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The Moment You Knew

March 27, 2015

How many of you out there remember where you were, and what you were doing when you first realized that you were no longer a kid, but a grown man or woman? Now, I know more than a few people may reference their first sexual encounter, or perhaps the first time their older sibling allowed them to have a beer, but I’m going for something a bit more meaningful or significant than that. For me, my moment came when I was notified that my estranged father was in the hospital on his death bed, and it was imperative for me not to delay in going to visit him as he was not expected to make it past a few days. I was 17 years old, and I had joined church and had been learning about the concept of forgiveness, an essential part of Christianity, but even more so a hard lesson I would very literally have to practice in the most practical way imaginable.

The anger I carried from my childhood, I learned to use as a defense mechanism. It became so much a part of my identity that I no longer understood who I was without it, so the notion that I would just let that part of me go was not only unrealistic, but I didn’t even consider it necessary. I wish I could claim some type of foreknowledge of why it was necessary that I made peace with my father when he was dying, but I cannot. When I initially decided to forgive him, as he lay on his death bed, I did so believing it was merely about my new Christian lifestyle, and not a more long term reason. That moment was bigger than me, and it was quite overwhelming. Can you imagine what it was like walking into that hospital room, having all of those images and memories of a healthy muscular man in my mind, and then seeing the state that my father had been reduced to, old and rather frail looking?

I remember a moment of hesitation when I realized I was actually going to forgive my father; I actually got upset because I felt myself wanting to care about him, and not enjoying seeing him look so bad! I wanted to be angry for all the lost time and legitimate issues I had with him, but I kept thinking “I got to let this go!” Some people may suggest that it was simply “the Christian” thing to do, but ask yourself, how many people who profess to be “Christians” are still capable of doing a number of unchristian-like behaviors? It was like a part of me knew how big a moment it was, even though I didn’t fully understand the complete significance of the gesture at that time. I was only 17 years old that day, but because of the weight of the circumstances that had been pressed upon my life, I was forced to grow up much earlier than most teenagers.

I was not a young girl who went through a physical development at an early age, or a boy who hung around older kids trying to fit in. I simply was forced to deal with the circumstances of life that I found myself in. I had to deal with the trauma of being shot at by my father’s psychotic wife when I was six years old, and by the time I was seven, I had to deal with being molested by a teenage girl. These unfortunate circumstances, which defined my early years and explained why I was so introverted for much of my childhood and into my adult years, inevitably caused me to question and look at life rather differently than what most kids should. Looking back on my own circumstances I find it sad that, while I know I didn’t have a “normal” childhood, stories like mine are so normal today because so many adults have experienced unfortunate childhoods very similar to my own.

As I stated previously, that moment with my father was much bigger than I could fully understand at the time. Even so, I was still able to take in some of the meaning of what I was doing at that point. The significance of what I did in the hospital that day went far beyond being angry at my dad for not taking me fishing like he promised when I was a kid. I blamed him for most of the stuff that happened to me as a kid by him not being there. Yet, despite all of the nasty circumstances of what happened to me as a kid, I used all of that pain in order to become a better husband and father in my own life. The fact that my father lived through that night, and he and I spent the next couple of years of his recovery to reconcile, was an essential part of how I was able to move on beyond the circumstances of my childhood, and become a better man in the process.

I learned from that experience that while we can use hate and anger as a defense mechanism or security blanket, they are not good building blocks to being a good husband or good father! Letting those issues go, was more about my own future than it was about forgiving my father. How could I have any room to love a wife or a child if my heart was too occupied with hatred for a man that was already dead and gone before I even met my wife? It is not my intention to come off “too preachy” on this topic, but my life is a prime example of why “forgiveness” is essential because while it may be designed to be about forgiving another individual, it inevitably benefits you even more so. As I stand here, the father of an 18, a 15 and a 6 year old, I can tell you that any good I have done in raising them all stems back to that day in the hospital with my father 27 years ago.

I remember what it was like growing up without a father-figure. Then in my early 20’s I had to establish myself as a husband, and father, without a clear understanding of exactly what it meant to be a good man. I had the example of what my own father didn’t do, but that does not automatically make me a good man; I had to learn through trial and error. I recall one incident I had with my oldest son when he was about 14. I had spent the entire day studying, and he was supposed to clean his room. Then around two in the morning when I finished studying I discover that he had spent the entire day playing video games! I was furious. I wanted to lash out at him in anger, and literally smack him in the mouth, but instead I just grabbed him and hugged him! After that, I began to share with him what my own childhood was like, and why he should feel blessed to have both me and his mom available to him.

