My mom and dad were seated at the kitchen table discussing something very serious. Then he went to the chalkboard on the back of the kitchen door and wrote the longest word I ever saw. Years later, I realize it was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. I don’t know if that’s the way it really happened or not, but that’s the way I remember it. That story has become a part of the myth of my father.
When you lose your father at the age of six, memories are fuzzy. My brother Ken recently talked to me about how saddened he was by the fact that the people in our family (cousins, nieces and nephews) who knew our father, for the most part, remember him being sick. I have a lot of those memories, too. They are indelibly etched in my brain. But I don’t really think of them as memories of my father so much as memories of a terrible disease that took him from us. That disease was not my father.
I remember dancing with him in the living room when I was probably no more than three or four. I was wearing a red plaid pleated skirt with shoulder straps. When one of the straps fell down, I pulled it back up and said, “Damn it!” My father couldn't help himself and laughed out loud. This is one of those stories I cling to because it reveals to me something important about who my father was. He was a man who enjoyed having a good time, but even more significantly for me, he was a man who took delight in me. (I wonder if this memory explains why two things that bring me great joy, to this day, are dancing and swearing.)
Most of what I remember about my dad was related to sports. That shouldn’t be all that surprising since he and my Uncle Gordon owned a sporting goods store. Our family life revolved around ball diamonds, bowling alleys, and fishing lakes. I can see him tossing a baseball in the front yard with my brother, inspecting bowling lanes with level in hand, turning off the lights at a softball field after an evening game. He seemed to be surrounded by friends with funky nicknames like Bones and Sparky. There was always a party going on when my dad was around. That’s the way I remember it.
The last time my father saw me I was standing in a hospital parking lot looking up at a hand waving at me from a window four stories up. It seemed to be an appropriate way for him to exit my life. Not only was I waving goodbye to him, but I was waving goodbye to life as I had known it. It felt a bit like being booted out of Camelot and into the wilderness. There was this void in my life that I couldn’t begin to understand as a little girl. My younger sister was just a baby and my older brother was a troubled adolescent who was acting out after losing the most important connection in his life. They required a lot of attention. That left me… nowhere. Every day I came home from school to an empty house and a black cocker spaniel named Inky. I was on my own. From that time on I don’t ever remember anybody laying out my clothes for me in the morning, or telling me to take a bath or go to bed at night. I was living in a void. In some ways I felt like I myself was a void.
A few years after my father died, my mother remarried. I’m not sure why. I suspect she thought we needed a father, or maybe she was afraid that she wouldn’t be able to make it on her own. But it wasn’t a real marriage and in my book it did more harm than good to our family. I never accepted that man as anything that even remotely resembled a father in my life and I never let him forget it. He crossed the line with me on a few occasions and gave me ample material to pick apart with a therapist when I was in my early thirties. Suffice it to say that his presence in my life was not helpful. And I never confused him with a person I would call my father.
Through the years I created a myth for who my father was. Some parts of the story may be factual, but when a person becomes a myth, their story transcends the facts. In recent years, I learned that my father was a racist. I also learned that back in the days before I was born he moved his family repeatedly from place to place because he didn’t have money to pay the rent. So, my father was human after all. I'm not so sure now what's true about him and what isn't. The only thing I know for sure was that my mother adored him until the day she died. It’s not much, but I suppose it’s something.
They say that there’s a strong correlation between the relationship a woman has with her father while she’s growing up and her ability to have healthy relationships with men as an adult. Ugh. I don’t know what that means for me. How can I ever stop hoping deep down inside that some man will come along and fill the void I’ve been carrying my whole life? I know that’s absurd; no man can ever do that. But this six-year-old little girl still lives inside me and she will always long for that. I’ve learned to stop doing battle with that little girl and embrace her as a part of who I am. That helps. Overall, it keeps her from getting the best of me.
From time to time, God has helped me heal some of the damaging effects of the void in my life by bringing an extraordinary man to walk with me for a while. I think of three in particular. They are all pastors I’ve worked with at different times and I felt myself connecting to them as I would a father. They are not perfect by any means, but they are good guys. It was the way that I felt about myself when I was with them that made such a difference in my life. Like the father I remember dancing with in my living room, they took delight in me. I also felt protected by them, although it wasn’t like they were my knights in shining armor who fought my battles for me. It was more like they supported me in my struggles and I always trusted that they had my back. I could count on them for that. I felt safe and secure with them. Isn’t that what the love of a father looks like? A father delights in you. He has your back. You know you're safe and secure with him. I like to believe that God sent these men into my life because he knew how much I needed to experience that.
On Father's Day I can’t help but think about the dad I lost 50+ years ago. But I also think of Bob, Jan and Dick. They truly were God-sent gifts to help me along the way. And through them, I have come to recognize how, when all is said and done, God is the one who fills the void in my life. Had I never experienced the void, I might never know that. Although it has seemed so real to me, I know it is an illusion. God fills the void, and it ceases to exist. And God always fills it.