Sunday, June 21, 2009

Fate of Our Fathers

Tonight I cuddled with James on our hammock under a spider-man blanket. On a clear night you can see a few stars from my back yard; tonight there was a cloud cover reflecting the lights of the city. In years past, I spent many nights on that hammock. I was high, smoking cigarettes and imagining the aliens who lived on planets circling the stars above me. A few times I woke up Ashley so she could join me. She thought I was being a good dad, and begged me later to wake her up more often for midnight snuggles.

I've been researching videos for our Father's Day service. I found this one that struck me with its honesty. It begins by recognizing dads who balance work and family – pretty standard fare. What touched me was that it goes on to honor dads who try not to repeat their fathers' mistakes, and dads whose fathers were absent completely. I began to think of the men in my church, and the messes and heartache they struggle to leave behind.

Last weekend I broke one of my rules. I returned a phone call when I was angry. When my coworker answered, I was condescending and sarcastic. I hung up the phone and that feeling came back: I am my dad. My dad, who has tantrums at work, until he's not working there anymore. People only put up with this for so long, then he moves on to another job. This tendency to ruin relationships with fits of ego-centric rage feels like a legacy I can't escape, no matter how much therapy I pay for, or how many 12 step groups I join. It suffocates and terrifies me. It feels like fate.

Tonight Linsey read to James from a journal she kept when he was a baby. Unlike the journal for his older sister Ashley, James' journal is sparse and incomplete, reflecting the brokenness of our lives at that time. We were discovering that while one kid had been fun, two kids were exhausting. I laughed when Linsey read aloud what James said after he hid the spanking-spoon: “daddy no pow-pow me!” I cringed when she read about his preschool teacher, the woman I thought would save me from my miserable marriage.

That was an awful time. We moved to a new house and I was overwhelmed at my new job as a church music director, afraid that I would cave in under the pressure of dealing with people. Like my father had when I was a child. We had left our church back then when he yelled and stormed out of a board meeting. I didn't come back until they hired me twenty years later.

I am still here. I have not been fired or shamed, and I've weathered the conflicts with relative grace, because I am not my father, I am me. There is no fate. Instead there are choices – innumerable choices and opportunities to surrender my future to the grace of God.

After I hung up the phone last weekend, I called my coworker back. I ate humble pie and asked her to forgive me for being a jerk. I think she did. I think we're okay.

Tonight I showed my family the Father's Day video and I cried. Because we are an army of broken men who have imperfect or non-existent examples of what it means to be a father. Because we fight to stand on the shoulders of the men who raised us and we curse our own mistakes. Because the man in the video with the abusive father was not me, but my dad, who escaped a legacy of divorce and abuse to give me a stable home filled with love. He wasn't fated to repeat his dad's mistakes. Neither am I.

Tonight I am thankful for my dad, and for who he is today. I'm thankful that even though he had temper problems, he never abused drugs or alcohol, and he never abused me. I'm thankful that I get to be sober for the rest of my years as a father. And I'm thankful that I could talk about electricity and superheroes with my son while we laid in a back yard hammock.


  1. My father came from a time when he was supposed to be unemotional and stern. As of matter of fact, I don't remember one bit of warmth, ever. But he was not an alcoholic (like my real dad, the one that left) or abusive. I turned out OK, but I know to this day he would never tell me that.

    Great post, it's much better when kids can know their father's as humans.