While I grew up with this notion that I was going to be the best father and husband in the world, the truth is, the world is filled with kids who were abused or neglected only to become just as bad as the circumstances that they grew up in! If I was going to be successful as a husband and father it was going to happen because of a continued effort, not because of sentiment and good intention. I began to tell my son even, when he disappointed me at times, that I loved him even in the midst of him failing. I think this is what finally made him begin to respond, and try harder to do his chores. Around the same time I shared my own childhood with my son, I was hit with another reminder from my own childhood when my father-in-law caught me off guard while talking on the phone with him one day. We were just having a basic conversation on the phone for a little while when he just simply said “I love you son,” and I momentarily lost it as I didn’t know how to respond. I was a kid who grew up with a very clear memory of all the good, the bad and the ugly, yet… I had no memory of my own father telling me he loved me.

It was a rather strange feeling I had, being a grown man and feeling so overwhelmed when my father-in-law so casually uttered that phrase. I remember my wife looking directly at me as I tried to take in the moment. I eventually said “I love you too” and handed her the phone and left the room. I was in my mid-30’s and I could count on one hand the number of times I heard another man tell me he loved me; a few were my close friends, and the other was my pastor. I knew immediately that I was not going to pass down a legacy of not expressing my love with my own kids. In fact, the more my kids cause me to get angry or want to be upset with them, the more I remind them how I feel about them by giving them a hug and telling them “I love you”!!!

I knew things would change after the night I first shared pieces of my own childhood with my son, as it was the first time my son ever saw me cry. It changed up our dynamic since he only viewed me as the disciplinarian or angry father who occasionally got on his case, but now, he literally saw me as a vulnerable man who simply needed to connect with him in order to remind him that I’ve been in his shoes before, and that his life was much more of a favorable situation than mine ever was. I knew my son was sheltered from a lot of life’s more harsh realities, which should be every parent’s hopes, but by sharing just a few details I tried to make him understand exactly why I did things the way I did with him.  Several years removed from that talk, my son, now 18 years old, routinely comes to me throughout the day a gives me a hug, and tell me he loves me.

I understand that nearly every culture has its own customs of what is considered “manly” or how men are supposed to behave, but as a man that’s been raised by a woman, you tend to develop your own realities of what “being a man” is all about. As ordinary as it may sound, one of the biggest things I learned as a fatherless child was the importance of “keeping your word,” and so honoring a promise is an essential part of being a man in my book. When I was a kid my father once told me that he was going to take me fishing, and I held onto that promise until he finally bought me a fishing pole. I kept hoping that we would go until my teen years! When I promised my own children that same fishing outing, I made sure I delivered, not because I am a better father, but because I know all too well what it feels like when a father breaks his promise. You can call me sentimental or old fashioned; you just can’t call me a liar, because I have kept all of my promises.

There are a number of misconceptions out there today of what “real men” are like. Real men keep their promises, they aren’t made of stone, and they are capable of showing emotions other than anger. Men are capable of seeing “the big picture,” and can keep the peace for the sake of what’s right, as opposed to “being right” in an argument. It’s rather ironic when you consider that much of what I know about being a man came from my circumstance of being raised without a father in my life. My introduction into manhood didn’t come when I had my first beer or when I lost my virginity, or even when I stood up to a bully for the first time. The moment I knew that I had arrived at being a man came when, at the age of 17, I decided to forgive my father for his inability to fulfill his parental obligation to me, and help protect and guide me in life.

Before I was even of legal age to drink I had already learned the valuable lesson of taking responsibility into your own hands, and letting go of anger, as opposed to living a life of blaming others for your problems. How many people today are still living a life of blaming their parents for the trouble they find themselves in as adults? While my father may have played a hand in the circumstances of my life up until that day, where my life has gone since that day, has been a result of me trying to change my circumstances. I have a strong and secure relationship with a loving wife, and I have children that understand that their father loves them, so by many counts I am more blessed than anyone could have imagined. That moment was surreal, the lesson was life changing, and I’m here today happy and sane because I was able to realize in that moment that I needed to let go, and in the process become a man.

Eric

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