Father’s Day – Persistence in Love

Father’s Day – Persistence in Love

Glynn Cardy

Sun 04 Sep

1981.

From deep in the canyoned aisles of the supermarket comes what sounds like a small-scale bus crash followed by an air raid.  If you follow the running employee armed with mop and broom you would come upon a young father, his 3 year old son, an upturned shopping cart, and a good part of a soft drinks shelf – all in a heap on the floor.

The child, who sits on a bag of ripe tomatoes, is experiencing what might be called ‘significant fluid loss’.  Tears, mixed with mucus from a runny nose, mixed with saliva drooling from a mouth that is wide open and making a noise that would drive a dog under a bed.  The kids has also wet his pants, and has that look of ‘I’m-gonna-be sick’.  The small lake of soft drink doesn’t make rescue any easier for the supermarket 111 squad arriving on the scene.

The child is not hurt.  And the father has had some experience with the uselessness of the [then prevalent] stop-crying-or-I’ll-smack-you syndrome and has remained amazingly quiet and still in the face of the catastrophe.

The father is calm because he is thinking about running away from home.  Now.  Just walking away, getting into the car, driving away somewhere down South, changing his name, getting a job as a paperboy or a cook at a hamburger bar.  Something – anything – that doesn’t involve 3 year olds.

Oh sure, someday he might find all this amusing, but in the most private part of his heart he is sorry for himself, sorry that he grew up, sorry he got married and had kids, and, above all, sorry that this particular son cannot be traded in for a model that works.  He will not and cannot say these things to anybody, ever, but they are there and they are not funny.

The supermarket squad and the accumulated spectators are terribly sympathetic and consoling.  Later, the father sits in his car in the carpark holding the sobbing child in his arms until the child sleeps.  He drives home and carries the child up to his bed and tucks him in.  The father looks at the sleeping child for a long time.  The father does not run away from home.

1994.

Same man paces my living room, cursing and weeping by turns.  In his hand is what’s left of a letter that has been crumpled into a ball and then uncrumpled again several times.  The letter is from his sixteen-year-old son [same son].  The pride of his father’s eye – or was until today’s mail.

The son says he hates him and never wants to see him again.  The son is going to run away from home.  Because of his terrible father.  The son thinks the father is a failure as a parent.  The son thinks the father is a jerk.

What the father thinks of the son right now is somewhat incoherent, but it isn’t nice.

Outside the house it is a lovely day, the first day of Spring.  But inside it is more like Apocalypse Now, the first day of one’s man’s next stage of fatherhood.  The old grey ghost of Oedipus has just stomped through his life.  Someday – some long day from now – he may even laugh about this.  For the moment there is only anguish.

He really is a good man and a fine father.  The evidence of that is overwhelming. And the son is quality goods as well.  Just like his father, they say.

“Why did this happen to me?,” the father shouts at the ceiling.

Well, he had a son.  That’s all it takes.  And it doesn’t do any good to explain about that right now.  First you have to live through it.  Wisdom comes later.  Right now he just has to stand there and take it.

2016.

Same man and same son.  The son is 28 now, married, with his own three-year-old son, home, career, and all the rest.  The father is fifty. 

Three mornings a week I see them out jogging together at 6.30 am.  As they cross a busy street, I see the son look both ways, with a hand on his father’s elbow to hold him back from the danger of oncoming cars, protecting him from harm.  I hear them laughing as they run up the hill into the morning.  And when they sprint toward home, the son doesn’t run ahead but runs alongside his father at his pace.

They love each other a lot.  You can see it.

They are very care-full of each other – they have been through a lot together, but it’s all right now. 

One of their favourite stories is about once upon a time in a supermarket.

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This story, adapted from Robert Fulghum[i], touches on the fabulous and fraught world of fathering.

Everyone has or had a father, but many don’t or didn’t really know their father – and sometimes what they did know they didn’t like.  For those who have had good experiences Father’s Day can be a time of appreciation and gratitude.  For those who haven’t had good experiences it can be a time of painful remembrance.  Father’s Day can also be difficult for those who have wished to be father’s but couldn’t, or whose child[ren] have died.

