I lost my father when I was eight. I didn’t lose him physically; that happened when I was twenty-eight. I lost him as a dad.
My dad had been a semi-pro football player, though I never saw him play. He got multiple sclerosis in his twenties so I never did see him walk, let alone play the sport. As a boy and a teen, I witnessed that disease bring him down—from difficulty walking, to being a paraplegic, to quadriplegic. That disease overwhelmed him (and my mom) emotionally…and that’s how I lost him as a dad after age eight. Though never having seen him play the game, he talked it up. So football is in my blood. I never held a baseball bat in my hands as a kid, but I did play a lot of neighborhood football. And I am intensely competitive, which is certainly my dad in me.
As a young adult looking back, I realized my dad’s words were like God’s. He spoke into my mental universe…and it was so. He told me how he loved football, and, within my own psyche, it was so. Decades later, as a parent, I loved throwing the pigskin with my sons. My dad also told me he hated golf and baseball; both were boring games, he said. In fact, as a true body-banging football player, he declared that one didn’t even have to be an athlete to play those games. Over the decades, for no good reason other than my dad declared it so into my universe, I have hated both baseball and golf—until a few years ago when I decided to put golf on my terms. Now I love golf…and love hating it. It is one frustrating game.
All children have a major developmental challenge growing up: integrating the good, bad, and ugly of their parents. When parents’ sins lie within a more “normal” range, that task is doable. My sons have been known to say, “Yeah, Dad, that’s you.” Or, “we know, that’s Mom.” What they mean is that they love us, accept our idiosyncrasies, even accept our limitations and sins, while knowing we are good people—and have been good parents. My parents’ sins were not within the normal range, however. When I was about four, my father, for example, locked me into a tiny bedroom at night—with the lights off—to punish me for something. I have no idea what. I spun around like a top, feeling like I was going crazy looking for the monsters that I knew had to be lurking there in the pitch blackness. I don’t recall anything after my spinning. My older brother told me that my father also locked me in our cellar, once again with lights off. He said I screamed hysterically…and kept screaming. Dad wouldn’t let me out. I have no memory of it.
As my dad got worse physically, his temper grew. He’d yell at me—at all of us, including my mother—for the smallest things. And there was never any talking to him about it; disabled or not, you hadn’t dared.
Still, my dad was a good man. He had this ugly side to be sure. And I had to scratch and claw my way out of it first in order to put together his good, bad, and ugly within me. But I eventually did.
My dad was a high school grad who worked as a “tin knocker” on production line machines. Once again, the power of his words: He hated jewelry on his body, like his wedding ring, because of the risk of that jewelry being caught in machinery— and losing a finger or hand or something worse. He hated long-sleeved shirts for the same reason. Guess what? To this day, I hate jewelry on my body. And I wear short- sleeved polo shirts even in the winter. Since I am a “white collar” worker, there is no good practical reason for these reactions—except my father spoke his words into my universe. And it was so.
Though poor, my dad would save his pennies to buy a cigar box full of baseball cards whenever he could. Then he’d divvy them up among us three boys. I used those cards to play Hubbards with my brother. My dad would also save some pennies in another cigar box. Every now and again he’d call us boys together in the living room and throw the pennies all over the floor so we could have the fun of scrambling to pick them up. Though I was competitive, I was the youngest—and scooped up the least number. But I’d usually manage to secure enough pennies to go to Pat Grassi’s store to buy more baseball cards for Hubbards.
Before the disease took over his body completely, my dad would sit on our front porch step to play catch with me. He would have preferred throwing the football, but he couldn’t stand steady enough to throw the ball nor grip the ball well enough to toss it back to me. So I’d carefully throw him a baseball. Still, I enjoyed those moments.
Beyond these small ways that revealed his healthy desire to lead a normal life and be a normal, caring father, he was, in ways, a good Catholic Christian man. The fact is, our Dutchtown neighborhood nestled along the Genesee River in the heart of the city of Rochester, NY was a small community of devout immigrant Catholics from varying ethnic backgrounds. Neighborhood relationships emerged from a Christian ethos. Over the decades, the neighbors also learned to get along because they had to. Through their small businesses, they traded money with one another to make ends meet. So—for my father, ethnicity and race didn’t matter. I vividly recall as a boy of about age five, after Rosa Parks took her stand on the bus against prejudice, my father telling me, “Frankie, it doesn’t matter what the color of your skin is, it’s how you treat people.” He declared this long before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s eloquent words. My dad imprinted me with his few words. He spoke—and it was so. To this day, I hate bigotry. Hating someone for their background or skin color makes no sense to me. None. That’s my dad in me.
My dad also kept his word. If he said he’d do something, he’d do it. If he forgot, and you brought it up, he would not get angry. He’d recommit to keeping his word.
I have an attorney friend who, one day, explained legal contracts and the social order this way: You can threaten jail or a lawsuit to try to get a contract fulfilled, but the reality is that a deal is only as good as the signatures at the bottom. Without keeping one’s word, good things just don’t get done between people. But social psychologists have noted how, in the past decade or so, innumerable people now feel free to break their word. They don’t keep their end of a deal. They violate contracts and do not pay their bills. For many, keeping their word—and imputing honor to another person by doing so—means little anymore.
