Book Review – “The Reverent Surrender” by James Finster

“Whatever journey he embarked on when his last breath emanated was a glorious one.”

An old friend of mine just wrote a book. It’s called The Reverent Surrender and it’s about his Dad. It’s about tragedy and hope and confusion and pain and joy and above all, love. It’s about the lessons we learn when someone close to us chooses to end their own life and how the author came to terms with that fateful decision.

“It’s a natural progression for someone to struggle with emotions you feel the deceased can no longer feel.”

HNG and James in 6th grade

I met James in the 5th grade. My family moved to a new town in the middle of the school year. Having a Dad in the Navy will do that to you. Being the new kid, I got teased some but mostly ignored. During that time, one of the few people who were nice to me was a kid named James Finster. I never forgot his kindness. All the way through our senior year of high school I perked up whenever I saw him. I genuinely cared about his well being. We all have our problems that we don’t make public but he always seemed ok and that definitely gave me a sense of satisfaction. We didn’t run in the same circles but for some reason our life paths came together at points in some very random ways.

“I have been no saint in this life. I have many regrets, and bad decisions seem to dictate the reality that is my life at times. But I am happy and content with what I have and what I have become, though I sometimes simply wander aimlessly, enjoying the moment.”

After high school I lost touch with 99.5% of the people I’d known. I didn’t do it on purpose but I went away to college and was insanely busy. I’ve gotten back in touch with a lot of people thanks to facebook, one of the most recent being James. I was surprised and elated to hear that he’d written a book. Then I saw what it was about and my heart sank. I’d had no idea that he’d been through this. Even though we’ve always been friends from afar, I would have liked to have given him a big hug. A small attempt at repaying the kindness he’d once shown me.

“There are moments of despair and there are moments of happy memories. I think a lot of it depends on one’s ability to process the reality of the situation and apply it to their life without bitterness or contempt.”

Then I read the book. And I learned so much about the kid he was and the man he had become. I’m fiercely proud of him. It’s a bit strange to read something so deeply personal from someone you’ve known and admired for so long but haven’t had contact with in several years. James has an incredible memory and as we’ve talked about the book these last couple of weeks, he’s been jogging my comparatively crappy memory and reminding me about things I’d long forgotten..

“We must look at anyone who has passed on and see him or her for the positivity they left behind. Embrace those times you felt loved by that person and carry on their memory in the positivity that they displayed in their finest moments.”

A page from my 7th grade yearbook

One of the ways in which our lives collided was the fact that both of our Dad’s joined the LDS church after our parents got divorced.  Boys and girls typically participate in separate activities but we would run into each other sometimes, usually on Wednesday nights at Mutuals. My memories of this time are a bit foggy but being reminded of them has made them clearer. James remembers coming over to my house and my Dad remembers going over to their house but I mostly remember the Young Women activities.  Neither James nor I ever converted and we both have a genuine respect for the people and the religion. I still keep in touch with some of my LDS friends and they are some of the loveliest people I know. While being a Bishop in the Mormon Church played a huge part in Don Finster’s life, it plays a very small part in this memoir. It’s not a book about his job, his religion, or even the cancer that terrified him and ultimately led to his suicide. It’s a book about the relationship between a father and his son.

“As my father’s only son, his death has left me with some big shoes to fill. The problem is, when your dad never wore any, where do you start?”

The result is a memoir that is simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming. Each chapter is a story, a situation that happened between James and his father. Each story teaches us two things; a nugget of the wisdom Don imparted on his son and an additional clue into the reason he died.

“The hardest thing is sorting out the teachings he offered without resorting to resentment that he gave up.”

James today

It’s a glimpse into the life of a normal, blue-collar guy going through extraordinary circumstances. James exposes his own strengths and shortcomings with complete honesty and a total lack of vanity. It’s raw and intense. He lays out all of his youthful misshapes and mistakes for the world to read so that it’s clear just how much his father shaped him into the man he is today.

“He had never shown me any selfishness in his life. He was always giving, always there, and if this was the one selfish thing he was going to do in his life, I wasn’t going to let it erase all the acts that came before.”

One story in particular, “A Message from the Other Side,” gave me chills. Another story happened at the street corner near my Dad’s house. Another one happened at the Boys & Girls Club and Foster’s Freeze where I also played basketball and ate soft serve afterwards. The wonderful thing about this book is that it’s so relatable. And not just for me or others we grew up with. Everyone can identify with one or more of these stories. Everyone understands the pain of losing someone close to them even if the circumstances behind that loss are completely different.

“He needed rest and wanted that rest desperately. This same longing to find rest was something I had wished for my father throughout his life. He always seemed too goddamn tired, and the world he existed in just kept pushing and pushing him.”

This is not a self-help book. People deal with death and suicide in very different ways and that’s ok. James isn’t trying to counsel anyone or tell them how they should deal with their own tragedies. This book is him coming to terms with his own grief. It’s a book he felt with every molecule in his body that he needed to write. In doing so he gives the reader someone who can identify with them.  He is not alone in this and you are not alone in this, no matter how alone we may feel.

“I realize that I may sound so wrong throwing these ideas out there. But I have suffered, I have grieved, I am a victim of this phenomenon. This is simply my take on this mysterious condition that exists so commonly in this life.”

At 134 pages it’s a quick but fulfilling read. It’s a poignant collection of memories, a twisting pathway of laughter, contemplation, sadness and hope. It’s a literary shoulder to cry on. I cannot recommend it enough.

“That night I sat out back on the porch, staring at the oak trees, and drank myself to sleep with Jameson and water to get my mind at ease. I rode the waves of emotion as they pushed and pulled at my heart, confused at the comfort I found with my relief that Dad was finally at peace and resting.”

The Reverent Surrender is available at Amazon.com