Happier Fatherís Days
This time of year always makes me remember a clear, sunny Sunday morning back in 1986. The day started out just like any other Sunday but unbeknownst to me a plan was in place to change my life, the conniving perpetrator of which was none other than my pastor. In the span of thirty minutes this big, jovial fellow destroyed the foundation of a framework of excuses that Iíd been building for more than twenty years. But to understand the end of this story you need the beginning.
My most powerful early recollection of my father is from my preschool years, I was about four years old. Dad was kneeling down so that his face was nearly in front of mine; I was looking at him wondering what was going on because we didnít have many face-to-face talks. As I waited for dad to speak a single tear rolled down his cheek. In just a few words my father said that he was leaving and wouldnít be coming back. My initial reaction to this news was positive: I wouldnít have to listen to all the scary arguing between him and mom, I could stop hiding in the closet when dad was drunk and angry. And my mother and I could move back into our house instead of living at Grandmaís. I donít remember how I responded to dad but it was probably something like, ďOKÖcan I go play now?Ē
What was revealed to me as time passed was that my father had set himself up as a scape-goat. Popular psychology of the day considered traumatic childhood events such as mine to be a mitigating circumstance for bad behavior later in life, a theory that remains today. I had hit the jackpot; every time I exhibited a short-coming it was legitimate in my mind to blame it on the absence of my father. Keep in mind this all occurred back when having two parents at home was viewed as a positive and necessary thing. While I was fortunate enough to have the love of my extended family to prevent me from becoming a feral child, I lugged a trunk-full of resentment around with me everywhere.
My dad was only gone for about six years or so when my folks got back together. Things were rocky at first and Dad didnít put any effort into making up for lost time, but rather, we now did the things that a lot of fathers and sons did, as if he had never gone. We put up a shed in the back yard, performed some long overdue pruning and clearing and built balsa wood airplanes. And occasionally we would fix a fender or headlight on dadís truck; he could never remember how those things happened.
He still drank too much but was becoming less violent and angry. However, Iíll never forget one very cold, snowy, winter night. It was a Friday, which had become Dadís night to ďget loadedĒ as Mom used to say; I usually tried to fall asleep before he came staggering home. Mom woke me up around 1:30 in the morning and told me Dad was home but because the snow was about 12Ē deep he was stuck at the end of the driveway, about three hundred feet from the house. The temperature was down in the Ďteens and Mom wanted me to check on Dad Ė heíd been outside in his truck for almost a half hour. I got dressed and trudged down to the truck, the windows were fogged so I opened the door and found my pathetic father hunched over and shivering uncontrollably. I hoped the neighbors werenít watching us from their dark kitchen windows. I gruffly told Dad to come with me and he said he was going to stay in the truck untilÖI couldnít make out the rest. We went through a few more iterations of the same conversation before he slid off the driverís seat and hung on to me as we slugged up the driveway to the house. In my mind Dad now owed me; if I hadnít gone down there to pull him out of his truck he probably wouldnít have survived the bitterly cold night. As soon as Dad was in the house I scurried back to my room and got back in bed. I decided then and there I would never let a son of mine see me like that.
The older Dad got the less he drank and the happier he seemed. I learned to tune out most of his constant criticism, which I guess was Dadís ineffective way of coaxing me to make something of my life. The ceaseless negative comments caused me to develop a defense mechanism; the more dad prodded me to do something, the less likely I was to do it.
When I finally went off to college I realized I missed home. I felt I was leaving Moundsville with exactly none of the skills I needed to survive on my own. Life at WVIT brought new freedom and a new revelation that a lot of what dad said was right; I didnít apply myself. Fortunately I met a few friends that were more concerned with my future than I was and with their help and encouragement I managed to graduate. Three months later I landed a job and Dadís only comment was that he was surprised at how little money I made given the college education they just bought me. I knew Dad and what he really meant was if I would have tried harder I would have a better job. My starting salary was less than half of what Dad was making and he was a high school drop out.
At this point in my life I had some serious issues to work out. If my mom and dad were an indication of married life I wanted no part of it. I was in my 40ís before I ever heard Mom and Dad profess to love each other. And if children were such a pain and felt about their parents the way I did I didnít want any of them either. Thanks Dad.
During that Sunday morning in church twenty-some years ago, the pastor said that if we wanted to forgive someone God would give us the ability. He also said forgiveness wasnít complete unless we forgot. That is, if we choose to forgive then we must also choose to forget those things that happened to us so that the forgiveness is complete. This tested my resolve; if I was being generous enough to forgive, shouldnít I be able to reserve the right to bring up those past events if I needed to? If I couldnít bring that stuff up again then I was forced to be the one responsible for my own actions. I was being asked to forfeit a lot of collateral but what would I get out of it?
Then the real point of the message was delivered: if I wanted to follow Christ, if I wanted to claim the benefits of being a Christian and be forgiven for all my sins, then I was obligated to forgive others. To claim the first and forsake the latter would make me a hypocrite and a liar. So there it was. I could no longer blame Dad for my shortcomings.
Change wasnít instantaneous but the hard part was done, I let go of all that I held against Dad. My personal history was rewriting itself in my memory; I was editing out Dadís negative influences and replacing them with my own accountability. A couple years later I invited my parents over to witness my baptism. Afterward, at the end of the service, I gave Dad a hug for the first time since I was a child and he spoke quietly into my ear, ďIím proud of you son.Ē It was such a fleeting sentiment but it echoed loudly, it still does, because I couldnít ever remember hearing it before. I had finally done something that made Dad proud. For the rest of Dadís life I never left Moundsville with just a wave or a handshake. I always gave Dad a hug and told him I loved him.
Years passed and dadís health deteriorated slowly and steadily. Instead of a card one year for Fatherís Day I wrote Dad a letter. The purpose of the letter was to recount some of my favorite memories with Dad and to reassure him that I indeed loved him. When I thought about it, the things that came to mind were simple; listening to Piratesí games on the radio, hearing his World War II stories over and over, building cranes out of Legoís on the kitchen table, throwing Frisbee in the back yard. Although he never mentioned it to me, the next time I called home Mom said he was quite moved by my letter. The preacher read the letter a few years later at Dadís funeral.
I was nearly always respectful to my father and put a lot of effort into seeking his approval. Even in the difficult years when I resented him for not making me better at basketball and math; and not cluing me into the vagaries of girls and carburetors I still respected him. But I couldnít love him until I forgave him and I couldnít forgive him until God gave me the will and desire to do so.
I know my story is mild compared to many out there and Iím not looking for sympathy, pity or understanding. What I want is for all those disgruntled sons and daughters to change their attitudes this Fathersí Day; if there is something between you and your father do whatever it takes to fix it. If you canít rise to that level of forgiveness ask for Godís help. Then give your dad a hug, and I donít mean one of those ridiculous chest bumping guy hugs. Then tell him that you love him. It could be your best Fathersí Day gift ever.
Happy Fatherís Day
© Michael Zelaski 2008