Father of Fathers

I studied my Dad’s lanky silhouette in the moonlight behind our old red barn. He squatted down on the pasture grass, and the ember from his cigarette glowed orange as he rested his hand on a knee. I had no idea what was coming.

Dad and Mom had been trying to reawaken feelings for one another after moving from California to a ranch in Oregon. They had remodeled our tiny home, adding their master bedroom and a bedroom for each of us kids. My sister and I had taken to rural life like ponies on a spring romp.

Our ranch house wore a massive willow bouffant that shaded the backyard from the sun. Honeybees hummed steadily amid its countless green willow whips, and near the back porch a thick hemp rope hung down from one muscular bough. I tied a wad of burlap at the end of the rope to straddle for a swing.

Dad hated the gnarly old weeping willow tree. Its roots tortured our well, and the leaves oozed a sappy glaze that coated everything beneath. Mom sometimes slipped-up and parked her little black Volkswagen in its giant shadow, but my father never forgot. Coming home late after work, he routinely oriented his canary-yellow Cougar away from its sticky drizzle.

Dad cherished his Cougar—a symbol of career achievements with Mutual of Omaha. New suits and polished leather shoes accrued with his promotions, and Mom dutifully sent him to work each day in his white shirt and tie, starched and perfectly pressed.

Not long after moving to our last-chance ranch, Dad began supervising a crack team of insurance agents. He excelled in cold-calling and spent more and more time away from home for executive training—while his beautiful black Morgan horse grew skittish in the pasture from lack of saddle time.

Mom and us kids kept up the chores mostly without Dad, whose position, he believed, required him to socialize with colleagues after hours. Mom watched helplessly as her hope for reviving their 15-year marriage wilted like an un-watered garden.

On that memorable weekend when our father-son talk occurred, my dad had seemed light-hearted around the house, like some great pressure had been relieved. Civil-but-cold silence enshrouded my parents, but Dad acted strangely attentive to us kids.

Late one evening Dad said pleasantly to me, “Son, come on. Let’s go for a walk,” and I followed him behind the barn.

Hunkering down knee-to-knee we stared toward the sounds of cows grazing contentedly in the dark, then decisively he flicked his Camel into the dewy grass.

“Looks like you’ll have to be the man of the house now…”

He had been overnighting on and off somewhere else for weeks. He was divorcing Mom. He couldn’t stay, and I would “understand someday.”

Buying the ranch had been my father’s last effort to reawaken fondness for my mother, but the trial was over. For the sake of the family he had to leave. He was saving my sister and me the pain of growing up in an unhappy home.

I felt like a bleating calf as I pleaded for him to change his mind.

Abruptly he stood to his feet, hugged my shoulders with one arm, and crushed his smoldering stub with the sole of his cowboy boot. He latched the corral gate behind us, and we trudged to the house. Dad had his bags packed.

For the three of us the hours between dusk and dawn dragged on and on after Dad moved out for good. Mom read us the Bible and stories from books like Tarzan of the Apes to keep our minds occupied—and hers. My sister and I slept fitfully on Dad’s side of the king-size bed, and when I returned to school my grades plummeted. I wondered: Does my father leave his responsibilities to me because he thinks I am equal to the task? Should I feel… proud?

Mom emerged from her own sinkhole slowly, scanning newspapers for work, and learning to balance a checkbook.

Dad never missed a child-support payment. He married one of his top agents and later purchased a fishing resort on a beautiful river, his dream. In my teens I visited him several times, and we felt comfortable with the gulf fixed between us.

Neither of us wanted to validate his disappointment that I was becoming a ne’er-do-well “hippie” —an embarrassment. And neither of us realized that his errant departure had stirred up my need to find someone with whom I could share my life—someone trustworthy. I met Carol at a potluck when I was barely 18.

In a borrowed suit I vowed to never abandon my 17-year-old sweetheart, who wore a blue chiffon gown sewn by her mother the week before our wedding. Dad declined to attend, but my bride’s volatile father came—to grudgingly release his daughter to me.

I barely breathed during our tense evening nuptials, and I scanned the faces in our audience, knowing that a few were hoping that we would move far, far away. After slices of obligatory cake, I spun my tires as we left Carol’s church, a testament to our relief that she was untethered from her betrayers at last. Along with the cheery tin cans, gossip rattled in our wake, and the thought of receiving a father’s tearful blessing never entered our minds.

At our musty studio apartment we loaded my pickup with everything that we owned, and like confused sparrows fled north—then south to California.

Lying in my arms in the dark Carol felt safe enough to reveal her broken heart to me—and as I listened, my own father-child trauma melted into nothing.

Childhood with “Daddy” had robbed my bride of an ability to recognize honorable love. Then a respected deacon in her church had set a “fatherly” snare that crippled what was left of her precious youth.

