The Dad Who Never Fails
By Jim Robinson
Father’s Day is nearing. And I have been thinking about my own father, back when I was young.
He was cool, my dad. He could belch like thunder. He could take a blade of grass, and holding it in some secret way between his thumbs and blowing into cupped hands, create his screeching “peacock mating call” whistle that could be heard for blocks. To me, he was Captain America—human, yet somehow more.
He was funny and smart, strong but sensitive. Watching him interact with his friends always gave me a warm feeling of pride, because I saw him as a balanced blend of things: intelligent but humble, as interested in things scientific and artistic as he was in duck hunting and sports, comfortable with all sorts of different personalities. I can feel and see him in myself now—the way I use humor to disarm people, my tendency to be goofy one moment and serious the next, my external ease with people from all walks of life. He taught me that there is nothing mutually exclusive about appreciating fancy big city dining one meal and good barbecue the next. I was never more proud than when he and I would sit together on a Sunday afternoon, watching football on TV, eating sardines and Vienna sausages and saltine crackers. It took me a while to get used to the sardines, but Dad loved them and I was determined to love them, too. It was a very special time, downstairs in the den, just the two of us, eating guy food and talking guy talk. Those were good days, there together, the burnished gold shadows of fall coming through the windows, me and my dad, Big Jim and Little Jim, laughing and eating sardines.
One day he took me to get a flat-top hair cut, just like his, at Tater’s Barber Shop on the Court Square. We sat side by side in the only two barber chairs in our small Tennessee town, the sun streaming in, the smell of soap and blue antiseptic and cigar smoke making me feel very important.
“How ‘bout the full treatment, Tater?” Dad said. “For both of us.” My chest swelled as I had my first “shave”—big, bald Tater wrapping steaming hot towels over my face, then the warm creamy lather, masterfully whisking it away with the dull side of a straight razor.
Then, red-faced and reborn, I marveled as the buzzing thing in his hand transformed me into a small version of my father. Soon the two of us had short hair sticking straight up, gooey with Butch Wax.
When we were done, Dad picked me up and held our faces close together in front of the mirror. I felt proud beyond words.
I remember so many things about my father. But, oddly, I don’t recall his ever being angry. He could get frustrated, of course. And his booming voice would immediately throttle my sisters and me, and make us obey. But I never saw him truly angry, as if he had lost control. Or sad, for that matter. And we rarely if ever had any sort of serious father-son talk about things. He seemed uncomfortable and ill-equipped to enter into anything intimate. I don’t know if anger and intimacy and sadness were emotions that had been forbidden him since childhood, or if over time it had become something he forbade himself. Maybe it was a part of him he just never let us see. I realize now that in many ways I did not know him. There was a secret silence separating us. I’m not at all sure what some of my father’s dreams were back then. But I know that at least some of them never came true.
In my work as a counselor, I have come to believe that I am far from alone in this feeling of some missing piece regarding a relationship with my father. Normative male alexithymia is the newest psycho-babble phrase used to explain such an inexplicable thing. Taken from the Greek, the term has to do with a male’s inability to put emotions into words. At least once a week, some father or son comes into my office—sometimes aware of the source of his hurting and sometimes not—seeking an unknown something that has been missing from his relationship. Because even though some of us, while growing up, handle it with apparently less trauma than others, we all nonetheless live in an environment in which a male gender socialization process teaches us to restrict our emotions, limit our feelings, and curb any vulnerability. “Be strong,” we are told. “Be tough.” Many fathers, often duplicating the way in which their own fathers instructed them, attempt to equip us with a sort of emotionless shield to life, and in so doing send us on a life journey in which we commonly mistake stoicism for strength.
We are designed by God, I believe, to discover Him first through our parents. As infants, our parents represent our physical, emotional, and spiritual universe, reflecting onto us our earliest precognitive and pre-autonomous images—how safe is my world? What is trust and truth, comfort and consistency, warmth and wisdom? Sons and daughters look to each parent for specific needs; for sons, fathers are our heroes. In a spiritual sense, our parents represent our first impression of God.
