The Night My Father Gave Me
Something to Cry about
© 2017 Gordon Dalbey
…he will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse. Malachi 4:6
My father and I never had many personal conversations, but I’ll never forget the one when I flew across the country to try and change that.
Years earlier in 1967, after returning from the Peace Corps in Nigeria, I had left my parents’ home on the East Coast for graduate school in California. Enjoying the West Coast’s more open atmosphere, I stayed.
As the Vietnam War exploded amid the civil rights, feminist, and peace movements, I began to question my childhood worldview. Dad was a career military officer, and we struggled to entertain each other’s differences. Increasingly, we found ourselves on opposite sides not only of the country, but in our social and political views—until finally, he disowned me.
Eventually, after years of bitterness and anger, I came to see how my rebellion against Dad was sapping my energy and distracting me from my own sense of calling. As a boy, I ran toward him; as an “extended adolescent” I ran away from him. But I had no real sense of who I am because I had never run into the “Father from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth receives its true name” (Ephes. 3:14,15NIV).
I knew that somehow, in order to enjoy fully a life of my own, I would need to make peace with my father.
Maybe, at least, I could forgive him.
When Mom was alive, Dad and I never seemed to find time to be alone together. A year after she died, however, I knew that time had come; girding my loins, I left my wife and son in California and flew out alone to see him—even as Jacob went down into the river gorge to wrestle with God (Gen 32:22ff.).
One night soon after I arrived, the two of us were sitting quietly beside each other on the couch watching basketball on TV. When the halftime horn blared a halt to the game, silence fell between us.
Glancing uncertain at my father, I saw his face from the side, and was startled to notice his sloping forehead—just like mine! I shifted uneasily on the couch and my shoulder touched his—the very flesh and bone from which I was formed, the genes which infused my own!
Who is this man? I thought—not scornfully as a rebel, but at last humbly, as a son.
Amid the ballgame halftime chatter, I knew the time was at hand. Drawing in a breath, I turned to Dad—and thought to begin with my grandfather, whom he’d told me had died of cancer from factory work when Dad was 21.
“Dad…,” I offered hesitantly, “tell me about your father.”
Dad sat uncertain before the TV, so I tried to be more specific. “For example, what did you and your father talk about together—you know, when you were growing up?”
At that, Dad turned to me quickly and knit his brow. “My father was about your height,” he noted, “but he weighed a hundred and ninety pounds.”
All five-foot-ten, 160 pounds of me drew up. “So your dad was pretty fat?”
“Not at all,” he said shaking his head and spreading his arms wide. “In fact, he was solid muscle, especially in his shoulders, from working at the steel mill ten hours a day, six days a week. His job was to grab the red-hot block of steel out of the furnace with big tongs, pull it out, and shove it back and forth in the rollers to flatten it and stack it on the trucks.”
Fixing his eyes on mine, he hesitated, then went on. “One day, when I was in my early teens, my father got mad at me. I don’t remember what it was that upset him, but he came over close in front of me, furious. I was taller than him at six-two and played linebacker on my high school football team. He looked up at me, then suddenly, he reached out his arms, grabbed my elbows, and lifted me straight up off the ground, shook me hard, and set me down.”
Spellbound, I sat speechless. Holding my eyes on Dad’s, I waited for him to continue with what he and his father had talked about, as I’d asked him. But he said no more.
Then it struck me: the seize-and-shake story was his answer!
After a moment, Dad’s eyes narrowed. “My father was a hard man,” he declared finally, burning now in anger and looking me square in the eye. “When you did something he didn’t like, he hit you!”
Lifting his hand, he made a tight fist. “And when he hit you,” he declared, punctuating his story with a sharp jab, “it hurt!”
Immediately, I reached out and put my hand on Dad’s fist. “Dad…,” I managed, struggling for words, “that…must’ve hurt you terribly!”
Silently, awkwardly, we held our gaze.
Then fearfully, wonderfully, it happened.
