My present relationship with my father began a little more than two years ago, when we lost my mother. Since then we have talked on the phone morning and evening, just about every day. I suppose the combination of my being more temperamentally similar to my mother, and my father’s steady fulfillment of his family role as provider and disciplinarian, had made him seem more distant – not absent or uncaring, but more other, the counterpart to her enveloping nearness. Throughout my early life, he was like that promontory on the seacoast which provides a fixed point for the orientation of ships rising and falling on the waves.
I think there’s something archetypal about a father, as there is about a mother. Whereas she is the encompassing reality out of which we need to be delivered in our quest for identity, he represents in his otherness the ideal and future goal of what we are becoming. Our fathers might not exhibit the ethical character that inspires our own positive moral formation – although my father truly did – but simply in their otherness they stir our longing to stand out and be somebody. This might help explain why some young men who grow up without a positive role model in their fathers are at higher risk of becoming sociopaths and extremists.
Sometimes I wonder if my father’s role in our family system as the lawmaker and disciplinarian kept me from seeing the sentimental and softer side of him. Maybe his life story as a firstborn son and obligated farm hand, eventually serving as a church pastor in a denomination that was strongly patriarchal, shaped his own development away from the more tender and expressive virtues. No doubt, who we are and how we are in the world is to some extent determined by our situation in life and the responsibilities we are asked to shoulder. Even given that, I realized later on that how I saw my father was also limited by my own needs, ignorance, and insecurities.
Just last month my father’s only sibling and last remaining family member passed away, leaving him with the solitary task of sifting and sorting through legal documents, family memorabilia, and other of my uncle’s personal effects. He’s remarked more frequently of late how tired and ‘shaky’ he feels, driving back and forth from Michigan to Iowa and having to make decisions over the disposition of property and the family farm. He is struck at times by how little is holding him here anymore, after losing his parents, a son, his wife, friends along the way, and now his only brother. As the anchors of love and commitment are pulled up from his world, he feels increasingly adrift and alone in life.
In the midst of it, however, his faith remains strong, which I’m sure is the deep core of his character stability that has always impressed me. While his theology – the vocabulary and discourse he uses to make sense of his faith – is not identical with my own, I resonate with my father’s sense of a provident mystery that is present with him even in his loss and grief. We are not separate from reality after all, and ultimate reality (what we name God) is not ‘something else’ but rather the essential ground in which, as the Apostle Paul says quoting the Cretan philosopher Epimenides, ‘we live and move and have our being’. In his quiet moments, my father finds reassurance that he is not really alone.
At first, our frequent phone conversations were my way of keeping in touch and sharing the grief of losing my mother. It was distressing to picture him there, sitting by himself on the edge of the bed or staring through tears at his morning oatmeal. I wanted to be with him, to give what comfort I could offer. Over time, however, it was his faith that ministered to me. He seemed softer, more vulnerable; and in his vulnerability, more genuine and present in the moment. Our connection grew stronger, and I found myself looking forward to the next chance we’d have to talk.
Someday I want to be like my father.
Why is it so easy for us to take what is precious for granted? When our loved ones are alive and with us, how do we dare let a day pass without telling them how much they mean to us? Why does it take losing them to remind us? I will not wait, not another day. After all, the day might not come.
Dad, I love you. Thank you for being a rock for me, and for helping me find my way.