This Fulghum story reminds us that in the broad sweep of life our perspectives change.  The viewpoint changes and our understandings change.  What we understood as a child, or as an adolescent, or as a young parent, can change.  Some of us have had the joy of discussing those changes with our father or children, but many haven’t.

The Fulghum story also evoked for me how in the last 120 years fathering has significantly changed.  My grandfather, who I knew well, was born in the late 1800s.  The expectation was that he would be the financial provider and protector of the family.  Fiscal and physical strength were important.  However, due to injuries sustained at the Somme, neither was to be.  His life was one of gardening, walking, reading, and [unusually for his day] attending his children’s school activities and sport’s days.  That said, the raising of children in the home was largely my grandmother’s realm.

My father, born in the 1920s, also received this provider and protector script, with my mother having the ‘raising’ task.  Dad was unskilled at matters like conflict resolution.  His domain was his garage – and it was there [or out in the bush] that any talking with his children happened.  I never heard his views on many things, including God. [God was a private matter].

It was during the latter part of my father’s life that huge changes started happening in society.  Fiscally, in most suburbs in New Zealand, a single income became less and less sufficient for a family to survive on.  Physical prowess progressively became less and less important as most jobs, even jobs traditionally considered ‘working class’, required more brain than brawn, and more education to get through the interview door.  With women entering, and remaining in, many workplaces that used to be male domains, the relationship between the genders both at work and at home underwent change. 

‘Change’ was everywhere the latter half of my father’s life.  In the 60s and 70s what models were there for how you were to father?  If you wanted to change how you fathered was there any men/mates who could assist you, especially given your gender conditioning not to talk about feelings, or admit to shortcomings?  Who could coach you in how to be a good father?  Indeed what was a ‘good’ father? 

Of course these questions continue today.  My experience is that in each generation fathers usually try to improve on the fathering they’ve received, or have perceived they’ve received.  And in that there is some hope, and also some seeds of forgiveness that might sprout in their children.

I heard a news item the other day that said parents as old as 82 are still fiscally supporting their children.  It reminded me how parenting is a commitment for life – though, as our Fulghum story indicates, parenting changes at each age and stage.  I have supported a number of older parents who have been grieved by their adult children’s interactions with their own families.  Alongside all the joy of being a grandparent can be the pain of seeing the next generations struggle.   

The Bible is largely not helpful when it comes to fathering.  On the back of the service sheet today there is a cartoon referring to Genesis 22 where Abraham, out of allegiance to his God, is prepared to kill his son, Isaac.  It’s a ‘text of terror’ [as Phyllis Trible would say] that shouldn’t be used [as it so often is] as an example of faithfulness.  Rather Genesis 22 should be read in the whole context of Isaac’s life – a dysfunctional life – as are the lives of many victims of parental abuse. 

Evidence of this dysfunction can be seen in the next Genesis generation too with the relationship between Jacob and his sons and then again with Joseph and his sons.  The good news is hard to find in these stories, but it is there on the periphery – like how Judah finds the grace to forgive his father, Jacob, and suggest a new way forward.

It is not only in the Genesis sagas that we find the prevalence of bad fathering, but also in the stories around the monarchy.  The David and Absalom tale is tragic, and despite the editorial gloss that tries to paint the king in a good light, David is far from blameless.

Some Father’s Day preachers use the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which is probably the best example of biblical fathering – with the father prepared to lose status and dignity in order to reconcile the relationship between himself and his sons, and the relationship between the boys.  But the cultural context is very different from our own.

I was amused to see that one Father’s Day sermon I read used the text from Luke 11:5-8 about perseverance [trying to borrow 3 loaves of bread off a friend at midnight].  The moral being that if you pester God, or your father, consistently and constantly, you will get what you want.

But maybe persistence is the ‘take-home’ learning for those of us privileged to be dads.  Persistence in caring for and supporting our children through the seasons and changes of life.  Persistence in sticking with our children when they mess up, and mess us up.  Persistence in trying to do better.  Persistence in trying to be a ‘good’ dad, and giving the time and thought such goodness needs.  Persistence in loving.

[i] It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It, Grafton, 1989.