As I’ve said a time or two before, I believe there are things we simply cannot understand until we’ve lived them. Parenthood is one; aging, another. For a man—particularly a man with children—still another is his father’s death. It’s when he stares down from the high wire to find that the net is gone. It’s when he realizes that the person the family calls “the old man” is no longer somebody else; it’s him. And it’s when he comes to recognize—and is humbled yet consoled by the fact—that if he is to find the approval and forgiveness he once sought from his father, he must now look to himself.
My father died three years ago this week, just short of Father’s Day. The lava, so to speak, is still cooling. I still can’t get near enough to look too closely at him or his memory.
Perhaps this is common. It’s just possible that all fathers must, in the end, be approached indirectly. Maybe it’s no surprise that in the Old Testament the Lord may not be gazed upon. His power is life-and-death; His judgments are soul-shaking; His thoughts forever unknowable. The God most of us know from the Old Testament is what you’d call a father right out of the Bible, wouldn’t you say? What man can look his own father in the eye—to see him as he is, and therefore himself as he is—without going mad or getting his retinas burned out? Maybe in its way it’s like gazing into the sun, except that in this instance the sun goes out.
My father was a good dad, and although he was an undemonstrative guy and liked to be gruff with his feelings, his love for us was the motor of his life. I’ll save the stories about him for another time. But I will share what I learned from my father about fatherhood. It’s specifically for those who aren’t fathers yet, and who, I hope, will stash it away for when they are. I’m going to write it in boldface type:
No force ever encountered in nature is as powerful as your father. With a sudden flash of anger; with a sudden show of affection; by the mere example of his actions; with a word of praise; with inadvertent remarks he never intended for his children’s ears or that, if he did, meant little if anything to him; he can shape their lives. I learned all this as a man’s son.
What I’m trying to say—perhaps a little portentiously—is this: When you’re a dad, you’re wielding thunderbolts. Be careful with them. Unintended thunderbolts are still thunderbolts. And they’ll echo when you’re gone.
You’ve seen the image at the top a million times. But if I could send one more Father’s Day card, Michelangelo’s “Birth of Adam” would be on it.