I didn't realize, growing up, the cost of not having a relationship with my father. It's only in recent years that the weight of the impact on my life has become evident to me. This new realization comes to me for many reasons. Becoming a dad is the obvious one, but in addition, it's helped that I have read several books which emphasize the importance of a dad. Finally, I've noticed several films where the main character fathers his kids, and the children have an understanding of their father's role that I never did. I have learned of a father's importance by watching dads ranging from good ones, as in "The Pursuit of Happyness," to ones who fell way short, like in "Shine", "The Great Santini", or "Up".
The benefit of gaining this new understanding is that it forces me to pay special attention to my role as father. I'm pretty sure I would have been too self-absorbed to have had a good impact on Abby, Jacob, and Zachary if it hadn't been made known to me how important it is to try to do it right.
It sounds funny now, what with "Wild at Heart" and Promisekeepers and all, but there was a time when fathering wasn't strongly emphasized. When it was mentioned, it was all about passing along good morals. Being a good father meant being a disciplinarian and making your kids call you "sir". "Spending time" with kids meant that we should take them along with us to the hardware store.
So now I'm nearly a decade into fatherhood, and about that many years into examining my own father and what I had and didn't have with him. He left when I was 4, and I have scant memories of living with him. To be honest, I have no memory of him attempting to father me. In fact, I cannot say to this day that I understand what it means to look to someone as a father figure. I hear others talk of the way they look at their dads, and it's like I'm a blind man and they're explaining the color blue to me.
Back then, the court-ordered duo of child support and custody weren't tightly regulated like they are now, so I didn't see him very often. Maybe 3 or 4 times growing up, and then maybe 6 or 7 times as an adult. I called him by his first name, Randy. It was always cordial; he was nice to me and, by all accounts, was a good guy.
But I never experienced that child-to-father thing, whatever it is supposed to be like. I knew him, but I never knew him. I don't say that in a self-pitying way, and I certainly don't say it with any sort of anger toward him. I think there's something to the command of honoring your father and mother. It's a command that doesn't seem to leave room for exceptions. So there is no anger coming from me to him; I simply didn't know him. Sadly, I will not get to know him: he ended his own life in 2000, so that ship has sailed.
Interestingly, in the last few years, I can point to multiple occasions where God showed me that the absence of an earthly father in my life isn't a total disaster. He did it using, of all things, music and movies. Here are two examples.
1. In "A Knight's Tale", with Heath Ledger, there's a scene where the dad, seeing no opportunities for his son in the poverty-stricken situation they were living in, sent his boy to a farm where he could learn by being someone's apprentice. Father and son didn't see each other again during his childhood. When the dad met his grown son many years later, it was clear that he did the right thing for his son, by letting him be raised in another environment.
In my case, my dad was very unlike me: rural, very outdoorsy, and also (I want to say this without dishonoring, but it's a truth that is integral to this story) he was an alcoholic and, as I recall, had a bit of a temper. If I had been raised with him, who knows how I would have turned out? I'd have to say that alcoholism or some other addiction, or the tendency to be abusive, would be very possible, maybe even probable. It appears to be for the best that I did not grow up with him.
2. A few years ago, I was home on the Friday before Father's Day. I was alone for an hour or two, so I pulled up something on the internet. A singer I really like was about to release his new CD, and it was being offered for listening at a website. One of the songs is called "You Don't know My Love". It's ostensibly by a man wooing a woman, but I could hear God speaking to me, about His love for me. He was saying that although I hadn't always been open to letting Him love me in a father/son sort of way, He still wanted to Father me.
The relevant lyrics:
If you've cried a river
If you doubt your dreams
If you've waited in vain for a phone that won't ring
If you think a promise is something you can't trust
Then you don't know my love
I've been falling, falling
Ever since I met you
Trying to get you to finally see
That no one is ever gonna love you like Me
I was mesmerized when I heard that, and played it over and over again for the next several days. I couldn't get enough of that song. It was clear that God was speaking about pursuing me, telling me to open up and let Him father me. I wish I could say I have done that and my whole life was miraculously changed that day, but the reality is that it's been gradual rather than instantaneous. And that's OK. I'll get there.