Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Sunday, June 21, 2015


CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith for the Years of Winter…

[Because it’s Father’s Day, a repost from 4-24-12]

About two years before he died, at age 96, when I was an old man of 68 myself, my father called me on the telephone. He was crying, a very unusual activity for that extremely tough and totally independent man.

“Are you the one who was born in Ohio?” he asked in a breaking voice.

I acknowledged that I was. My sisters and brother were born in Indiana.

“I hate to tell you this,” he choked out, “but you’re not really my child…”

My first reaction was to think: If I’m the one who is not your child, how come I’m the one who takes care of you all the time instead of your non-bastard children? [1]

Then I felt guilty because it was really my wife, Helen, who did the bulk of the caring for him. By the time I had gotten that settled in my mind, he had choked up and could not talk anymore and hung up.

He never said anything about it again. Neither did I, at least to him. I told Helen and our daughters, though.

After Helen stopped laughing, she said, “That’s so ridiculous. Just look at you and your brother and father together. Except for the height difference, you’re three peas in a pod.”

I never said anything to him about it, never asked him about it, both because it was a tearful subject for him, and because Helen and I agreed that it must have been some sort of old-age forgetfulness or crossing of brain wires, maybe something he had picked up from somewhere else and mistakenly incorporated into his own memories. I also figured that it was his subject to raise, not mine.

There was just one problem with the “One of those old age memory-dementia things” theory. It was the one and only time that Dad ever exhibited an “old age-dementia” problem. Up until the day he died, both before and after that call, he was very sharp mentally.

So what was going on when he called that day? Probably nothing that had anything to do with me, something internal to him. From time to time, though, when I remember that my mother always insisted that I was named for her brother, John Hubert Pond, instead of my father, John Francis McFarland, or something reminds me of Dad--I hear the birds sing, or look at a garden, or at a piece of furniture he made--I wonder…

The memory of that telephone call does not haunt me. Sometimes, though, I recall my mother explaining that I was the least favorite child because I was the only one Dad had actually seen born, in that era before fathers were routinely in delivery rooms. I know that seeing a birth would probably jaundice my view of a kid, too.

There is no question that he was my father and I his son, in all the ways that really count, but could it be that…

If so, do I really need to know? No.
I didn’t need to know the day he called, either. If there were something about his relationship to me, or to my mother, then deceased, that was bothering him, it would have been best for him to talk to someone outside the family about it, or just to be as quiet about it as he had been for all his other years.

The task of our last years is what Erik Erikson called Final Integrity vs Despair. We think back over our lives and ask, “Was it okay to be me?” To be able to say yes, sometimes we have to acknowledge mistakes. Sometimes we have broken relationships that we need to mend to make life whole.

Sometimes, though, honesty becomes a breaker instead of a healer. I spoke recently with a man whose wife confessed transgressions to him just as she was dying. There was no time to process it together before she was gone. It took him a long time to get over it.

As we try to put things right in winter, there is a good tendency to try to be honest, to tell the truth about the past. Sometimes, though, it is best to tell that truth where only we, the tellers, and God, can hear it. The deciding rule should be, Does telling this not only make me feel right about my life, but does it also benefit the ones who hear, or does it hurt them?

If I hurt someone as I try for final integrity, it will lead instead to despair. Sometimes, integrity is just keeping your mouth shut.

Once, when I was 2 or 3, Dad ran away. It was the Great Depression. He didn’t have a job. He couldn’t support his family. We lived with his parents and several siblings. It was too much. Many young men left home and wife and children during the Great Depression under those circumstances. He had gotten a lot of miles away when, he told Mother, who told me many years later, he saw a little boy playing in a yard. “He looked like Johnny,” he said. He turned around and started back.

Maybe he thought I wasn’t really his child, but I was the reason he came home.

John Robert McFarland

I tweet as yooper1721.

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