My Father’s Son

Behind the wheel of my green Ford 500, I closed my eyes, and took a deep breath.   It is a warm mid-spring evening, the setting sun has painted the clouds in soothing orange and mauve against a soft blue sky. Excitement, like sparks of static electricity, lingers in my heart, but more deeply, rising from some primordial place of the spirit, comes a sense of myself standing on a foundation of everlasting earth spread out for miles beyond me.  I felt, for the first time in my life, a sense of myself as a man, blessed, rooted and grounded in love.

I took me five years to meet with my father, five years making excuses for why the timing wasn’t right, why I wasn’t ready (nearly driving my spiritual director to fits), five years of hiding in fear from what I knew I was called to do: face the fact that something – a critical spiritual element – was missing in my heart.  I knew the missing element would be found in the mist of what was an unspoken matter between my father’s heart and mine.  I felt a warning that should I fail to confront this interior truth about my need for my father, I would regret it the rest of my life.

The calling to meet with my father came to me in April of 2001.  A brother in my men’s circle, Mike, brought modelling clay to our gathering, inviting us to make depictions of our father’s heart, to share stories about our fathers, and why we made the hearts we did. Around the circle we went, pouring out the stories of our father’s lives as best we knew them.  Some stories were sad, even tragic, but more often than not, they were a mix of good and bad. One man, Ray was his name, said he regretted he’d never spoken to his father about his life before he died. His admission of regret struck fear in my heart, and I knew I could not allow that to happen between my father and me.

Don’t get me wrong, my father raised me well.  I and my 2 brothers and 2 sisters lacked for nothing. He loved and adored our mother, which I believe is the most important lesson of all.  But of course, he was by no means perfect. Too often, his Irish temper – born of having an alcoholic father – frightened me, but I was not abandoned, abused, neglected, or rejected by him. I knew he loved me. Curiously, it was a trip to Ireland, the land of my ancestors,  in 2006 that provoked the meeting.

I called my father (Dennis is his name) and asked him if I could come over to the house the following evening and talk with him one-on-one. “What do you want to talk about, Pat?”, he asked.

“I’ll explain tomorrow.  I don’t want Mom in on it, either, okay?”  My steady voice did not betray, at least as far as I knew, the deep anxiety I felt during the conversation.

“Oh, yeah, sure, Pat, of course,” he replied, hesitating, “that’s fine.”

The next evening, I arrived at the front door of my parents bungalow in a new subdivision of north London, Ontario, and was greeted by my mother. Always the port in a storm, the rock upon which the storms of family life crashed and dissipated, she welcomed me with a kiss and her motherly confidence.   Dad came up the stairs from the basement and greeted me with a big smile.  We hugged and went back down to the basement, my heart pounding as we did.

There on the walls were the classic family photographs of gangly kids in bathing suits, black and white stills of my grandparents when they were wed, and the golf trophies on the cabinet above the TV.  Dad sat in his wingback recliner chair and I took my place on the small couch to his left. The TV turned off and the room silent, Dad turned to me and asked, “What do you want to talk about, Pat?”

I swallowed against the lump in my throat and started in with my rehearsed opening: “Dad, in a couple of weeks, I’m going to Ireland, and while I’m happy about the trip, there’s something that’s bothering me. I’ve thought about it, and have come to the conclusion that I feel angry inside that my Irish ancestors were an angry lot, your family too. There’s something dark in it that I’m struggling with.”

Right away, Dad knew where the conversation was headed, and he jumped in saying, “Patrick, when you were born there was no owners manual.   I did the best I could.”

“Yeah, I know you did, Dad, but what was the matter?  Why was there so much anger in the O’Connor family?.

“Well, Pat….”

My father, in a way I had never heard him speak before, unraveled the story of his childhood to me, piece by distressing piece.   He started with a story about being a teenager, just 15, when in the kitchen of their home, he had had a fight with his father.  My father put his father to the floor and pulled a fist back to hit my grandfather.  With regret and a spirit of ‘thank God I didn’t do it,’ Dad told me, “something held me back from punching my father. I jumped off him and ran out of the house, down the street.”

He was gone for 2 weeks, ending up at a tobacco farm near Delhi, Ontario, where he hoped to plant tobacco seedlings and earn some money.  But Dad was 2 weeks early, and there was no work to be had.   The farmer, in an ironic gesture of hospitality, gave him a blanket and let him sleep in the greenhouse on a concrete floor.

Within a week, my father’s chronic breathing problems lead to pneumonia.  No pay, no food, no nothing, my father left the farm and walked out to Highway #2, and sticking out his thumb, got a ride to Toronto.  He made his way east of the downtown and slept in a park overnight.  The next morning he hitch-hiked his way back to Belleville, a very sick boy.

Dad, continued his story, sharing with me that he was shipped out to Regiopolis, a boarding school in Kingston, Ontario, where he excelled at football and failed at academics.    By the time he was 18, he left Belleville and found himself driving a milk truck in Toronto.

My father, a regular church going man, is not particularly vocal about his faith, choked up when he told me about boarding in Toronto with a Catholic family.  “They told me I had the run of the house and could help myself to the fridge.  It was the first time I felt like I had a family.”

Dad talked about meeting my mother and what a tremendous blessing she has been to him.  She has always been a great stabilizer in his life, a safe port in a storm.

As my father’s stories rolled out of him, the scales and layers of my own identification of him as “Daddy,” “Dad,” “The Old Man,” or simply “my father,” dried up in the power of his life.  The reality of his experiences, spoken to me from the heart, shattered the remaining sense of the father-son relationship, until sitting across from me was a man I love telling his story to me, like so many men have done before.

Before me was a man I thought I knew, but had never experienced in such a real way.  Here before me was a man I knew, a man of flesh and spirit, like all the men I have sat with in circle, but one I had never met before.  Seeing my father as a man and not as my Dad, freed me, freed me to forgive him, freed me to accept him as he was.  Most of all, it freed me to release him from a childish bondage I had held him under my whole life, a demand for the perfect father.

Miraculously, in the recognition of my father as fellow man, I saw in myself that same masculine essence, that same tragic beauty, resilience, and spirit that is my father.  I am his his son and to be respected enough to hear his story, told through tears, was a blessing, a gift of my father to my spirit.  It was all I needed to recognize myself as a man also.

As I sat there in my car, savouring the wonder of what had just happened and the blessings it brought to me, I understood how absolutely essential it is that fathers bless their children.  I understood how important it is for life that grown men seek out ways to reconcile their hearts with their fathers, even if they have passed away.  The father’s blessing is a real need and is essential to the self acceptance a boy needs to grow to be a mature man.

Thank you to my father for trusting me with his story, for honouring me with the safety of expressing his heart to me.

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