When my mother began growing more and more emotionally ill and unstable with her bipolar disorder and drug addiction, my sisters and I huddled in our separate fears and waited for Dad to come and rescue us. But because he had never learned how to connect with his children on any sort of intimate level, my father grew more and more withdrawn, always trying to shield us, I think, and himself, unwittingly teaching us that feelings couldn’t hurt us if we kept them secret and hidden. Still, I wanted him to save us, to arrive like Captain America and somehow put a stop to the madness. We sat at the dinner table, staring at our plates, withered by the barrage of hateful, shaming words, so that after a while we couldn’t really hear them anymore. Slump-shouldered, we wilted under the weight of it all, waiting to run. I tuned out my mother’s voice, and waited for Dad to come to the rescue. But he didn’t. He couldn’t.
We ran. I dug deeper into my bedroom, my stereo, my books, my band…and ultimately into a self-destructive journey through a dark world of alcoholism and addiction. My mother was destined for an early, tragic death by intentionally overdosing on pills and booze. I turned from it all, horrified, and ran. I had over time come to believe, deep within some little boy place in me, that God would not save me. And for a long while I sought solace in everything but Him, the One waiting patiently for my return.
Ultimately, all our earthly heroes fail us. Even fathers are only human. And knowing this, God took on flesh and came to us as a fully man, fully divine manifestation of relationship. Personifying intimacy, Christ Jesus offers what each of us from the very beginning has longed for. Our souls hunger and thirst. For Him. Nothing else can satisfy.
Sixteen years ago, homeless and hopeless, this prodigal finally turned for home. And my sweet Lord, in His unfathomable way, welcomed me into His arms. In the years of healing that followed, my Heavenly father led me back into the arms of my earthly father, too. Through the eyes of Christ, I finally saw my dad as someone who had done his best to protect his children from pain, a husband and dad who had loved us with all of his broken heart, and had tried to shield us in the only way he knew how. Over time, he and I would slowly forgive each other’s mistakes, silently acknowledging our separate abandonment, putting away the unspoken resentments and allowing one another to be human, to be broken, to say that we loved each other, and in some wordless way to become father and son once more. I could look up to him again, to see him as a sort of flawed hero, wounded and far from perfect—like me, like all of us—but my hero just the same. Like Captain America.
I go back there now, and spend time with my father. I’m not afraid of it anymore. I take my new family, and we visit people we love. We eat fried catfish and hush puppies. We visit the cemetery, and say prayers together. And on lazy afternoons with the wind rustling through the tops of giant oaks, I sit with my father and look out over the river, the blackbirds swirling dark over our heads like a storm, then quickly gone.
Soon we will be having a birthday party in my home. My own son was born six years ago…on Father’s Day. As someone who has by God’s grace survived my own dark death, I will sit and watch and wonder. The healing hand of Jesus knows no bounds. Unfettered by time, He waits. For each of us. This astonishing truth can never be fully understood, at least by us mere humans. But Jesus Christ lives inside us with an intimacy beyond our comprehension. Tonight, I will stand and stare at the stars. And I will celebrate the heavens and the earth, God and man, father and son. I will blink back tears, and give Him praise. How amazing indeed that the Creator of the galaxies—He who could be any thing, any time, any place—would through Jesus Christ choose to reside within the human heart. And through Christ alone, we can finally find the courage to reach out by reaching in, and touch the Father that we perhaps never knew.
Jim Robinson, LADAC, NCACI, BCBC, is a successful songwriter, musician, speaker, author, and professional recovery counselor. A graduate of Christ Center School of Counseling and Addiction Studies, Robinson is founder of ProdigalSong, a Christian ministry utilizing music, speaking, counseling, and teaching to convey healing for the broken spirit. Jim’s web site, www.ProdigalSong.com, contains information about his ministry, numerous recovery resources, and additional articles he’s written. To subscribe to Jim’s monthly newsletter, click here.
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