Father’s Day. What do you celebrate if you lost your father a long time ago?
My father died 38 years ago, I was twenty-two and just beginning to appreciate what an adult relationship to a father could mean. But he died, at age 62, and our family felt his death as a wound that rubbed raw for three months until our mother, even younger than my father, also died. We went numb after that.
But time heals and now, all those years later, everything about my father, including his death, feels warm and gives off a blessing. The same holds true for my mother. There’s a warmth where once there was a wound.
So mostly I don’t miss my father, at least not in the way we normally miss someone we love. I don’t need him in a certain way any more. In the few years that I had him he gave me what he needed to give me and now I know that no matter what I’m doing, good or bad, he is aware of it. That’s frightening too and I wonder if he blinks sometimes as he sees my life.
Remembering him today, on Father’s Day, I realize, more than ever, that I was lucky. He was a good father, and in ways not so immediately evident.
Jesus was once speaking in a crowd when a woman raised her voice and complimented his mother by saying: “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breast the nursed you!” Jesus didn’t deny that he had a wonderful mother, but added that his mother was wonderful not so much in that she had given him biological birth but especially in that she had given him birth to deeper life. The same could be said about my father. His fatherhood was more than biological.
The externals of his life weren’t extraordinary, though he tended to have a pretty full plate. Besides being a farmer, he was involved deeply in church and community. He worked for much of his life for his favorite political party, was a councillor for the local municipality for many years, and sat occasionally on both the local hospital and school boards. Once he ran for public office, for Reeve of the local municipality (something akin to being a rural mayor) and he lost. It was a tough blow for him. I remember the disappointment in him, even while he was trying to put on a brave face. What hurt was not so much the fact of losing, he didn’t much want the job anyway, but the fact of knowing that the local community preferred someone else to him. There’s pride in us all.
Beyond that, he managed a local baseball team for many years. He loved that but, given local politics, that too was sometimes more of a political joggling act (whose sons got to play and whose didn’t) than a welcome distraction to the everyday grind. But from that I inherited a lifelong love for baseball and would love to have had the chance to go to a major league game sometime with my father.
But what made him outstanding as a father was his personal integrity and his stubborn, uncompromising moral edge. For my father, there were no excuses for moral compromise, for compensating just because you were tired, or confused, or in an over-tempting situation. He issued no exemptions, to you or to himself. The real effort of life, for him, was to measure up, in faith and in moral behavior. It didn’t help to protest that you were human after all and couldn’t be expected to be perfect. His answer: “It’s no great thing being human. Everyone is that! I want someone to show me something that’s divine!”
He made it clear to us, to all of his children, that our lives were not our own, that we were given a vocation from God and that vocation is to give our lives away, even if that means hard sacrifice. I haven’t always lived that perfectly, but his voice inside of me has pushed me always in that direction.
He was a strong, stubborn moral voice, one from which you didn’t easily walk away. But he never bullied, grew nasty or violent, or over-pressured. The pressure came from whom and what he was and, from that, I inherited, I think, more than I wanted. In that moral stubbornness, he was too a reticent man, he didn’t dance easily or with much fluidity. I sense that now in my own life, in my body, in my bones, in my hesitancies, in my over self-consciousness at times, and in my failure sometimes to be able to abandon myself healthily to life.
But that’s who he was and that’s who I am, for better and for worse. He was my father and I carry a lot of his DNA, both the biological and the other.
And, thirty-eight years after his death, I walk in gratitude for that DNA, with both its strengths and its inhibitions.