“All a child can expect is that its father be present at the conception.”
“To be a successful father, there is one absolute rule. When you have a kid, don’t look at it for the first two years.”
We’re making progress with the institution of fatherhood. Our world has changed and improved. I admire what a good job so many young guys are doing as fathers. What I admire even more are those males who realized mid-stream in their lives they had failed to give, and get, plenty from their children and who took responsibility for that failure. My own dad was one of them.
Here reaching into my past is the toughest piece I ever put in print. I was a columnist for a series titled: ‘Understanding Men,’ published weekly by several newspapers. From that year of writing columns, this one was the most personally healing:
One magic day, father and son came together.
I’m a fortunate human being, for I have been given great treasures in my life. None greater than treasures of the truth. This is a column about the heart of my life, my relationship with my father. Up to April of this year, my relationship with Dad had been the too-busy father-and-the-son-who grew-up-pretty-much- alone story you’ve heard in country songs. That’s usually where the story ends, with the singer going on about how he’s too busy for his own kids now: ain’t it a shame? But as I said,
I’ve been given a treasure, so read on.
On a day last spring, my father called me over to his home to talk. His request was unusual and got my attention. I arrived at 6:30 in the evening just as the TV news was starting. He turned off the television and announced he had something to say. At that point, I was nervous, since I’d never known him to turn off the TV.
I knew he’d been going through some major changes in his life, but I was totally unprepared for what he told me. He began by saying he’d been unavailable in my childhood, that he’d been a workaholic, too busy to teach me the things men need to learn of the world. He talked of how he had provided basic food, clothing and shelter, but that he had not been there for me when I needed him; that he had just, ‘flat blown it.’
In the shock wave of his confession, I’ve forgotten his exact words, but his closing will live in me always: “Sherman, I take little credit; you are who you are by a miracle of you own courage.”
At that moment, as I am at this moment of sharing this rich, painful gift, my father and I broke down in a blaze of tears. I look back and see, even in my shock, how I began to love him in a new way. Less because I was supposed to, more because I wanted to as a human being whose courage I respected.
Although I’ll probably never fully understand what he gave me, I know his gift of honesty has made a considerable change in my life, has given me more courage to keep going and growing than I ever knew I had.
Of course, no other relationship is like the parent/child one. It has a lifetime of possibilities, and it’s never too late to know you are loved, respected and admired by a parent. Forty-three is not too late to have a father. That day in April will always be Father’s Day for me. Six months later, I was the volunteer coordinator of a peer support group for men. We’d had several discussions on fathering, so I summoned all the courage I could. I invited my father into the group to tell the story of our conversation.
Boy, was I nervous! Dad, on the other hand, seemed pretty cool and collected. He said even more than he’d said the first time: ‘I was a 21- year old medical student. It was wartime. I was working 14/16 hour days. I couldn’t find time to be with my wife, then he (pointing at me) came along. I deeply resented him.’ He continued with what he had told me in April.
You could look around the room and watch the jaws hanging slack on 20 men. In the silence, I knew those guys wanted to know my reaction to what he’d said. I spoke of how loved I felt at his gift of the truth, of what new respect I felt for his courage, of how I was beginning to build a new relationship with him. Several of them afterward told me and my father they’d never heard a father talk to a son with such honesty.
As I look back at my father’s confession, I see that I wasn’t surprised at what he told me, I’d known that all along. I was stunned THAT he told me. I will always respect his saying: ‘I blew it!’ not the tired old, watered-down, ‘I did the best I could.’
Like many of you with absent fathers, I picked up things along the way as best I could from male teachers, coaches, and mentors. Today, my father can be one of your inspirations, as he is for me. Do you have something to say to your own children? Things unsaid can fester like wounds.
However, you must not expect any response. Even a year earlier, I’d have had a negative reaction to what my father said. But by now I’d come around. We each have our own timetable. You could well incur considerable anger of the why-didn’t-you-tell-me-this-when-I-needed-it variety.
You may have to be patient and believe everything has its time.
The crucial thing is to have offered your version of the truth.
When all is said and done, all we have is our own version. Now my father and I are insimilar situations. He doesn’t know how to have a son, and I don’t know much about having a father. We are both learning one step at a time. There are no words for how I value each new step.