My friend elaborated. He noted how everything we do as a society depends on all of us keeping our word—from driving on our own side of the road to not assaulting another person when we’re angry. We all give our word that we won’t drink and drive. Yet, about three hundred thousand drivers a day break their word to us. The price tag: about ten thousand deaths a year on our highways. The horrific killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut took down twenty of our children. Yet, among the ten thousand killed on our streets every year are about two hundred of our children. Those three hundred thousand people who drink and drive daily do not keep their word to us—with tragic consequences.
My lawyer friend went on further. He pointed out how the “rule of law” means that we not only resolutely agree to stick to our word, but also agree to being punished for breaking it. We grant ourselves permission to give ourselves tickets or throw ourselves into prison if we break the rules. The rule of law makes all of society stable. It also makes our economy thrive. The only reason credit cards work, for example, is that companies agree they will only charge us for what they ask—and nothing more. The company must keep its word. The consumer in turn gives his word he will pay the charge. The whole thing works only if both sides keep their word. There really is no capitalism—and no free market—without the rule of law. And the rule of law is all about holding ourselves accountable for keeping our word to one another. Frankly, I had never thought of it that way before. But all of what my friend explained makes sense to me—all of it—simply because my dad kept his word.
My dad was a man of duty.
He was loyal to his country—and willing to do his duty for it. Not because God or government forced such loyalty. And not because some priest or politician said you needed to invest in a cause bigger than yourself. But because he believed in what this country stood for. When I was about seven, my dad told me, “Frankie, when I was in the army and the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, I wanted to fight to keep our freedom. But I had a broken leg. Boy, was I mad.”
Once again, like God, my dad had spoken into my universe, and it was so: I do find myself loyal to this country. I am committed to the principles in our Constitution. However poorly we have implemented that document, our Constitution stands as an unparalleled platform for individual rights and freedom. In this grand experiment called the United States, our Constitution rests on the most powerful moral premise ever declared for a nation in the entire history of the world. It is the very premise my dad had spoken to me as a little boy. In one brief sentence, he had given me the core principle found in the Declaration of Independence: God created all people equal, with certain
unalienable rights. While implemented poorly in our transitions as a nation—without due respect to Native Americans, African-Americans, or women—we nevertheless are one nation on the planet that has matured into a people who are resolutely committed to a human being’s unalienable right to live out his or her own life in freedom. And we stand on a piece of paper that ultimately holds our leaders accountable to that principle. With my dad’s few words about the bombing of Pearl Harbor, I became imprinted with his passion that our country’s founding principles, and with them, our freedom, were worth fighting for. I am not saying I’d die in defense of our politicians’ corrupt behaviors. But I do get to vote them in and vote them out. For that freedom, I’d “do my duty”—and die. Standing on the core principle in our Declaration, combined with the passion to fight for it, is my dad in me.
My dad was also loyal to his family—and did his duty for us. He provided for us not because God would punish him if he didn’t, but because that’s who he wanted to be. He believed that a good man was a man who was true to his word and took care of his family. I don’t know how it came up, but one time he noted, “That’s what a man does.” After he got multiple sclerosis, he continued to work as a tin knocker. He didn’t quit—nor did he want to quit. So he’d shuffle off to work, working with the “tin” (sheet metal) as best he could with his diseased hands until his foreman had to lay him off for medical reasons. At the tender age of seven, I vividly recall my dad’s anger —and felt his emotional pain—when he came home that final night and told my mom what had happened. Losing his ability to work took away his core sense of purpose because duty to family was key to his identity as a man.
“That’s what a man does.” The power of words. So—I am loyal to my family. No matter what I’ve been through physically since age thirty-nine, I’ve always kept working to provide for my family. One doctor told me that, though I looked fine on the outside— no one would ever guess what happened to me—I was in worse shape on the inside than many of his patients on Social Security Disability. I appreciated his affirmation, though I can’t speak to his experience. All I know is that I work very hard…like my dad going to work with MS. It’s my chosen duty to family.
With Father’s Day upon us, it can be valuable to reflect on how a father’s words spoken into a child’s universe not only shape the child, but ultimately defines her.
My sisters and brothers in Christ, if you have or have had a father whose bad and ugly were really bad and really ugly, I understand the pain. Still, may you discover and reflect upon your father’s words that created certain extraordinary qualities in you. Words that made you you. May you lay hold of your freedom in Jesus Christ, realizing your father was not all bad and all ugly. Have mercy upon him…not for his sake, but your own.
For those of you who have or have had great fathers whose sin was neither outrageous nor pathological, may you richly celebrate how God wasn’t the only one to speak his words into the universe to create you.
And for those of us who are fathers, may we use Father’s Day to remind ourselves of the inscrutable power of our own words—words to celebrate, affirm, and, yes, even to define, the very identities of our children. It is an awesome and scary power. But it is a power we have. May the Lord equip us to speak his words of life to our own children.
Happy Father’s Day.