I don’t remember my father very well. He’s been gone since 1984, and sometimes it’s hard to picture his face when I think about him. He used to make these Super 8mm movies all the time and would record narration on this cassette recorder he carried like a satchel while he filmed. I don’t have the movies, but I have a few of the tapes he made, and I can hear what his voice sounded like. It’s hard to put that voice with the pictures I do have. That makes me a little sad, when I think about it. It’s also sad that he’ll never meet my wife, or my kids.
My memories of my dad take the form of a series of incidents—specific memories—rather than a continuous narrative. I always had the idea in my head that since my father and I weren’t that close, I didn’t have any of the scars, or wounds, or traumatic childhood memories that many of the kids I knew with absent fathers had to deal with. I didn’t realize how deeply my experience with my own father had affected my life until I really tried to think about it, and remember.
My experience with my dad was not abusive, by any means. Nor was he exactly neglectful in the sense that most people would define neglect. It was just not a particularly loving or nurturing relationship, though I did get that from my sisters and my mother, when she was able to give it.
I can understand the way my father was to an extent, because men of his era weren’t raised in the “touchy-feely” style of parenting you see everywhere today. They expected certain things from their children, and did not expect others. Sharing feelings was part of that. Seems to me most men coming of age in the 1930’s and 40’s simply were not raised to be in touch with their feelings, or anyone else’s. My dad did the best he could with the tools he had to work with. But he was definitely not Ward Cleaver.
He would sometimes bring me places with him, but all I can remember about that was sitting in his truck with the windows rolled up and watching him yell at people (he was a cement mason, and I got to visit a few job sites). I remember he would sometimes get so mad the big veins would stand out on the side of his neck and his face would turn red. I didn’t inherit his temper, thank goodness. I’m hoping it doesn’t skip down to John, either, though he too is very vocal when things don’t go the way he likes.
Other times Dad would take me sailing with him, which was something extremely difficult for me. Actually, I hated it, but was made to go often enough that I became resigned to it, after a fashion–seasickness was the rule rather than exception. I didn’t always puke, but I did always feel like I would be better off if I did. I could tell that it frustrated/disappointed him a little, but he never really said much about it. He had his sea legs, and I just…didn’t. I felt like I should have enjoyed myself, and something was wrong because I didn’t.
Still, I would do my best to elicit praise (or really even attention) from him whenever possible. I would bring him coffee in the mornings on weekends when I was small. I would run to the liquor store to fetch the paper. I would sometimes ask to go places with him I really didn’t even want to go just to tag along, and be with him. I remember riding to Thrifty to get ice cream with him on a couple of occasions when I was small, and sitting on the back of his motorcycle, clutching him desperately. It was thrilling and terrifying at the same time.
I see a lot of that now with David. At 7, he is possessed of a curiosity about nearly everything, and every time I leave the house, he asks if he can come along. It doesn’t matter where I’m going. And I can reach back and see myself doing the same thing with my own father. I wonder if he had the same thoughts in his head I do with David? I wonder if he struggled with the same things I do? The same doubts? Did he wonder about whether or not he was a good father, or if he was messing up his kids and teaching them the wrong things about what is important?
In any case, I can now appreciate what it’s like to be the father of a small boy at + 40 and counting. It’s not easy. And I don’t want to leave the wrong impression. There are plenty of good memories as well. Good and bad, in equal measure.
My favorite memory of my dad was when I was maybe 5 or 6, I think. I would get up early sometimes, so I would be there when he left for work. I would say, “See you later, alligator,” and he would respond, “After a while, crocodile.” Not original, I know now, but it meant a lot to me then. Sadly, the older I got, the less I would get up to see him off, and our little routine soon disappeared.
But for the most part, my efforts were of little avail. I’ve spoken to my sisters about it, and the consensus was that it was just how dad was. He would provide, but it seemed he often would not or could not provide much affection. I can’t speak for all of my siblings, but I can’t remember much but apathy from him toward my life. I was pretty much free to do my own thing. I think I would have been satisfied with even a little validation, but like many of the other things in my childhood, the only place I got it was from my sisters.
The thing that was so frustrating about that was that I wanted him to care what I was doing. I wanted it desperately, but the only time that seemed to happen was when the possibility arose of costing him some money. Like shopping for school clothes, or getting school pictures taken.
I’m sure that much of it was that his work was seasonal, and we often didn’t have much money. Regardless of the reason, what it began to feel like after a while was that I was an obligation, and should not expect to have much spent on me–time, or money, or anything else. I don’t know if that was true, but I do know that’s how it felt. I can still feel it. So I would wear old clothes that used to belong to my brother, or were obtained at thrift shops. If it was new, it usually came from one of my sisters. Dad made it very clear that he did not like to have to “waste” money on things (I know how the preceding paragraph sounds, believe me. I’m just trying for a little clarity about where much of my needs as a child ranked in the household priorities, or at least how I felt they did).
Still, Christmases were not that bad (thanks to my sisters, usually). The interesting thing about them is that they were often more like my parents growing up than my parents were. Anyway, back to my father.
