Or maybe I could call this homily a letter to my Father, words left unsaid and now only echoes of the love that bound us together, father and daughter, Daddy's little girl growing up believing as do all children that he would always be there. Now at 55 I know better, now a grandmother myself I watch my son as he carefully tenderly, a good Dad, hugs and shelters my granddaughter age 3 and a half the same age my son was the last time my father saw him. Now I know better, illness and age respects no one and no one lives forever not even our parents who in the eyes of a very young child are all powerful and able to do anything just like God. Oh, the rage of a young child when they want their Daddy to do the impossible and Daddy just can't! Give me the moon Daddy, now! Not that my father didn't try. I have an old photograph that shows me in an old fashioned baby carriage and my Dad smiling, handing me a bright yellow flower that he had just, my mother told me later, stolen from an neighbors garden because I wanted it! Our fathers once were like God to us and they become fallible human beings with feet of clay and finally we realize, as we become parents ourselves how hard this job really is and how frightening it can be. As in this poem:
The Boy was Young
The boy was young (your son, my son)
He held life
Gentle and fragile as a wrens spotted egg,
In play black lined hands
He brought it to me
His eyebrows asked: What?
How should this find,
This all that he had
Glistening in its bed of dark sweat
What does it mean to hold life in your fingers?
How should I tell him how to live?
How do you tell someone you love humanity is frail
(As he is frail, as you are frail)
And mistakes will be made
And life is fitting parts that don't belong?
-- Rudolf Nemser
This I would have said to my father and now I say it to you especially those of you who are fathers. To be a good Dad is hard. It takes all you've got. And you are only human beings not the Gods or magicians or monsters that children hear about in fairytales and dream about at night. But to be human is more than enough and to be a good enough father, which is to do the best you can with as much love as you can is plenty. It may even take some kind of superhuman patience during adolescence when you, Dad suddenly know nothing at all. Don't worry as your son or daughter get older you will once again get smarter with each passing year. Fathers teach us if we can trust people and the world or not. Will we be forgiven when we do terrible things or cast out into outer darkness?
My father was very forgiving. Which is a good thing. I remember when my brother was 6 and I was 8 and my parents were out for the night. Our babysitter, whom we did not like very much, fell asleep on a straight back chair, either because she was very tired or because she had helped herself to my father's rare Spanish sherry. So we decided to tie her up and got my mother's woolen yarn basket and proceeded to transform her into a multicolored human cocoon. We were admiring our work and trying to decide what we should do next when my parents returned. We were amazed when my father, after he cut her loose, seemed much more angry with her than he was with us.
And when I was a troubled, depressed and very difficult teenage girl he also kept his patience. I could always count on him to be there and to love me no matter what. It is because of him I believe in human goodness and possibilities. A lesson Robert Fulghum got from his grandfather.
My grandfather Sam called me up last Tuesday to ask me if I'd take him to a football game. Grandfather likes small town high school football-- and even better the eight-man ball played by cross roads team. Grandfather is a fan of amateurs and small scale. Some people are concerned about how it is that good things happen to bad people and there are those concerned about how bad things happen to good people. But my grandfather is interested in those times when miracles happen to ordinary people.
Here again he likes small scale. When a nothing team from a nothing town full of nothing kids rises up with nothing to lose against some up market suburban outfit with new uniforms and start chucking hail Mary bombs form their own goal lien and their scrawny freshman tight end catches three in a row to win the game well, it does your heart good. Murphy's Law doesn't always hold says grandfather. Every once in a while the fundamental laws of the universe seem to be momentarily suspended and not only does everything go right, nothing seems to be able to keep it form going right. Ever drop a glass in the sink when you are washing dishes and have it bounce nine times and not even chip? A near miss at an intersection, the lump that turned out to be benign, the heart attack that was only gas...
