I’m pretty sure that I will never be put on a list of potential saints for fatherhood. One reason is that I am not a Catholic, (which is a pretty good reason), but mostly because as I look back at my “fathering career”, in my judgment, my behaviors haven’t come close to approaching sainthood status. Nor would I ever be a nominee in the “Friendship” or “Husband-Hood” categories either, but those are different stories.
As a father I always wanted and intended to be a perfect one, but I fell short. Early into their lives my kid’s mother and I separated and eventually divorced. While I did my best to try to minimize the damage that divorce causes the innocent children, I was far less successful than I wanted to be, and at the time imagined myself to be. I think it is pretty common that divorce doesn’t fix or resolve the issues between the two adults involved. In mine, it just threw some dirt over them. In my case they lay there, buried alive, always wiggling, and at certain moments rose up out of the earth, disguised and looking like ghosts, with their slimy putrefied arms, trying to pull us back into the pit, showing up in ways that hurt everyone.
Because their mom and I didn’t work our issues out, this issues began to manifest themselves through the lives of our children, until at one point, in their early teens, it resulted in their not wanting to have me in their lives, but because they had no choice in whether they saw me or not, chose not to speak to me. Literally. They wanted me to go away. They told me that. I couldn’t blame them. It was a terribly stressful time between their mother and I, and a seemingly easy, logical solution, as they saw it, would be to have me out of their lives. They were just trying to survive. Even then I knew it wasn’t about them but a proxy war between their mother and I, and they were the innocent child soldiers.
They were very vocal about it. They were very direct about it. They were very creative about delivering the “get out of our lives” message. I was tempted more than once to honor, surrender to their wishes and release them from their (and my) commitment. Who would want to intentionally make their own children’s life miserable by their mere presence? Who would voluntarily bring down pain on their own head?
Thankfully, I had begun interacting with a therapist who said “No matter what, just keep showing up, no matter what they say, no matter what they do, no matter what they don’t do, no matter how badly it feels, no matter that they pretend that you don’t exist, no matter how powerless you are reminded that you are, your job, as a father, is to keep showing up”. “How long?” “For the rest of your life if necessary.” “And, by the way, give up any hope that doing so will change anything, we’re are not talking about a ‘do this and everything will eventually be ok’ deal.” “You’ll do that because as a father that is your job.” “You say you unconditionally love them, so do it.” “You’ll be doing it because it is the right thing to do.” “You’ll do it because that is your job as their father, period.”
I have to tell you this period of time was one of the hardest things I have ever lived through. Every bone in my body wanted to quit. Every instinct said I could make things better for them if I honored their simple request. To leave them alone. To get out of their lives. It seemed so simple, if I honored their request then maybe I could get them to stop hating me. I had what I called my Sunday Night Specials. Searing debilitating headaches that put me into bed for 10-12 hours after a weekend with my children. This was my life with them for not just days, or weeks or months, but for years.
But I did it. With lots of support from my loved ones. I would ask “are you sure this is the right thing to do? They always said “yes”. I could not have done it without that support.
See, for a variety of reasons, one of my children’s core beliefs, the most important one, was that I didn’t REALLY care about or love them. Regardless of how I tried to show them, they didn’t believe.
So I did as I was told. I had tried it my way and the message I had given them was that I didn’t love them. So, I kept showing up. Staying in the background. Never imposing myself. Having no agenda except for at the end of the day, according to others I trusted, knowing I had done the right thing by showing up.
Then one evening as we were leaving a basketball game my daughter had starred in, my wife and I were waiting, as we always did, in the recesses of the locker room hallway, about as far away as we could get because we didn’t want our presence to “embarrass” her, hoping our presence would catch her eye, letting her know that once more we had been present. I looked up and saw my daughter coming towards us, crying, devastated, as I remember it, that she had not been able to save her team from a last minute loss. I took her into my arms and held her as she sobbed. We exchanged some words. I don’t remember now what they were, but I do know that they included that I had loved her from the day she was born and that love had nothing to do with her performance. She heard me in a very profound way and we all softly wept together.
A week or so later, while sitting at my desk, which faced away from the doorway of my office, I heard the voice of someone who had slipped into a chair in my office say “Hey, counselor, I stopped by to tell you I have a drug problem.” (I was the “drug guy” for our school district). I turned around, it was my son. He laughed and left. Those were the first direct words and connections I had experienced with either of them for several years. Over the next few weeks and months, our relationships began to return to “normal” adolescent/parent interactions.
Years later as we all talked about those hard times, I asked each of them to tell me what had happened. What had happened to cause my daughter to come to me that night and for my son to slip into my office that day? Why then? And they both said, “You kept showing up, when we looked up in the bleachers, you were always there. Our teachers would always tell us you came on parent’s night. When we would look out into the audience, you were always there. Eventually and independently they had both concluded, “He keeps showing up, maybe he DOES love me”.
It reminds me of a story that I have heard. Sculptors who work with granite swing their hammer 10, 25, 50, 80, 99 times against the stone, to no apparent effect. However, with the very first blow, the molecules begin to change and shift, though it is not apparent from the outside. It is, on an average, the 100th blow that visibly cracks the granite.
“Doing the next right thing”, “doing what is hard just because it is the right thing to do”, expecting nothing in return, has become a touchstone for me. One just never knows. In my mind, today, I have the privilege of having an incredible relationship with my children and their families. We work together, we play together, we talk of the deepest parts of the human experience, we even cry together sometimes. It is beyond anything I ever imagined possible.
I am so grateful someone showed me what to do. I am so grateful for the support I had as I was doing it. I am so grateful I kept showing up. That’s my part of why I have what I have.
And I have moved this into other parts of my life also. When I don’t know what to do, the mantra, “just keep showing up, that’s all you can do and maybe, just maybe, that’s enough” comes to mind. And, sometimes, (I’d like to say, all the time, but I can’t) I do just that.