Thinking back on your life is a strange thing. Most days seem to blur together, a canvas smeared with all kinds of colors. Other days you can see so clearly, remember so vividly. Like that spring day back in 1993 when my mom and our pastor sat me down on our living room sofa to break the news that my dad was addicted to crack and wouldn’t be coming home for a long time. That one felt more like a Jackson Pollock: hard to understand yet hard to forget.
Crack cocaine is a hell of a drug, as anyone who’s ever been laid bare in its addictive aftermath will tell you. You don’t just do crack. It does you. And, if you’re unlucky, everyone related to you too. We were unlucky. And suddenly my 12yr old brain was trying to process that this man I’d known all my life as my YMCA basketball coach, my Clemson football game companion, my catcher, my reason for wanting to be a farmer when I grew up, my best friend and my hero was also a crack addict. And he had just been checked into a rehab center in the upsate of SC.
To hear my dad tell the story, it was a gradual process. There had always been a wound, equal parts rejection and longing for affection. This is a wound known to most of us simply as life. The ones we long to be loved by also themselves long to be loved. The ones we’re afraid of being rejecting by also themselves have been rejected. This is the secret vicious cycle of life: we wound because we're wounded. If we could only see the wound of loneliness that binds us all together.
My dad had a wound. His father was a good man, a faithful man, a hard working man. But like many in his generation expressing his love for his children was more deeds than words. To the day he died my grandfather never told my father that he loved him. My dad worked his whole life for a drop of fatherly affirmation. What he got instead was anger and distance. Some may even want to call it abuse. After all there is a way of hitting someone so hard they never heal without ever raising your hand.
Passing down what you would never want to pass down. This is the irony of family. Tragedy might be the better word. Wounded people wound people. Often in ways completely unintentional and entirely different from the ways they themselves were wounded. My grandfather wounded my father. My father wounded me. How will I wound my children?
They say that hope is borrowing from the past and the future to invest and infuse the present with redemptive meaning. That our stories can have happy endings no matter the broken beginnings. That our lives can know incredible change from the inside out. That generational sin can be broken. Lord I believe. Help my unbelief.
From 1993-1998, all my visits with my dad were supervised. It was the courts way of saying we want you to see your kids, but still don't trust you. This actual feels like most of the parent relationships I know. Seeing you and trusting you are sometimes light years apart. How can you trust someone who has broken your heart?
Not until I had kids of my own did I realize that’s part of the deal. I’m going to break my kids’ hearts, in one way or another. They’re going to need counseling, not because of life, or their genes, or their dating history, but because of me. In the words of Michael Chabon, "To be a father is to be a man who fails every day."
I once asked a wise older friend what being a godly parent looked like. His answer surprised me. He simply said, “Can you tell your kids that you were wrong and ask them to forgive you? If you can, then you’re a great parent.” Part of me hates this. Where is the effective discipline, the stirring family devotionals, the beatific family vacations?
Another part of me loves this. What my kids need most from me isn’t my strategy but my sorry. I’m sorry for what I said. I’m sorry for what I did. I’m sorry for what they said. I’m sorry for what they did. I’m sorry that this life isn’t what you thought it would be. I’m sorry that your mom and I couldn’t give you what you needed. Or that we could but were too blind or selfish to see.
There is a story from the early church that a woman went to be baptized and took her children with her with the simple prayer, “Be a God unto me and my children.” Be what we need. Be what we know we should want. Be there for us when we want almost anything other than you. Be the only parent who can ever love us perfectly, faithfully, selflessly. Be the refuge of every parent struggling to make way with their little band in the wilderness. Be a God unto us.
Marilynne Robinson's Gilead says it best: “That is how life goes–we send our children into the wilderness. Some of them on the day they are born, it seems, for all the help we can give them. Some of them seem to be a kind of wilderness unto themselves. But there must be angels there, too, and springs of water. Even that wilderness, the very habitation of jackals, is the Lord’s. I need to bear this in mind.”
I spent a week this past summer with my dad. We talked a lot about books, and music, and addiction, and our wounds. It's to this day one of the favorite weeks of my life. Jesus is making all things new, and I'm thankful to say that includes broken relationships between children and their parents.