I know many others have had it a lot worse than I did growing up. Sure, I lived in a poor part of Southwest Philadelphia, in a row home where I could hear the neighbors whisper if I focused just a little bit. There were drive-bys only a few blocks over, and I realize now just how dangerous the area was back then. But at the time I didn’t think about any of that, and I also honestly didn’t think about the children starving in Ethiopia either, even though my mom always talked about shipping my leftover vegetables there. I didn’t even think about the crack house on the end of the block where Old Leroy would sell his wares, but more often than not just use them himself. We were always warned to stay away from Old Leroy. Instead, what I wondered about more often than anything else was where my father was.
At first it was just like any other family at that time, I guess. It was before the 50+% divorce rate, so if anyone in our school came from a “broken” home it was a huge topic of gossip, but single mother households were on a precipitous rise with more and more women having children out of wedlock. The church frowned on that, and I knew all about it because both of my parents were heavy into the church, my father being a preacher, and my mother a church leader. And at the start our little nuclear family seemed to be just that — containing a nucleus of both parents around which we kids hovered.
Things started to drift into fragments, though, because my dad didn’t have a “home” church. Instead, he was (and is) one of those itinerant preachers who was constantly traveling from church to church, often outside of the city of my birth, and often for long swaths of time. He was also heavily involved in prison ministry so he would be in the jails talking to inmates when he wasn’t doing extensive church tours. That of course left little to no time to continue being a part of the nucleus that helped to keep the family going, and it was obviously very difficult on my mother and on myself and my sister as well.
An old friend of mine from high school sent me a Facebook message a few months ago in which he told me that a man with the last name of McManus had preached an amazing sermon at his church on Saturday, and he asked me if I knew him. Instead of answering his question, I said, “That’s my dad.” And we continued our conversation as he told me how wonderful the message was that my dad preached, and he even asked me to tell my dad how moved he was when next we spoke. I told him I would. And between then and now I haven’t spoken to my dad. In fact, I haven’t spoken to him in almost two years, and it’s not an active avoidance on my part, but I suppose I blame him for many things and my subconscious is railing against a connection even now. Plus, it’s a two-way street.
And that’s the biggest reason why I was always looking for a father. It is a two-way street, and I was walking down one side of it for so long without seeing anyone else coming that I forgot it went both ways. I’ve grown cynical and jaded in my advanced age now, and I don’t know how to get out of that cycle. But it’s partly on him too, and my brain knows that. My heart is just broken in pieces and wants to have a father that I’ve never really known. That’s why I couldn’t tell my old high school friend that I did indeed know the man who had preached at his church. I have heard him preach more times than I could possibly count, and I agree that he is a wonderful orator, but he has always seemed to care so much for others, and so little for his own family.
My mom would never say it openly, but I know it was so stressful for her dealing with two kids who were admittedly a handful without the support of the man who had helped to create us. And while my parents did finally divorce when I was 10 years old, that was no excuse for him to disappear so completely from my life like he did. I’ll admit it, too, I held a grudge back then and I still hold one now. It wasn’t like we weren’t in the same city (he didn’t move away from Philadelphia until I was 16), and even when he did move there were so many outlets to connect with his children even then. But he so rarely took the opportunities afforded to him. Ironically, just as my friend alluded, he treated everyone who heard him preach so wonderfully, so I sometimes wished I were just someone in the crowd at one of those churches, so I could know how it felt.
So, from an early time I was looking for a father, a real father who would do simple things with me, who would help me become a man by being that example for me, someone who I knew would be there for me if I called him up and just said I needed to talk. I was looking for a father who would play catch with me in the backyard, someone who could tell me what I should do with the feelings I had begun to have about girls, who would laugh with me on the porch while we watched the fireflies blink in and out. I was looking for a father to teach me how to shave, to be a doting grandfather to my kids, and to hug me and tell me he loves me.
And I’ve finally found that man, in me. If there’s one thing I have learned from hardly ever having my dad around, from all that searching, is that I won’t ever be the man who disappears. I will always be there for my children so they’re never searching for a father, so they never feel as tied up and twisted as I feel when I think about what could have been with my dad, and when I cried myself to sleep at night wondering why he didn’t love me.
I know many others have had it a lot worse than I did, but sometimes it’s hard to reconcile that with these feelings, with these abandonment issues I don’t know that I’ll ever get rid of, and I still catch myself sometimes waiting for him to call, or to visit. And at times like those I need to remind myself how fortunate I am to have a mother who loves me so completely, a wife who is the epitome of nurturing, and two children who know I’m there for them. And it’s more than enough for me.