I believe my father is worthy of honor for he loved others well. He also did many things well. He wrote articles as a guest editorialist for the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, taught college economics classes at multiple universities, organized a host of athletic event for kids, played football at the Airforce Academy, and racked up a lifetime of honors as a high school athlete, including a spot in the St. Joseph High School Sports Hall of Fame. But he would be the first to tell you that those things mattered only a little to him. People remained his first passion. More specifically, we his family were his joy.
Before I dive into the essence of who my dad was, I want to briefly explain why I write and blog. As it did for C.S. Lewis, writing proves for me to be a powerful means by which I organize my sorrows and find answers to my questions. I suppose one could say it’s my method.
What follows is but a small reflection of the light that was my dear and now deceased father. It is not the sum total of who he was. To piece together that picture, one would need to talk to my dear mother, all of my siblings- their spouses and children, my uncle, my father’s beloved university students, his extended family, and the many random people that my dad had helped. I believe that many of these stories will also be shared in the days and weeks ahead as antidotes, eulogies, and phone conversations. What follows below is one section of one chapter in that much grandeur story, the story of Mark Witkowski.
Though my dad always downplayed his own accomplishments, he always highlighted mine. When he battled brain cancer decades ago, one of his highlights from that hard season of life was watching my older brother and I play little league baseball together. Thomas opened the game on the mound, and I caught him behind the plate. I cannot remember the score of that game. But I do remember my dad watching the game in the cheap, metal bleachers behind home plate with my mom and the ride home in the blue dodge minivan where he shared how proud of us he was.
Though always quick to praise me, he also was never afraid to correct me when I mis-stepped. He was the first coach to make me run laps after I angrily questioned his coaching strategy during my 11-year-old little league season. That strategy ended with me winning our league’s championship trophy. He was a great coach. At the sports banquet that commemorated the end of my high school baseball career, the speaker praised my godly character. But dad and I both knew my character on the field fell short of God’s holiness. I had ended the season shoving a teammate in anger. As we walked back out to the car in the quiet of the night sky, he looked at me and said, “Peter, what he said about you was a lie.”
While I disappointed him at times, he never gave up on me. He was always ready to encourage me. He rejoiced when I told him that I had become a Christian and quickly arranged for me to go on my first mission trip a few days later. It was there in the deserts of New Mexico that I first sensed God calling me to fulltime ministry. He helped me get into college and encouraged me to apply for the UALR Donaghy Scholars Program when I felt deeply insecure about my academic abilities. When I sank into depression during my final year of seminary, his simple advice to keep going to church proved to be the life raft that my soul needed until God righted it afresh. There was no limit to his simple and yet profound encouragement.
There was also no limit to his laughter. My mom could make him laugh like no one else through her teasing and nudges. He in-turn never stopped tickling her. If I have coopted anything from my parents’ marriage into my relationship with April, it is undoubtedly my father’s love for long conversations and tickle messuages. In other words, I knew April was the one because I could both talk to her without stopping and never get bored and could find great joy in tickling her.
He also liked to play pranks. Once when I lived in Louisville, he arrived at my home while I was still at work. Since my roommates had not meet him, he seized the moment, entered the house with his badge open, and told all my roommates that he had come to investigate Peter Witkowski for trafficking in stolen antiques. And they thought I was just a simple seminar student.
When I entered fulltime ministry, he became the closest thing I had to a pastoral fan club. He made a point to attend my ordination service with my mom. He liked my blogs so much that he convinced major websites to republish them. During COVID, he faithfully watched every sermon I preached. About Forty-five minutes to an hour later, I would invariably get a call or a text from him telling me that I had done a good job. A few months ago, he even approached me about creating an Amissville Baptist Church St. Louis Campus. Though completely impractical and somewhat antithetical to my understanding of ecclesiology, the gesture beautifully captured his never-ending love and support for me. This past Sunday, I once again received a text message from Mark Witkowski. It read, “Good sermon today.” I will miss my dad.
What meant the most to me in these later years was his love for my family. He dearly loved my bride, April. I think he was always somewhat surprised that someone so amazing as her could love his son. He was deeply thankful for her presence in my life. He warmly welcomed her into our family and loved her from the day he met her.
When the oncologists diagnosed April with breast cancer and talked of her impending death, it was his voice that spurred me to search for better treatment plans and better doctors. And it was he who daily and at times hourly prayed for her healing, “a full healing” as he would say. Even in these last days as his strength and soundness of mind briefly return, he once again called April to tell her that he was praying for her.
Though some kids never hear their father say, ‘I love you,” I regularly heard those words. April and my children regularly heard those words too. We also felt them. In their own way, my kids knew that Papa Wit loved them. He was Luke’s model train buddy and Lily and Lacey’s friend who took them on wagon rides. As his health declined, my kids regularly asked me to pray for Papa Wit.
They prayed for him to come home. With the help of hospice, he returned to his home a few weeks ago. Then on Wednesday December 1, 2021, he went to his final home, to highest heaven above. As I type out these reflections, I have no doubt of my dad’s final destination for he loved others well. As 1 John 3:14 says, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers.” In addition to seeing Jesus face to face, my dad has also gotten to meet his eldest grandson, Peter Alexander. He has no reason to return to this sad world.
Still, I find great sorrow in this moment. I distinctly remember my father crying at his father’s funeral. I suspect I will do the same. I do not mourn him but rather the relationship with him that death has temporarily interrupted.
When second Peter died in 2013, Isaiah 65:20 became one of my favorite verses for it addressed the heartache associated with losing an infant child. Today the verse takes on an ever-fuller meaning as it addresses the heartache of losing my father. Oh friends, how I long for that promised day, a day when, “No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days or an old man who does not fill out his days.”