I never met my father. Well, not in any sense that reaches the memory before our first step. Before I’d taken my first, he’d taken his last. I’ve no recollection of the man and that thought alone triggers the webbed tracings of my existence. How does a boy understand the shadows in which he’s to follow if the shadows aren’t visible to his physical eye? Maybe for some, it’s meant to be a greater journey; a longer one, a deeper one. Or maybe these gaps create an opening to grow beyond the molded generational army. Maybe I was meant to step out of line and wander beyond the branded nurturing of nature’s genetic fiber.
What if a different man was shepherded to fill the blank silhouette? My brand would change. My life outlook would change. The halls and windows I’d grow up looking through would be a stark contrast to anything I would’ve known. Without filling the void, I would’ve grown in line with the family tree. I would be a completely different human being. The stepping in of a father figure would break the pattern and the history of my family and my surname vanishes with the roots of my culture. And all done without me even approving or, in my case, even being aware that it occurred at all. I was eighteen before I even knew that the shadow-filled would only cast more shadows.
Regardless of the puzzled shock of discovering that your stepfather was not biological and that your last name is far from the Swedish roots that run your bloodlines, I was instantly grateful. Possibly my genetics, possibly my nurturing, possibly both or neither but my first thoughts were of gratitude. So many children grow without a father of any kind. Of course, there were flooding questions that consumed me as well. What’s my last “real” last name? Do I have any other siblings (oh, yes a sister)? Do I have grandparents? Where am I from? How did this all come to be? And through the answering of them, I couldn’t quite have any feelings of loss though. I’d no prior knowledge of what existed to comprehend “losing” something or someone. It wasn’t cold. It was part confusion and part appreciation for the man that helped shape me.
We are a culmination of what we observe. I’m by no means demeaning the legacy of my biological father but it’s been shared that his charisma was both a treasure and a curse when it came to moving wildly through life. And though I’m certainly glad for the spirit of my wanderlust, clearly a genetic hand-me-down, I’d not be the man and father I am today without the tangible presence and pillared strength of my stepfather. I’d not have the example of what it takes to color in the reality of a father figure. I’d not have had the learnings of discipline and respect. The caring for others above yourself. The battling a lifelong and debilitating disease and all the will it takes to take on another day with grace. I’d not have had a man that stepped in to take us as his own. He influenced the way I’d tailor my own fatherhood.
As a father of two maturing young women, I don’t know how I’d have had the collective sampling of teachings that I experienced without having a father growing up. My desire is for them to get the best of what was gifted to me and to understand kindness, work ethic, gratitude, will, wanderlust, trust, and the emotional resilience of navigating through a world that can knock you down, over and over. I hope that they’ll continue to open their minds and realize that my firmness and gentleness were present with the best intentions. I’m certain that time will weather their displeasured lessons, as well as my flawed ways, and they’ll always know me as a constant source of reliability and love. To be felt appreciated for my presence and guidance is enough for me. I know they’ll always know me as more than a figure.
Though I’ve lost two fathers, I’ve had years to appreciate the very presence of them both. I’m fortunate to have a curiously wild nature balanced with nurtured determination and discipline. Well before I was aware, my father figure was filled in with the necessities I needed. I couldn’t have been luckier. But like anyone else, I can lose sight of the greatest gifts both known or yet to be. I can forget how others may never have more than a father figure on a screen. How many grow up with abusive or absent “fathers”. And I’ve personally witnessed how tangled and frayed a child’s life becomes with fathers of addiction or incarceration … “fathers” figured only in broken picture frames and figments in wishful minds.
Yet, it makes no difference whether older brother, cousin, uncle, grandfather, teacher, coach or friend … we are all men fashioned as role models. Whether aware or not, we all become father figures. We are being observed with every gleaning of a child. Who we are to them should come with greater mindfulness than who are we to ourselves or our peers. Children are our best inspirations for improving our existence and our best audience for illustrating success should be them. We are designed to be more than a stoic contour. We are than an authoritative outline of masculinity. We are more than figures and we needn’t be a genetic father to fill the needed responsibilities of one.
Postscript: The brilliant lines of Eddy Vedder and Pearl Jam’s song “Release” sums up the yearnings of so many children and so perfectly of my own. “Oh dear dad, can you see me now? I am myself like you somehow. I’ll ride the wave where it takes me …. Oh dear dad, can you see me now? I’ll wait up in the dark for you to speak to me.”
*Proceeds from The Conversation Event benefit The Mobile Book Library for Homeless kids and families.