Yesterday I went back home to South Carolina to spend the day with my father. We have what you might call a complicated relationship. For the first 10 years of my life, he was there and loomed as the largest influence in my life. He was my hero and as heroes go for little boys, he could seemingly do no wrong. Then he did. And he was gone. My father spent the next 10 years of my life incarcerated, including my adolescence, the tough teenage years, my high school graduation, going off to college…so many mile markers. During his absence my mother tried to fill the void, my grandfathers stepped in, my uncles stepped up, but at the end of the day there was always something missing.
Then, a few months after my grandfather passed during my sophomore year of college, I received a phone call and it was him. He was back home and he wanted to pick up where he’d left off as if the previous 10 years hadn’t happened. Sure we’d kept in touch via collect phone calls and letters. Actually, more than any of my siblings, I likely wrote more letters and responded more to the collect calls. For some reason, even while he was away I couldn’t let go. But like any young black man who could see the world around me unfolding, I was becoming more and more angry. How could he do this? What makes him think that he could just now walk back into our lives? I felt foolish for looking up to him all those years as a child, and even more foolish for wanting to forgive him. It was complicated.
Things didn’t get any easier when my junior year I read a book entitled HeMotions by TD Jakes. It changed my life, particularly how I thought about my own relationship with my father. Until then I’d kept him at a safe distance. Hurt me once, shame on you. You’ll never get that chance again. In fact, I kept most people at a distance as a result of this learned behavior. It was starting to affect most of my relationships, even one with a beautiful woman who’d I’d fallen in love with. I wanted to make her my wife and I could see a family in our future (well into the future). But I had enough foresight to understand that if I didn’t deal with this issue she termed “emotional tin-man”, I’d be toast in all future relationships. I was in many ways emotionally stunted as a man because of the disconnect with my own father and I wanted to rectify this in time before I became a father myself.
So I did what any reasonable twenty something year old man-child does: I wrote him a letter. I still remember thinking, how is this going to change anything, but the very act of getting out my feelings and for the first time confronting the situation began my own healing process. The key thing that I articulated to him, and I still remember it was my feeling that I don’t believe that I can be the father I need to be in the future, until I to some degree reconcile my relationship with my own father. There’s still more that I need to learn about myself, who I am as a man and where I come from. These were things that I did and still believe that only my father could teach me. Make no mistake, this was the first step in forgiveness but it was more for me and my future children than it ever was for him. That was well over a decade ago.
For the past seven years I’ve been a father to 3 beautiful daughters. Anyone who knows me knows that it’s been a life-long dream of my to lead a family (and I use that term intentionally). Since the very first day I learned I would become a dad until now I felt I had something to prove. Where my father dropped the ball I wanted to pick it up and carry it forward. Where he failed, I intended to succeed. The problem is, I had to learn why he failed, then I had to figure out how not to make the same mistakes. Easier said than done. I’ve learned that for many of us fathers, we’re just trying to outdo our own dads, or trying to not make the same mistakes. The lucky few are trying to replicate the “perfect” models.
I certainly think about my legacy as a father, almost daily because I know how much it matters. And, as fortune would have it I have all girls, who need me just as much as they need their mother. Children depend on their fathers to help them define who they are, their role in this world. Years ago when I became a dad I read a book, Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters (which I highly recommend by the way) and here’s a line from the first chapter:
You are the most important man in her life. Your daughter needs the best of who you are: your strength, your courage, your intelligence, and your fearlessness. She needs your empathy, assertiveness, and self confidence. She needs you.
Sounds like a hero right? A father’s work is never done. Fortunately, the most important thing I’ve learned during my brief time as a father, and even through the reconciliation of my own relationship with my dad is that grace is available. Dads, like any parent, make mistakes. But don’t stay out of the game, get back in there. Our kids depend on us to help them navigate the terrain of life, discovering who they are as they pursue their hopes and dreams. We can help point the way.
On this fathers day, I like to give honor to the dads who are still present, helping to shape their kids lives with their intentional presence everyday. For those who can’t be physically present, try to still be emotionally available. You’ll never know the door that it leaves open for eventual reconciliation.