There are a very few books I remember from my pre-reading days, books I'm sure my parents read to me repeatedly. The Bunny Book (written by Patricia Scarry, illustrated by Richard Scarry) was my favorite.
It's a simple story with a surprise ending. There's some kind of bunny family reunion going on. It begins with a baby bunny being tossed in the air by his father, who speculates with his mother about what the baby bunny will be when he grows up. So do the baby's siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and maybe a few other friends and relations. They come up with the answers one would expect: a farmer bunny, a police bunny, a firefighter bunny. I can't remember all of those guesses because, in the end, they're wrong. The baby bunny knows exactly what he will be when he grows up: a daddy bunny.
And that, I knew from my first memory of that book, is what I wanted to be. No, not a bunny; a daddy. I would love and nurture my children, playing with them, taking them to events, feeding them breakfast, reading them stories and tucking them in at night. Like many small boys, I wanted to grow up to be just like my daddy. The extent to which this book resonated with me tells me he was every bit as involved in my life as the bunny father was in this book.
I have memories of my father's periodic absences while he was attending classes in Boston, and how excited I was to see him come home. He often brought gifts for me and my brother, but that really wasn't what I looked forward to. I just wanted to be around him. In Salem, New Hampshire, where he had his first full-time Methodist appointment, his study was in the parsonage where we lived. I remember playing in there while he worked, just to be closer to him. I remember him teaching me to ride my first bicycle, working on projects with me in his woodshop, digging caves for us to play in in the enormous snow bank that accumulated at our back door one winter. And I remember being in church one Sunday and wanting desperately to be with him, even though I should've understood by then that he had responsibility for the entire service. I was probably six, and sitting with my mother, and I began crying. Dad called the children forward for the children's message, and told a story about crocodile tears which seemed directed specifically at me. It was my first experience of the power of a focused homily, of having the Word reach into my soul and fix a short-circuiting emotion. Keep this story in your mind as I continue.
As I grew, my father continued to be present in my life, volunteering with the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, teaching me about nature and astronomy, encouraging me in my pursuits. When I was in the third grade, my uncle gave me a chess set for Christmas, and as soon as I learned the rules, chess games with my father became a regular evening activity. He didn't go easy on me. I remember him teaching me about the fool's mate. I remember crying after being beaten three times in a row, Mom chiding him for not letting me win, and knowing that would be wrong, that only honest victories were worth winning.
In my teen years, Dad was less present, though I have come to realize one reason for that was his struggles with an unruly church that was draining him psychologically and physically, but which he fought to remain at for my sake. He still made time for me, actually hiring me to be his church secretary (my first regular paying job), and teaching me to drive on the beat-up '68 Fairlane wagon with the jury-rigged transmission that was our only means of transportation. Caught up in developmental narcissism, and unaware of what a toll his job was taking on him, I had little appreciation for what he was doing for me and my family, much to quick instead to be embarrassed of his outdated mannerisms, the shabby clothing he wore to Scout meetings, the vintage fat-tire bicycle he rode around town, and of course, that dreadful red station wagon. (I actually delayed getting my license as a protest against that car, insisting I wouldn't take my driving test until there was a newer car to do it in. That probably didn't bother my parents at all; they finally got another car two weeks after I finally passed my driving test shortly after my eighteenth birthday, behind the wheel of the Fairlane.)
At some point in my teens, I had transitioned away from wanting to be my father to wanting to be as different from him as I could; and yet I couldn't escape the ways in which he was hardwired into my identity: my voice, my mannerisms, my fascination with the written word, my interest in science and nature, in photography, in the stars, in history, all had their roots in him. From my mother I have music, which has ultimately proven most central to my public identity; but clearly much of my personality is grounded in my father.
This has most manifested itself in the central poignancy of my own fatherhood. The story of my father's parenting is of humility and frustration, of wanting to be involved with his children and yet being pushed away, and of never boasting of his own contribution to our lives. It's a path I unconsciously found myself on within just a few years of finally becoming a father.
