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On Fatherless Days

Father's Day is easy for me: I have none. They all left. So Father's Day is easy for me. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

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Topics: Parenting, Faith
On Fatherless Days June 23, 2015  |  By James K.A. Smith
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In memory of Franz Wright.

Father's Day is easy for me: I have none. They all left.

So I don't have to find an awkward card amidst the cloying selection on offer. I don't have to make the clichéd choice between necktie or power tool. I don't have to endure the awkwardness of a largely wordless afternoon in the presence of my progenitor, or remember to call and then try to wrangle a conversation out of the receiver. ("I don't have to," of course, is its own sort of spin, papering over the "I don't get to" buried beneath it.)

So Father's Day is easy for me.

It's the rest of the fatherless days that are difficult.

When I was 12 years old, my father divulged his affair with my mother's best friend. He promptly kicked me, my brother, and my mother out of the house and moved in his mistress, her children taking over our bedrooms. We moved to a different town and saw him only a handful of times after that. The encounters I remember were abusive and terrifying. The last time I laid eyes on him was when our oldest son was born. That was almost twenty-three years ago.

My mother remarried. Her husband was the male presence in my life during my teen years, a mostly spiteful, antagonistic father-substitute. But I'd take what I could get.

He left, too.

In many ways, I've been a father longer than I've been a son. While I make no claims of being either good or exemplary, the most sacred call I'm trying to answer in my life is to be a faithful husband and father. I've spent every ounce of psychic energy I have to try and make sure that Father's Day is never "easy" for my kids by simply showing, on every other day: "I'm still here."

I'm still here and I'm not going anywhere because I don't want to miss a single thing. I don't want to miss you wearing a cape and rubber boots to the grocery store, or the first time you got an earring (which we did together!), or watching you meander toward finding who you're called to be, or seeing you blossom into the very image of your mother. I don't even want to miss the disappointments and darkest moments because I can't imagine how difficult it must be to endure those without a father. Or rather, I can, which is why I can't imagine how my own father could let that happen and why I promise I'll still be here.

I'm still here even on the days that I blow it and exasperate you. I'm still here on the days I have to tell you, "I'm sorry." I'm still here even on those days when it seems like I'm a million miles away, distant and detached and aloof because I'm haunted by the overwhelming absence of my father who has torn a hole in my life. Like Keats' "negative capability," this is the sort of absence that is a presence, a hole that takes up space and eats you alive. It's an absence that makes it difficult to sometimes be present to others, even when you're in the same room. It's this distance that Franz Wright finally named for me years ago, in a poem about the destructive presence of his own father who left. As Wright puts it,

If I’m walking the streets of a city
covering every square inch of the continent
all its lights out
and empty of people,
even then
you are there

If I’m walking the streets
overwhelmed with this love for the living

I will still be a blizzard at sea

Since you left me at eight I have always been lonely

star-far from the person right next to me, but

closer to me than my bones you

you are there

I'll always be in the room and will ask you to forgive me. It's just that I'm fathering without a father, working without a net, trying my damndest to pull off this acrobatic trick of not leaving. That's how I love you.

Thankfully, despite all these absences and departures, I have found a model and exemplar. Or rather, I have been found by a model Father. So there are no fatherless days because I have been found and adopted by a heavenly Father who promises to never leave me nor forsake me. Indeed, I've been invited into the life of the triune God who embodies everything this deeply human heart of a son is longing for. The God I worship is a Father who loves his Son, and who says what any and every son longs to hear:

And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased." (Matthew 3:16-17 ESV)

And I know that I am in his Son, I am his son. I have spent a lifetime hoping to hear these words from my earthly fathers. God only knows how much my frenetic, driven energies are still subconscious cries to be recognized by a father who left, who never asks, who has never come looking for me. But the grace of the Gospel is to know that I am a son who is beloved. It may be heretical, it may be indulgent, but one of my deepest eschatological longings is to be welcomed into the kingdom by the Son who shows me the Father (John 14:9), who will tousle my hair like a boy and simply say, "Good job. I'm proud of you."

All of this was stirred up for me this week by another poem, by Seamus Heaney, a masterful meditator on the relationship between fathers and sons. His poem, "The Follower," stopped me in my tracks:

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My father worked with a horse-plough,
His shoulders globed like a full sail strung
Between the shafts and the furrow.
The horse strained at his clicking tongue.

An expert. He would set the wing
And fit the bright steel-pointed sock.
The sod rolled over without breaking.
At the headrig, with a single pluck

Of reins, the sweating team turned round
And back into the land. His eye
Narrowed and angled at the ground,
Mapping the furrow exactly.

I stumbled in his hob-nailed wake,
Fell sometimes on the polished sod;
Sometimes he rode me on his back
Dipping and rising to his plod.

I wanted to grow up and plough,
To close one eye, stiffen my arm.
All I ever did was follow
In his broad shadow round the farm.

I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,
Yapping always. But today
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me, and will not go away.

I never want Father's Day to be as "easy" for my kids as it has been for me. Which is just a way of saying I don't want them to have to endure fatherless days. I'm not going away. But I'm not haunting them. I don't want to burden them. I'm cheering them on, ready to pick them up when they stumble. I want to be that net I never had, so they can acrobatically launch into their lives, confident in the love of a father loved by the Father that loves them, too.

This post was originally published here.

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