I think the thing lacking most in my relationship with my dad was something I didn’t even know was missing until much later in my life, and when I did, things began to make more sense to me. Well, the plain truth was that he while he provided as best he could, he did not really father me, in the traditional sense. By that I mean doing “dad” things–I’m not implying an infidelity by any means–anyone who sees me and a picture of my dad would know I inherited more than just his road rage.
In my opinion, one the main responsibilities of a father is to raise his son, not just being there as he grows, but participating in his life, and teaching him. He, as a father, is meant to pass on knowledge, and truth. Not just throw a football around, but being there in more than a physical sense. I missed most of that. I would drive off a bridge before I would give David and John that kind of childhood.
In a sense, I can’t blame my father that much–he was just about 40 when I came along, and probably thought he was long since done with kids. And when I got older, he was still doing a hard job at a much older age than most of the men he worked for and with. It must have been so difficult. Work was dependent on so many things, and money was tight most of the time.
One of the things I’ve struggled with most since becoming a believer is the notion that Jesus will think of me and treat me the same way my earthly father did. And that assumption helped to generate a great many lies about God, that I’m ashamed to say seemed very much like truth for much of my life.
1. He did not care about me
2. He did not mean for me to be here
3. He did not love me
4. I was not important to him
5. My wants and needs as a child did not matter to him
The Lord has been working on helping me find the truth of these statements, and others like them, which is completely opposite from what I was telling myself.
Interesting how difficult it is to separate my memories of my earthly father with my misconceptions about Jesus. It something that I continually need to refresh myself on, and in truth, it seems like it’s going to take forever. Another useful application of truth to pray for would be the realization that healing is a lifelong process. I know this, but sometimes I don’t know it.
This is something I’ve been battling for what feels like years, and I periodically find myself wandering off into the wilderness, spiritually speaking.
Sometimes I feel like God is not listening to me, and I allow myself to believe that he shouldn’t be. I feel like a little kid, following him around and pulling at his shirttails, begging for attention. The hardest part for me, more often than not, is connecting my head knowledge of God with what I know I mean to Him in my heart.
Because knowing is one thing, but feeling is another.
Lately I’ve been realizing more and more that the healing I’ve experienced is great, but I should by no means think I’ve arrived. I am not complete, and I won’t be until I stand before the Throne and Jesus says “Well done.” Hopefully.
What does Jeremiah say? “Look for me, and you will find me when you seek me with all your heart.”
I will find Him when I seek him with all my heart? Have I been seeking Him with all my heart? Have I really? Have I prostrated myself before Him in prayer, and thrown myself on the altar? Have I earnestly and truly sought his counsel? Have I asked him to be my Father?
The answer is sometimes. When I am at my most bleak, certainly. But have I been sharing the blessings of my life with Him? Of course, He knows well enough how blessed I am, but have I been going to Him in delight at what he’s shown me and done in my life? Have I been running to Him and saying, “Look, daddy, Look!”
I haven’t. I didn’t do that with my dad, either.
When I look at him through my adult eyes, I see that he probably did the best he could. He loved me in the way he was capable of loving. He was not a bad person, but he was older than his years, and so very tired. And in that regard, I need to forgive him his shortcomings. I can’t believe it was so hard to really “get” that. I’ve been working on forgiving other people in my life for a long time, and it never occurred to me Dad was one of those people.
I need to confess my own shortcomings as a son as well, and ask Jesus to forgive them. I don’t know if my father is with Him or not, but I know I’ll find out one day–hopefully not for a long time. I also need to ask forgiveness of my shortcomings as a father. I see with alarming clarity how much of my father is in me now in regard to my work and my relationship with my boys.
I am spending (or expending) so much of my time and energy on my work that I have very little left when I get home. I am not an absent father, but I am often absent in the way the boys need me the most.
That’s not acceptable, not at all.
I think that’s why the movie Courageous touched me so much. It detailed with remarkable clarity the struggle of being a Christ-following father in a world that could often not care less about the edification of its children. The film deals with real issues that trouble every dad, not just Christian fathers. It’s about taking responsibility for the upbringing of your kids, and teaching them the path to follow when they’re young so they don’t depart from it when they’re older.
I told myself often when I was younger that I would never become the father my own dad was, and was not. In many ways I’ve succeeded, but I have also failed.
Thanks to scripture, and prayer, and truth being revealed to me in several ways (including Courageous), I have come to realize that it is not too late to change. It is not too late to make good on my own failures as a father, and to show my kids what God can do in a life.
I tell you this: it is not too late for you, either.
Take your doubts about yourself and about God to the Father. Find accountability as a man, and as a Christ-following father. This is—or can be—the hardest part of the whole thing, but it is also one of the most important. You need to realize you are not alone, and you never were. This will involve supplication, and require humility and transparency. You might not be used to such things as a man, but I promise you in the end the dividends paid through finding the ability in yourself to put forth these things will be enormous.
So even if you are “that Dad,” and told yourself you never would be, you can change.