A Love Better Tribute To David Parkes: The First Man Who Loved Me
by Emily Sutherland
We interrupt this blog series to honor someone who personified the mission of Love Better.
David Parkes was a gentle giant. I remember when I was a kid and he came to my school, the other kids were always in awe of his six-foot-six-inch stature. I never actually said, “My dad’s bigger than your dad.” Because I never had to say it. I was so proud of him.
He had to buy extra tall clothes and large vehicles to accommodate his height, yet he didn’t possess many of the traits you might expect from a man his size. He wasn’t intimidating or scary. In fact, he was kind of like a Golden Retriever who just wanted to be close to you and might not have even realized how big he was.
He always admired those smooth, deep radio voices, but his was sweet and so-not-intimidating. If you ever sat near him in church, you could hear his voice soar above everyone else sitting nearby…and if he suddenly went silent, he was probably crying. (Especially if it was “Oceans.”) Oh, how he loved music.
I’m convinced he needed that big body to house his gigantic heart. He saw people - really saw them. He was the friendliest person on the face of the planet, hands down. He rarely let anyone pass him by without speaking. And he had a way of drawing out others until they were telling him their life story. He didn’t do this for any other reason than he genuinely cared about every person he met.
My family couldn’t possibly count the times he would come home and tell us about the newest friend he’d met, often through tears. And he didn’t want to tell an abbreviated version of their story. He cared about every detail of it and wanted to make sure we did, too. He had a huge capacity for empathy.
He had an extraordinary gift for attending to people in crisis. Ever since he was a young college student, he has applied that gift to whatever jobs he did. He worked on a volunteer rescue squad as an EMT when he was young, he was a pastor for more than thirty years, he worked in the funeral industry for twenty years, and he volunteered as a chaplain for the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department in his “spare time.” In all of those roles, he shined during the moments most people avoid at all costs — death notifications, consoling the grieving, visiting the sick, middle-of-the-night house calls, and any other chance he was given to pour out compassion where it would be felt most deeply.
My mom, sister and I might have been tempted to feel jealous of his time until we realized what a difference his presence made in the most difficult moments of someone’s life. We were so fortunate that we got to feel his love every day. Not everyone could have that opportunity. So we willingly shared him, knowing he always had enough love to go around.
Anyone who knows what being a pastor is like knows pastoring is not for the faint of heart. People can be cruel. Politics and biting criticism happen everywhere, even church. And though Dad had every reason to walk away from the whole deal more than once, he was so eager to own whatever he needed to own, and grow in whatever ways he needed to grow. He absolutely refused to hold a grudge and he chose his attitude with humility. His resilience was astounding.
Dad and Mom celebrated fifty years of marriage in June of this year. He adored her and treated her like gold. He routinely took her car to the carwash and filled it with gas for her, and you couldn’t talk to him five minutes without him mentioning the love of his life. Just a few weeks ago Mom and Dad checked a big item off his bucket list and drove to South Dakota to see Mount Rushmore. During that same trip, they attended a reunion at a church in Iowa he once pastored, and they were high off that experience for weeks. They saw so many people whom Dad had pastored and had a wonderful time sharing stories with the many people who had been impacted by him when he pastored there.
When my sister and I met the men we would marry, Dad took them in as his own sons. They still call him “Dad” and they’ve always known he set the bar very high as the first man who loved Mel and me. He inspired them, encouraged them and supported them.
As a grandfather, he was simply the best. He loved to be silly, go on outings, and attend ALL the things. He always attended my son’s band gigs, often surrounded by teenagers and college students, and he loved every minute of it. He braved a freezing cold hockey arena at 7:00 AM on Saturday mornings for a few seasons, attended ballet and piano recitals, school concerts, musicals and special events of all kinds. And if anyone hurt his grandkids, he had a problem with that.
In January of this year, he lost his job. With his usual resilience and optimism, he began to seek out new opportunities. While he searched for the right fit, he began driving for Lyft, and he rocked that just like he did like he did everything… with love. He learned people’s stories, told them his best jokes, encouraged them, share stories about his family, and played worship songs in the background as long as no one asked him to turn the music off.
Of all the things he cared about, he most cared about people experiencing the overwhelming love of Jesus for themselves. He modeled that love so well. He was a man of conviction and integrity, but grace came first. He accepted people where they were, and for that reason everyone he met felt loved by him.
On Friday, October 5, that big, wonderful heart stopped beating. He woke up feeling off and soon realized he needed to go to the heart hospital. He and Mom got into the car and, while Mom drove, Dad made two phone calls. The first call was to the heart hospital, to let them know he was coming. The second call was to a lady for whom he was supposed to provide transportation to work that morning, to let her know he wouldn’t be able to make it. Within a minute or two after he had made those calls, he took his last breath. He was gone before he ever arrived at the hospital.
All of us who love him are devastated. Yet, at the same time, we are endlessly grateful that we got to be part of his story. Our world is so much better because he was in it. His legacy of love is far more valuable to us than any trust fund or impressive accolades.
He would want each person reading this to know how much you are loved. If you’ve had hurtful church experiences like he did, he would want you to know Jesus isn’t like that. He would vouch for the fact that people are imperfect and sometimes downright nuts - even the ones who claim to be speaking on Jesus’s behalf. People get it wrong sometimes, even if they don’t mean to.
Dad was an eternal optimist for a reason. He had the most beautiful childlike faith. And he knew that there isn’t a single person who can love better without help from the Originator of Love.
That was his secret. Dad wasn’t the source of all that love he gave away; he was simply a conduit for it.
He would tell you there’s nothing special about him. We would beg to differ. But we can’t deny that it was the overwhelming, reckless, non-score-keeping, always-forgiving, justice-seeking love of Jesus that lit Dad’s fire. Once he experienced it for himself, he wanted everyone to have the opportunity to let that love rock them to the core.
Now that Dad isn’t with us here anymore, I feel the need to pick up some of the slack in his absence. I’m sure everyone who knows him feels the same way. So I invite you all to join us in that. Let’s spread Eternal Love around like wildfire and, like dad, live every day like it’s our last until it is.
Dad, I refuse to say, “goodbye.” But I will say “thank you.” I’ll be looking for you in sunsets like the ones you always photographed. I’ll listen for your voice out-singing everyone else at church, and remember your contagious laughter when the family gets together. I’ll remember your huge hands and keep wondering how you texted better than I do with those inch-wide fingers. And I’ll do the best I can to be as dependable and gracious as you have been. I’ll spend every day trying to be a little more like you. I love you so much.