All at once, I burst out in tears. Deep, bottomless anguish erupted from my gut and gushed out of me. Shamelessly, my body shook til my heart broke and generations of dammed-up pain flowed freely at last. Grasping my father’s fist, I fell forward choking, convulsing with sobs.
Moments later, a voice broke in: “OK, fans, it’s time to get back to the game!”
Catching myself, I sat up hastily and wiped my eyes. Confused, Dad and I looked at each other, then turned back to the TV.
Later, after the final buzzer, we said Goodnight and went our separate ways to bed.
No more was said.
Closing the bedroom door behind me, I fell on my knees. Father! I prayed. What just happened out there with Dad and me?
In that moment, I knew. Dad had answered my question clearly: he and his father hadn’t talked about anything together. When his dad communicated, mostly it was just via physical force.
Years later, as a father himself, he would spank me when I did something he didn’t like. Naturally, I would cry. But my tears dried quickly when he warned, “Stop crying, or I’ll give you something to cry about!”
Kneeling there on the bedroom carpet, it occurred to me that as a boy I had two options before my father’s anger: 1) to stop crying, or, 2) to be spanked again and suffer more pain “to cry about.”
That night, as a man, I faced Dad’s anger as fierce as ever I had seen it in my childhood. In fact, I stood up to it as I had never before dared. But when I broke out crying and couldn’t control my tears, option #1 was gone.
Option #2, however, awaited.
Tonight, I sensed God was telling me, I opened your heart to where you could not “stop crying.”
And so I, your Father, gave you “something to cry about.”
Your dad’s awful wounding in his boyhood is indeed something to cry about, especially when no one else on this planet has dared to feel his pain—not even himself. That’s what the cross was about–and, as I discovered, what empowered the resurrection.
After that night, in fact, I forgot about forgiving my father. Not because I stuffed the pain of our relationship deeper in my heart, but because at last, I had poured it out to Father God, and thereby let Him remove it altogether.
In my pride, I had vowed to reconcile with my father only if he asked me to forgive him. But all bitterness and judgment was washed out of me by Father God’s flood of tears for His two wounded, stubborn, but yes, beloved sons.
To my joy, what remained in my heart after that was a genuine love and appreciation for Dad which I had never before imagined, deeper and more authentic than any heroic boyhood fantasy. In fact, before leaving him on that visit, I asked Dad to forgive me for not appreciating all he sacrificed and overcame in order to give me so much, and for not respecting him as he deserved.
Thankfully, he forgave me on both accounts.
The father of Lies tells a man, “See how your father hurt you. That shows you he didn’t love you.” More often, however, it just shows how badly he himself was wounded by his own father, and how that wound shut down his heart and kept him from expressing his love for you.
“Honor your father and your mother,” as the Commandment declares; “if you do, you shall have a long, prosperous life in the land (the Lord Your God) is giving you” (Deut. 5:16).
A boy cries from his father’s pain; Dad hurts you, and you cry. But a real man cries for his father’s pain: God shows you Dad’s wound and you feel it as your own, even give it at last to Father God. That way, you no longer carry it around in bitterness and anger that shut down your heart and steal your future (see “Hippies, Fathers, and Forgiveness” in Sons of the Father: Healing the Father-Wound in Men Today).
As a man today, I grieve for the awful pain which my male ancestors carried bound and unspoken in their bodies—and too often displaced onto their sons. At times, in fact, I need to feel it yet again, and pour it out in tears to the Father—if only so I don’t pass down that wound to my own son.
In that place of grace, you can honor your father, as the Commandment, and receive its promise of a blessed future. You can ask Father God, “Show me my dad the way You see him”—and not only feel the pain of his wounds, but indeed, receive the blessing of his good qualities as your inheritance. What’s more, you can respect manhood—even your own—as you respect his (see Galat. 4:1-7).
I must confess here one final, embarrassing detail in my story: when I cried for my dad that night, I was 55 years old.
My brothers, please: don’t wait that long. Don’t let your anger co-opt your energies and short-circuit your destiny. Release it to your Father God, and let Him wash it away in His love for you both.
You’ll live longer that way.