They divvied up her children among her sisters. She lay unconscious in her hospital bed, a blood clot in her lung and another in her heart. “Prepare yourselves,” the doctor said, and so they devised the plan; this child would go here, and this one there, and on down the line.
Days earlier, in a moment of rage, my father had thrown my mother down the stairs. She lay there in a heap until she regained herself and crawled up to bed, exhaling into her pillow until she drifted off. She was pregnant at the time. When she shocked everyone by recovering, and insisting that her children remain with her, they tried to get her to abort. “Let’s just see what happens,” she told them. Months later my sister Ann Marie arrived. I think she received an extra measure of goodness and tenderness because of the journey she and my mother shared when they descended that flight of stairs.
The other day I spent a few hours with a young friend who had run away from home. Frustrated and tired, he recounted the anger he felt toward his father. Ironically, he was angry at his father for being prone to anger. When I brought this to his attention, he pursed his eyebrows and raised his fist to the air and declared that I have no idea what it feels like to have to live with this kind of anger. I listened. And then, when he finally let me get a word in, I stopped him.
“I do. I do know how it feels. You don’t know my past, and you cannot tell me what I know and what I don’t. I know how it feels to watch your mother’s blood run down her neck; to see your brother chased through the kitchen with a baseball bat, or a knife. I know the sound of a fist on the door, on the table, on the flesh.“
He stopped cold, his rant cut off by compassion. His eyes softened and he whispered regret. “Really? I didn’t know.”
My father was a confusing force in my life. I know he loved me. I know it. And yet I can hear the voice of Marianne in the Jane Austen novel Sense and Sensibility, looking back on her relationship with Willoughby. “I can tell you he really did love you,” Elinor tries to comfort her sister Marianne, to which Marianne responds “But not enough. Not enough.”
Perhaps the most noble thing my father ever did was abandon us. Because he walked away and never returned, my mother lifted her head to the light and squared her shoulders and on we went, united in our shared history and future.
A handful of years later the man who would be the father to my four children would enter my life and rewrite the definition of father for all of us. It took me many, many years to understand and embrace the fact that David will not fight with me. It has taken me as many years over again to understand that David will fight, that he does have a passionate heart and a devotion to causes worth fighting for. He simply won’t fight with me. For years it made me frustrated. But now, nearly four decades into marriage, I feel the blessed assurance that he is on my side, that he is true and faithful.
I feel their sorrows and their joys and their weaknesses and their marvelous strengths…at least as far as I know them. And always, in those moments of empathy and imagination, I feel that underlying current of a father who believes in them, who loves them without condition, and who supports and champions them in their honorable choices. That current of fatherly faithfulness runs like blood through the veins; constant and steady and enriching.
Perhaps it is the contrast that makes my David shine on Fathers Day. It’s the heart swell that follows the heartache.