My father died the day after Christmas, 1987. I still think about him now and then, but always on his birthday. If he was still alive, he would be 103 today. He died on the cusp of turning 74. And when he died I was left with questions for him that never got answered. My mother left my dad Christmas, 1964. My two brothers and I rarely saw him after that. I never had much of a relationship with him. I tried pretty hard to make that happen when I became a man. He didn’t try very hard in return. In 1984 I took my wife and two kids (4 and 2 at the time) to Mississippi to meet him. That’s right—he had never met any of them. He seemed genuinely glad we came. I hoped this would mark a new beginning in our relationship. It did not. Though we talked occasionally after the visit, the next time I saw him, he was laid out in a casket.
Maybe I scared him off in that 1984 visit. I remember going with him to the laundry room in his apartment complex. He and I were the only ones there, so I started asking questions—a lot of questions met with zero answers. Well, one answer: “That’s a long time ago. No point dragging it up now.” Not to him maybe, but there was to me. This might be my only chance at this conversation, so I rolled the dice, and came up snake-eyes. Other than talking about the weather or the Razorbacks or the general, safe topics of life, we never talked about the things my heart longed to know from the only person who could provide the answers.
I have more questions now than I had in 1984 because I learned more about him after his death than I ever did when he was alive. That said, these are the questions I would like to him to answer:
What was it like to lose your policeman dad to a drunk man’s bullet when you were fourteen?
And how did you cope with your grief when your boss (the significant man in your life since your dad’s death) unexpectedly died not long after?
What did you think when your mother left you and your siblings in Lake Village and went back to Mississippi to be with her people there?
What was it like to excel in sports in high school and college and have no parents to celebrate your accomplishments with you?
What was it like to be a Seabee in the South Pacific during World War II? What scared you the most? Where did you find your courage? Tell me about any friends you made there.
What was it like on that war-racked, sniper-infested, God-forsaken island when you got a letter from your wife she had written to her new lover and had accidentally placed in the envelope addressed to you?
How come you and my mother couldn’t get along? What prompted you to occasionally strike her in your anger? How did you feel when she took us away from you?
Why didn’t you keep up with us boys better than you did? Did you think about us much?
My high school graduation and wedding were important to me. You told me you’d come. You never came to either and you never explained why. How come?
How come you paid for three years of my college but only two for your youngest son, Ray? How come you didn’t reach out to your oldest son, the one who, like you, served his country, the one who bears your first name?
How come you became such a hermit in your old age?
When did Jesus begin to mean something to you and tell me about your relationship with Him?
Perhaps he had answers for these questions. Perhaps all he could have done was shrug his shoulders, not sure of the answers himself.
All of us have some daddy-hunger in us. If yours has been satisfied by a good father who knew you and loved you and was there for you, give thanks. If your story is more like mine, could I encourage you to give thanks too—to give thanks for any glimpses you have gotten into the nature of the man and for any time you got to spend with him. And though a more difficult gratitude, could you at least try to give thanks even for the hurt he caused you? At 60 years old, I can tell you that God has redeemed in a couple of ways the hurts my dad brought me. God stirred me to be a better father to my kids than my dad was to me. I became more attentive, more intentional, more involved. And God has given me empathy and compassion I might have never had apart from such hurts. To borrow an image from the late Henri Nouwen, God has used such hurts to fashion me into a “wounded healer” of sorts, comforting others with the comfort I have received from God. God’s redeeming these hurts has helped me forgive my father and cut him some slack. I didn’t live his life. I didn’t understand his personal pain. Under similar circumstances I might have behaved in similar ways. God has helped me so much here. What God has done for me, He can do for you. So give thanks.
And give thanks most of all for the One who is “a father to the fatherless” (Ps. 68:5). Somehow, my heavenly Father has satisfied much of my daddy-hunger. He has given me the affirmation, the provision, the listening ear, and the guidance that was hard to come by from my earthly dad. And for that I give God thanks and praise. He is not just my God; He’s my Father.
But I still wish I had known my old man better, still wish I had gotten answers to my questions. Though my life is full and blessed, I can’t help but believe I’ve been a bit diminished without a quality relationship with my dad.
That’s just one more reason I look forward to heaven. In spite of his flaws and failures, I’m confident my dad trusted in the grace of Jesus to save him from his sins and from himself. That same grace has saved me too. And it took as much grace to save me as it did to save him. So perhaps, on the other side, Daddy and I can sit down and have the talk we never had this side of the veil. I suspect a lot of my questions won’t even matter then; only the relationship will matter then. And the one I got to know mostly through his faults will be the one I get to know at his best.