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Fathering the Fatherless: Part I

When a mother blazes a trail through hardship, there are miles to go before she sleeps ...

It was Christmas morning, 1978. She watched as her children opened their presents. The grandparents were there enjoying the kids — as much as they could — under the circumstances.

Did the children sense their grief? About what was missing that morning, but more than that, about what had been forever changed? About the thing the children had yet to know?

When the last present had been opened, she asked the children to sit on the sofa.

It was time.

Time to do what she did not know how to do, the hardest thing her 43 years on earth had ever required of her (even though she knew it would now get harder). Time to do the thing no mother ever wants to have to do. Certainly not on Christmas morning.

Time to do that which she could not do on her own strength.

But there it was: a wall too high to climb and too wide to go around. She would have to walk through the only door before her. 

She dug deep and prayed.

Then she told her children: Their father would not be home for Christmas. In fact, he would not be coming home from the hospital at all, not to this home.

He had slipped away from them in the night, while they slept, and things would never be the same.

.           .           .           .           .           .           .

I wish I could tell you this is just a dramatic, made-up scenario meant to capture my readers’ attention and introduce my next parenting series.

Alas, I would not lie to you, Dear Patch Reader.

The truth is often more gripping than anything a writer can conjure, and having been given a voice for real-life stories, I have been entrusted with a great responsibility in the telling. 

Never has this been more apparent to me than with this upcoming series. 

It is in paying close attention to stories — those of others as well as our own —that we discover what is truly life.

Henry David Thoreau had his ideas about life. He went “to the woods” (Walden Pond) to “live deliberately, to … learn what it had to teach.”

He wanted to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life,” to “put to rout all that was not life, living is so dear” and not, when he “came to die” discover that he “had not lived.”

I admire his desire to “drive life into a corner” so that if living proved to be “mean,” he could “get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world.” But if it were “sublime,” he wanted to know it “by experience” and be able to give a “true account” of it.

Thoreau’s wilderness was self-imposed.

But what about those in this life who are thrown into a wilderness not of their own making? What about the “meanness” they encounter, which they never desired to “publish to the world”?

The world is still watching. 

Sometimes, we are left to find a way out of the dense forest around us. To make whatever sense we can of our situation and search for a path where there seems to be nothing but a thick underbrush.

Parents in such a situation are faced with (what feels like blindly) leading their children to a place of rest and safety, and eventually, they hope, to higher ground. 

Robert Frost described the woods as “lovely, dark and deep.”

But we parents have promises to keep.

And I want to scream: What about the promise of security?

When life doesn't turn out like we'd hoped it would, we ourselves feel abandoned, lost, hopeless. How does one grieve and still comfort her children?

When my mother-in-law lost her husband, she had four young souls she needed to "stay strong" for. In the months and years that followed, she tried her best to focus on the positive and on the tasks of each day. She loved her children and supported them and attended every activity and sport her kids participated in and did the job of two parents to raise them well.

The tears came often, but alone, in the dark.

Every day, there were "miles to go" before she would sleep. Or at least try to.

This is her story.

She never anticipated her idyllic life would take a turn like that — certainly not on Christmas Eve of 1978. Her children never dreamed of being fatherless. But this is their story. And it is true.

If there is any beauty in the wilderness of suffering, it is a beauty none of us wants to journey through the dark to get to. No one would ever seek it voluntarily.

Yet I see it in the lives of those who have faced tragedy and found hope. Most would gladly forsake that beauty, and some might go through their entire lives and not understand it.

But the beauty is there. In the wilderness. In the story a life tells about such things.

I am certain that my husband’s father made more of an impression on his children in nine or eleven or thirteen or fifteen short years than some fathers make in what we would call a “full” lifetime. 

Today, the family is a beautiful patchwork of individuals related by blood and by re-marriage. Some of its members never knew the man whose legacy has affected their lives.

But there is beauty in that, too. Blessing, even. 

In the coming weeks, I hope to share the stories of some of the most beautiful women I know. Their beauty is found, in part, in their response to hardship — to the wild ground that they have found themselves blazing their path through.

These are the stories of women like my mother-in-law, who led children the world might have called “fatherless” to a place of knowing that they are indeed “fathered.” By a family, a community and a mother whose beauty is evident to all. 

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