“Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me.” –Psalm 27:10
When I was a boy, I made better worlds in my mind in which fathers and mothers did not get divorced. I imagined myself scoring the winning goal, and I imagined you there, always there, by the boards. You wore your tweed cap. You crinkled your smiling eyes and rewarded me with a package of gum that you bought from the intriguing machine inside the crisp ice arena. I imagined getting into your car, pre-warmed for your little star, and you there, always there in the driver’s seat, taking the ride home slow. I wonder now why you drove slowly, and I imagine now that it was because of your reluctance to return me to my mother. I imagine you want to keep me, if only because I’m such a good hockey player.
Now, years later, I’m sure you must have come to one of my games but for the life of me I cannot ascertain if the memory that you were my biggest fan was real or merely imagined.
Either way, let’s pretend it’s real because now I know (yes, I am certain of this much) that you told me you were proud of me when I was in my thirties. “So, if you’re proud of me now,” I ask myself, “why would you not have been proud of me when I was eight?”
I’m trying to piece together who I was back then and who you were back then and before then. I’ve been trying for near a decade and a half now.
I’ve researched the book of our family tree that you showed me, looking for clues, but I didn’t photocopy the book and all I seem to remember now is the name Jester and finding out that my middle name was the name of your father whom you barely knew (so you think of me as being named after your brother who was named after your father instead of me being named after your father who is my grandfather). It’s confusing, I know, and that’s the point.
Because of that, the closest I’ve come to finding out who I am is through a photograph of a little boy and his sister. The little boy could be Gerald Ford, for all I know, but to me it’s someone much more important: it’s you, when you were yet the age I still feel.
I think you had a sister. I know you had many siblings and it would boggle comprehension to think that one of them wasn’t a girl. What are the chances they would all be boys?
I know that, like me, you were the youngest. At least, I think I know that.
I know that you lost your father when you were two. He died.
I know that I know that because I remember thinking when I heard that little tidbit that I was a lot like you since it feels like I also lost my father when I was two.
I have constructed the truth of the photograph, fashioned a history. I have imagined that the shadow in the lower left corner is your father. He is taking your picture. I know this cannot be the case, since, if the boy is you, your father would have been dead by then, but maybe the shadow taking your picture is your step-father and the boy I think is you is looking at the man I think is your step-father and the boy wants the shadowman to be your father, and you wonder where your father has gone and who is this strange man taking my picture, I don’t know you and I want someone there, always there, to laugh and play with, someone more than a step-father.
These memories and constructions make no sense so I ask you to give me grace by acknowledging that I am simply doing the best I can.
Either way, let’s suppose the blonde boy is you and let’s suppose the shadow is your father. I prefer the story of the picture that way.
Because I see my face in you. Because I am in the picture.
I am standing in a big field. I am not alone. There is endless possibility, plenty of space to run. The sky may be sunless but it is bright. And there is a shadow in the lower left corner. The shadow reminds me that someone is watching me. He is my father. He is not in the picture, but he is my father. I cannot see his face, but he is my father. He is there, always there, taking my picture.
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What has been made cannot be un-made but it can be re-made.
I cannot do anything to change the past, but I can do something to change the future.
This is my promise to you, my children.
Because of this, Father’s Day is not something you celebrate more than I. I prefer this day over my own birthday. Since the day I was born (I did not know this at the time, but) I was waiting for the days in which you would be born. Fathering you is my way of remaking the past, adorning the scar of neglect. For me, fatherhood is redemption.
Last night I lay under your bed, my son. You lay under a canopy of stars and I lay under you, with our Father under and over both of us. Suddenly, in the middle of the night, I was awakened by the sound of you laughing in your sleep. I smiled and thought, “That’s my son.” I was comforted by the fact that you learned the art of laughing in your sleep from me and I’m proud to have instilled unconscious joy in you.
Last night, with the sweet scent of your laughter still seasoning the air, I sensed God’s pleasure. I was sure this was our Father’s way of saying to me, “And you’re my son.” This, too, is my unconscious joy, my redemption.
And, Meaghan: your eyes crinkled last evening as you told me in church how glad you were that we saved that certain song for last.
I will fear no evil
For my God is with me
And if my God is with me
Whom then shall I fear?
Whom then shall I fear?
Oh no, You never let go,
through the calm and through the storm
Oh no, You never let go
in every high and every low
Oh no, You never let go
Lord, You never let go of me.
That’s right, my child, that’s right. We saved the best for last.
I suggested you share your gratitude with the worship leader and you jumped at the chance.
Later, I made a face in the mirror and you still laughed, despite yourself. (Contrary to what your mother says, I do believe I will always be able to make you laugh—if not out loud, at least inside, whether you realize it or not. This is what I’m banking on. And, even if you don’t, I’ll always make it my aim to try, I promise you that.)
My promise to you this Father’s day is to guard your heart by letting you go because our Father will never let go of you and me. Letting you go is my redemption. It’s my way of holding out hope for you, of being there for you, always there, more than a shadow in the lower corner of a black and white photograph but right there next to you, your faces next to mine in full color. I will not attempt to retouch the old photograph. I will simply make a new one.
My promise to you is that I will seldom photograph you because I want to be in the picture with you, more than a shadow. I won’t even have to smile for the new photographs we take because just being there is my way of smiling. Still, I have the feeling that, from here on out, the smiles shall come easy for my face has been re-made and the veil has been removed, thanks to our loving, ever-present Father.