We lived at a time when the rape of an adolescent girl was often left in the shadows, unprosecuted—to quash scandal in a community. Traveling shoulder to shoulder down Interstate-5 in our ’64 International pickup, away from the arena of betrayal, we felt truly free.

Four years had passed since my dad ceded his mantle of fatherhood to me, and he and I still knocked heads over everything that mattered in life. Within days of our wedding, I dutifully introduced Carol to him at his resort in California, where his wife prepared a sumptuous steak and lobster dinner to “celebrate.” Dad didn’t approve of my marriage, but I was grateful that he hid his chagrin that night. He wasn’t alone in his judgement. Friends back home had counseled that our marriage wouldn’t last a year.

Through a season of job changes and moves I lost touch with my father, except for a few letters each year—until I answered the phone late one evening.

“Your dad has inoperable cancer,” his wife said solemnly.

Dad’s Laetrile treatments in Mexico had failed. He had sold the resort and settled in Las Vegas. I scraped up enough money and flew to see my dad for the last time at a crowded campground. He and his wife had rented a space for their travel trailer close to the VA hospital.

Regret weighed upon my father. The desert heat felt oppressive, and his daily martinis couldn’t take the edge off his pain. The cancer seemed to have weakened his spine, and he spoke between long pauses, like he was resting on steep stairs.

During my visit we never reached the heart-felt understanding that I had hoped for, but it was enough that he told me that he had made his peace with God. He labored to stand upright as he waved goodbye from his front door.

My father had invested his goals and ambition in a future that he could not control. He died before his 49th birthday.

It grieves me that Dad never felt the rugged embrace of my grown sons, his grandsons. His decision to leave his family impacted my boys and their wives—as well as the destinies of his 16 great grandchildren. His choice affected my mother’s relationships and his daughter’s destiny as well. His lifestyle complicated his world and ours.

Had he known that he was so close to dying, would he have throttled back his ambitions to include the three of us at our last-chance ranch? I like to think so.

As for my own marriage: A red-headed boy and a girl with raven-black hair stumbled under the combined weight of their heritage: alcoholism, incest, betrayal, physical abuse, insanity, rage, adultery, and even attempted murder.

Our fathers had abandoned us in a moral fog, and we clung desperately to one another, while imagined caricatures of fatherhood tucked us into bed each night and woke with us each morning.

In the difficult years that followed I realized that I had married a girl who expected to be betrayed again. I had failed to create the impenetrable, safe home that she felt I had promised her, and vile memories of her past pierced our hearts as one. Her brokenness seemed irreparable.

Seeing us walking hand-in-hand today you might assume that we turned our marriage around with hard work and dogged perseverance.

Don’t make me laugh.

Our “inevitable” breakup never happened for one reason: A caring Father co-opted our destinies. Before Carol and I were ever born, God’s wisdom and prevailing insight gave him a reason to save us.

Our marriage was dissolving. We worked at jobs, attended church, and cared for our boys, knowing that if we divorced, we would be sentencing our children to a shaky start in life. Though worlds apart we were able to dredge up a single grain of resolve to stay together for their sakes.

But resolve couldn’t heal. The healing of our marriage came as we accepted the hand of a reliable, loving Father. We really listened as he spoke to us in the pages of his Word, the Bible, and in time God filled our hearts with his assurance that he was the one we were searching for. Our Father promised that he would never abandon us, never betray us.

We learned that within his domain, our evil past, confusing present, and miraculous future supernaturally were converging for his purposes.

As we submitted to his control, Carol’s Heavenly Father taught her how to love. My Father taught me how to surrender more of my life to him and be patient. His mentoring was taking place during our mutual anguish! We might have sputtered through our marriage, never knowing the “one flesh” satisfaction that we enjoy today—except that we entrusted our futures to this wonderful Father. True fulfillment came from Him, and not from each other.

We are jarred by the baffling paradox that governs two misfits like us: Our Father exerts absolute control over everything, YET we have the responsibility to make life-altering decisions just like our earthly dads. Only an ongoing relationship with God equips us with faith enough to welcome his unfathomable reasons for allowing hardships in our lives.

At 62 years old, I am a father of three fathers: One son is raising five likely dads. Another son is a father to one potential father, and the youngest of my three sons is Dad to another probable dad.

The miracle in all of this for me is the way my wife of 43 years looks into my eyes with affection beyond mere intimacy. We have arrived at this special place together without the family baggage that once weighed us down. Our sons are becoming men that we wished our fathers had been, and it feeds our souls to watch them growing older with their wives and children.

Will we make mistakes?—us enterprising, ambitious, often-confused dads? Will we have our own moments behind the barn to regret? Oh yes. But forgiveness is the groundwork upon which God redeems every part of our lives. We prayerfully bequeath the knowledge of God’s mercy to the fathers we love.

God is shaping destiny itself—with every single dad (and mom too) in mind.

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