I don’t much like talking on the phone. My business-like approach to phone conversations has led more than one friend to observe that “[I] give bad phone.” My brother Mike knows this about me. As a result, when he calls, he gets right to the point. And Mike’s point usually has something to do with free baseball tickets, football tickets, or some other leisure-time activity that involves a beer or two, and lots of laughter. Needless to say, when “Mike W” shows up on my caller ID, I pick up.
But on May 19, Mike did not get right to the point. And he had no tickets to give away. In a bracing tone that caused me to unconsciously harden my stomach muscles, he asked me if I was alone. After he determined that the coast was clear, he quickly got down to the business section of his call. “Dad died this morning.” Like a twin-engine plane, circling an airport, it took two or three more passes for those words to finally land within me. While I was still finding a place to store this new information, Mike continued, “It looks like he took his own life.” This second piece of news instantaneously pushed me down into the seated position. I knew that one day my aging dad would die…just not like this.
In the first few days after his death, while trying to make sense of this peculiar brand of chaos, it occurred to me, that the macular degeneration that dad suffered for the last several years of his life was an apt metaphor for a much deeper disability. Just like the macular degeneration that limited what he could see, my dad suffered from a kind of emotional and psychological macular degeneration. Even as a young child, I would observe my dad’s emotional and psychological vision problems in action. Frequently, he would take what he thought was a well-placed step. But, plagued with his particular brand of vision problems, he would run headlong into someone, or something that would cause one form of chaos or another.
Almost three decades ago, I came to an awareness that I had internalized some of my dad’s chaos. This awareness led me into a process of healing that included counseling, spiritual direction, Twelve Step work, praying, and journaling. With assistance, I developed a vocabulary, and a kind of filing system that helped me make sense of my dad. Gradually, I learned that I had to mourn the dad I wished for, so that I could accept the dad over here in the real world-the dad with a vision problem that often prevented him from seeing me.
In the last twenty years or so, the fruit of this work showed up in a really satisfying relationship with my father. Through clear boundary setting, complete with logical consequences for good and bad behavior, I consistently got to see the best in him. In the last several years, I came to imagine that his eventual death would represent a kind of victory lap for the both of us to celebrate what we were eventually able to enjoy with one another.
This Sunday’s Gospel selection (The Prodigal Son Parable) contained the classic story of a relationship between a father and his two sons. Like other stories that merit the label, “classic,” if you really listen to it deeply, it will walk you into some important territory of your own life, and ask you to wrestle with some very intimate, vulnerable truths. For example, how many of us have been the stay-at-home brother or sister, watching in pain, as a prodigal son creates ten different types of chaos for a family? What does it mean for an authentic Christian to forgive 70 x7 times in these circumstances? Or perhaps you have gone prodigal for some section of your own life, and had to find your way back home? What caused you to go prodigal? What does it mean for you to come home again?
At this snapshot in time, this story confronts me with my own father-son story that has more to do with a father whose limitations frequently caused him to go prodigal on me. Somehow, the chaotic way that my prodigal father left this Earth, brought me back to the chaos of how he had lived significant sections of his life. It was as if his suicide took hold of the filing cabinet of my psyche, and pulled it over. Painful memories from the past, long ago filed away, came spilling out, and were suddenly present to me again in this time zone. Like an episode of “Rocky,” or “The Terminator” the grief work that I thought I had conquered “was baaack!” In a strange way, my dad’s death plucked me out of my own life, and challenged me to set out on another, deeper journey of self-discovery.
About two months ago, I was sharing this strange new journey with a wise friend. In answering a couple of his questions, a familiar memory surfaced. It had to do with the life-changing time when God showed up in my adolescence with a fire hose of unconditional, affectionate, fatherly love for me. But what came next surprised me. I found myself getting in touch with how, shortly thereafter, a series of wise, balanced men came into my life, one-at-a-time. Each in his own way, these men provided me with mentoring, friendship, and a rudder to steer my life, so that the son of a prodigal father did not have to remain prodigal himself.
In the last several weeks, I have learned that, despite my dad’s shortcomings, I have never been fatherless, and I am not fatherless now. God attracted so many godparents to me. Through their affection, humor, wisdom, and enjoyment of me, I have been fathered by the hand of God himself. This kind of knowledge, I have found, can create a profound sense of homecoming even in the midst of profound chaos.