In my early twenties, I began to worry that I would never meet someone, never settle down, never have those children I so badly wanted to have. I speculated for awhile about adoption. As it turned out, I was just a late bloomer, and once I started dating, I moved rapidly--too rapidly, I was to realize later--from relationship to marriage. I still lacked the confidence to know that, if this one didn't work out, there would be another one after it. I felt like I had to lock it in, to use the panic button of proposing while things were still good. So my first girlfriend became my first wife. Neither of us was ready for marriage, but that is true of many who marry in their twenties. Two and a half years into our marriage, we had our first child, Sarah.
That baby was my whole world. I was, by now, deeply entrenched in my father's profession, but it was already clear to me that seminary, ordination, preaching, pastoring, all of it was nothing next to my identity as a father. I had achieved my lifelong goal: I was a daddy bunny.
Sean came along three years later, as our marriage was beginning to collapse, and as I was beginning to seriously question whether ministry was right for me. Sean nearly died at birth, and was permanently scarred by the trauma. That made his life even more precious to me. For the last year of our marriage, I took Sean with me to Estacada. He'd hang out in the nursery during the service, then be brought upstairs where, during the final hymn, he'd run down the aisle to me. I'd scoop him up in my arms and deliver the benediction.
Divorce turned me into a part-time father. This was the hardest thing about it. Separation from my children was agonizing. Driving them back and forth, especially as distances grew (I was moved to Yamhill county, and Brenda moved to Vancouver), became a weekly odyssey, punctuated by the heart-rending moment when I got back in my car, bereft of the two little ones who gave my lonely existence meaning.
That periodic emptiness in my life, coupled with the loneliness of my rural appointment, led me to go back into the dating pool, and to again move too quickly into a marriage, this time with a woman who already had a small child. I spent two and a half years parenting that little boy, spending more time with him than his mother, giving up time with my own two children as their presence put stress on this new marriage, bargaining away the most important people in my life in a vain attempt to avoid another collapse. It ended much more abruptly than the first. When I tried to restore the missing time with Sean and Sarah, I was turned away: I would have to prove myself.
It was a hard pill to swallow, but I did. I maximized what time I had with my children, volunteered with Sean's Cub Scout pack, attended every school concert. Ministry fell away from me, and I moved into the Peace House, where my children now had to share a room during their visits. I home-schooled Sarah for a year, dividing time between the Peace House and her mother's house. On Cub Scout meeting nights, I would pick Sean up from his mother's house in Sherwood, take him out for dinner, then to the meeting. After the meeting I'd take him back to Sherwood--and he'd break down and sob when it was time for me to leave. It tore me apart. Unlike my father, I couldn't find the words to comfort him as the pain of separation broke his heart week after week. It was tearing me up, too.
After three years, I decided it was time for me to live in the same zip code as my children for the first time in eight years. I was there for two years. For the first year, Sarah lived mostly with me; for the second year, she traded places with Sean. This was not an easy time. There was plenty of conflict, culminating in their move to Idaho.
Now I could only see my children when they flew out for, at most, a weekend a month. There was more time at school breaks, but bit by bit, my dream was being chiseled away, reduced to a tiny fraction of what I had always believed it was supposed to be. I made one last attempt to have Sean live with me while he was in high school, and failed.
My children love me. I have no doubt of that. Sarah has been reaching out more, now that she is in her twenties. Sean's adolescent rebellion was delayed, but it has been mild, and as he, too, has reached 21, he has been gently individuating, quietly insisting on having a say in the shape of his own life, where he will live and with whom, what he will do. It's melancholy but encouraging. I'm proud of them both.
No one comes to midlife without regrets, without wounds that can never be completely healed. Mine is the wound of the prematurely empty nest. I had to give up so much of my dream of fatherhood, had to miss so much of my children's adolescence. I feel privileged to share in this stage in the lives of Amy's children--it does feel in many ways like a second chance--but I can never get back what I lost at the beginning of this millennium.
What I can do is place this all in perspective. It's the best lesson my father ever taught me: children will grow and change and disappoint and frustrate me and make terrible mistakes that will haunt them for the rest of their lives. In all these things they are passing through the same stages I had to experience for me to become the man I am today. I can't shield them from these things; trying to is to court insanity, and to risk permanent rupture of my relationship with them. Letting them make their mistakes, and learn and grow from them, giving them the distance and space they need to grow into their own personhood, I make it far more likely that they will come back to me, that they will someday appreciate what it cost me to bring them into this world, and that at my end, they will be with me.