My grandfather says he blesses God each day when he takes himself off to bed having eaten and not been eaten once again. Now I lay me down to sleep, in the peace of amateurs for whom so many blessings flow, I thank you God for what went right. Amen. (Robert Fulghum)
Not a bad prayer at all. We teach so much without knowing it and we have learned so much without realizing it. Stop for a moment and see in your mind's eye your fathers and your grandfathers if you knew them, I never did. What did you learn from them? Did you learn from them good things, profound things, flaws, opinions, skills, taste, adventures or how to drive? Be honest with yourself. These men were or are likely not saints. Though teaching someone you love how to drive perhaps should qualify anyone for sainthood. And if your relationships were not what you wanted, if somehow things went wrong between you as so often happen when generations try to cross over and understand each other with very different worldviews, know that you are not alone. Human fathers are fallible, children have to rediscover the world and sometimes the only way they can become independent is by cutting the ties or else remain forever in bondage to their own love. Yes, there are men who should never be fathers. Yes, there is cruelty and abuse in some families.But most fathers are just human with gifts and flaws, trying to do the best they can.
As we grow older they become part of who we are and sometimes we will go to extraordinary lengths to honor them or to find peace with their memory when they die. Jamling Tzenzing Norga is a mountain climber, a Sherpa who went to the top of Mount Everest in order to, as he wrote in his book: touch my father's soul. His father Tzenzig Norga was with Sir Edmund Hillary when they reached Mount Everest for the first time in 1953. To honor his father he risked his life, endured storms and hardship. I understand that. The drive to say the words we did not get to say to those who are gone is strong. To scale a mountain does not seem too high a price.
There are many words I never got to say to my father. He was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer that had spread all over his body just a few months after I had left for the States. I knew he was ill, I knew he was dying but I was a graduate student's wife, with a 3 year old son and a full time job to make ends meet. For seven months he suffered, we wrote and spoke once or twice on the phone and then he was gone. I was 26 and could not attend the funeral either. Oh, I would have gone to Everest if I thought I could touch his soul that way. He died before I saw him fully as a human being, because I still needed him to be larger than life. I never got to say goodbye or "thank you" for all he gave me.
But so much of what I am today is because of his gifts to me. He told me so many stories and gave me a love of and respect for language. He could spin a tale and hold a crowd's attention when he spoke. He believed there was an inherent goodness in people and that we held the world in our own hands. He was a teacher and writer, a principal and he had a head full of curly white hair. I am getting there. I inherited his faith. There is a spirit in everything he said it is asleep in nature awaken in the animal but becomes aware of itself in human beings.
God to him was very much like this prayer by J. David Scheyer:
If there is a God I think he must be shaped something like a mountain and something like a tree and something like an ocean. I rather imagine he looks something like a black man and something like a white man and something like a yellow man and something like a woman too. I think he sees the universe through the eyes of a big brown bear and through the eyes of a dove and through the eyes of a gentle medium sized whale. I rather suspect that he happened something like a small child's smile happens mysteriously, but as unavoidable as morning. And I think he treasures his relationship with the stars the way another star does and finally I imagine he is as much afraid of death of nothingness as I am and that there are moments when he wonder if he is real.
On this father's day I want to say "thank you" to my father and to all fathers who nurture and shelter and love their children. Our world depends on you; our human future is in your hands as you walk the floors at night exhausted with a baby in your arms or wait worried for that car door to slam. Thank you and bless you for your care and your love.
Let me close with these words by Rev. Jane Mauldin.
Wakeful Exhausted Parents
As I staggered through the night hallways I staggered to a call as old as humankind. That night and every night mothers and fathers around the world awaken to reassure wakeful children. That night and every night, grown children arise to calm fitful aging parents. Those night hours are long and lonely. Our burdens and tired bones are ours alone to bear.
We who rise do so because we choose to do it. It is an intense physical demand; it is also an honor as ancient as human love. We are part of the circle of families and friends who nurture Life from its earthly beginning until its earthly conclusion. (Adapted from Jane Ellen Mauldin)