though he was never very good at either of those things himself. He and my mom together kept us strictly in line, but they did it with love. Neither my sister nor I ever doubted, not for one moment that we were loved. His favorite scripture from Romans 8 proclaims that nothing could separate us from the love of God. Dad made it clear that nothing we did or could ever do would separate us from his love either. The story, his big story, is about grace–he knew he was a sinner and he knew we would be too, but he also knew that God’s love was bigger than all of that. He wanted to love like that too.
My Dad was always driven by the desire to be a good man, to be worthy of love and respect. He was good at it, too–good at being good, if you will. I often suspected he was way too kind to be any good as a lawyer. I got some perspective on that from some of you who were his clients, who told me that he treated you as his own–and he was going to stand up for what was right for you, unrelenting. It was his love and kindness that made him a good lawyer.
There are so many stories to share about the good he did for others–there is much more to say about the people he helped through his practice, his community organizations, this church and the wider church, and just in his personal kindness to strangers. From Galatians, we read about the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. My dad knew the Spirit and its grace, and he let that Spirit bear fruit in him. I know you all are here because you saw that fruit, and he touched your life and your faith with his grace.
And now I hear his voice in my head saying, “Did you just call me a fruit?”
Most of us who knew him saw a righteous man–but he saw where he fell short. He saw a sinner redeemed, a man doing his best to give back to God and to others because so much had been given to him. That’s why grace was so important to him.
One of the places Dane discovered that experience of grace was at his Emmaus Walk, and in the Emmaus community, which filled him with joy. He also found it here at Thalia United Methodist Church. You all put up with him and his corny jokes for more than 40 years. There outta be some kind of church merit badge for that. The Christian Home class, the Methodist Men, the bridge group, the early morning Bible study–you all loved him in good seasons and hard ones, and he would want me to tell you that he was so grateful.
If he were here, he’d tell you, all of you, from every facet of his life, how blessed he was to walk in this world beside you. How honored he was by the people who trusted him with their most intimate needs as an attorney. How humbled he was by the leadership roles entrusted to him. How flattered he was that the youth of the church would let him hang out with them as a chaperone. How amazed he was that their parents would let them. How lucky he was to get to be the one sleeping on the floor with the homeless. How much you showed him grace, and how grateful he was for the way you were loving, joyous, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful and gentle toward him.
Starting with the death of his sister Carol in 1999, life had been hard. He lost both of his dear parents in short order. The practice of law shifted beneath him, taking with it the business and style he had crafted for himself. His grief over all of this was profound. There was still joy to be had–he had three grandchildren whom he adored. They made him so happy and proud. They remember all the trips they took to Plaza Bakery to get doughboys–and the way they would fight over his chair in the living room. He loved spending time with you. Besides that joy, Virginia basketball was good again, and he lived long enough to see his beloved Boston Red Sox break the curse and win the World Series in 2004–then again in 2007 and again in 2013.
Even so, in recent years, he began to fade away somehow. I missed him already, before he was gone. When you asked him how he was doing, he would say, “Old.” It was a joke, but it wasn’t funny. Perhaps it was one of his story parables–telling us something about how he felt that we couldn’t grasp. Only weeks ago, he was finally diagnosed with a slowly progressing vascular disease that mimicked both Alzheimers and Parkinson’s Disease. That was a bleak outlook for the next 5-10 years, but no one anticipated his sudden death.
Still, life isn’t just what you do or what is done to you. Life is the story you tell about it.
Dane’s story was that he was redeemed by grace, blessed to live in love. Dane’s story is the Gospel story–where a life changed by grace, claimed by the Holy Spirit, bears fruit of love in the world. And this story has an ending like no other–because it ends with God’s grace swallowing us whole, forever, in the life everlasting, the grace eternal, the promise of resurrection. That’s the end of Dad’s story, and the end of all our stories when they are lived in Christ.
Way back in high school, ever wanting to be clever, ever ambitious to write his own story, my dad picked up a phrase that he always used to say goodbye. He wrote in every high school yearbook he signed. He used it as the saluation in countless letters he wrote. And he whispered it in my ear many times when we hugged goodbye.
Vaya con Dios, he said. Go, with God.
So it is today we lay claim to the end of his story–and we pronounce with faith and hope and even dare to claim joy: Vaya con Dios. A sinner redeemed, a life of grace, lived in love. There is no better story. Thanks be to God for the life of my father, K. Dane Mills. Go with God, Dad. Vaya con Dios.