Thursday, February 03, 2005


Revelation 2:17 (New International Version)

“17He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it.”

Last night our men’s group at church read and discussed a portion of chapter six in John Eldridge’s “Wild at Heart.” The piece that really caught our attention was the one in which Eldridge interpreted the passage from the Book of Revelation I used in my introduction:

“The giving of the white stone makes it clear – that is what he is up to. The history of a man’s relationship with God is the story of how God calls him out, takes him on a journey and gives him his true name.”

Interesting stuff, especially in the light of the chapter’s title – “The Father’s Voice.” For some of us in the group seeing the impact of a father’s voice has a history and recollections. For some of us it isn’t as easy.
I have very few recollections of my father since he died when I was quite young. I have a fuzzy recollection of running down the street to greet him as he was coming home from his job as a chipper (an ice man). I have another of seeing him at a distance at the hospital during his final days. I remember seeing him in a glass enclosed room, quarantined because he had tuberculosis. He waved at me and I waved back. I don’t think I was really aware that he was close to death; it just seemed to me that he was a ship’s captain inside the pilot house getting ready to embark on a great journey. Beyond that, there’s very little I really know about my father. I know he drank excessively. At the wake I recall hearing aunts and uncles saying that “He drank himself to death.”

This morning I’m considering once again the early part of my journey and some interesting things are coming to the surface. Where did my sense of what it means to be a father come from?

I think the first imprint came from my brother, Bill. I don’t remember much about the earliest of our days. I do know from what others have told me that when my father died my brother, sister and I went to live with relatives for a while. Then, when my mother was hospitalized with a nervous breakdown we found our way into the “system,” becoming wards of the state. We were sent to the Prendergrast Preventorium in Mattapan, a Boston suburb. During our time there we saw very little of one another. My sister stayed in the girl’s dormitory and I stayed with the younger boys while my brother lived in a different wing of the same building.

My mother was hospitalized for two or more years from that point, I’m not sure which. When she was released from the hospital my sister, brother and I were separated even further. My sister went to live with an aunt and uncle, my brother was sent to The Farm and Trade School which was situated on Thompson’s Island in Boston Harbor. It was to be a long haul for us and another two or three years before we became a family once more.

I remember the joy I felt when my brother finally came home from school. It’s interesting when I think about it all now. I loved my sister, but not in the same way I loved my brother. I believe more than anything else it was having the sense of someone I could look up to, someone to admire that made me cling to him.

Even though he was only four years older than me he became a father figure of sorts. As I think about it now it seems like I placed an enormous burden on his shoulders. We never formalized our roles, though, and we never discussed them. We just settled in.

For years we were almost inseparable. In the spring and summer we’d play stickball outside our house. He used to take great delight in frustrating me. He’d allow me to get the bases loaded and then start serving up his famous pimple curve. I just couldn’t hit it and he knew it. The games would end with him winning six or seven to nothing. I would get fifteen hits and be shut out. But just being with him was more than enough, the defeats didn’t matter at all. In the fall we’d play football on the library grounds. In the winter we’d play “hall hockey” or “hall football.” Inside our apartment. It was all very imaginative stuff, but it drove our mother to distraction. In the hockey games one of us would use a broom as a goaltender’s stick and the other would kick a ball down the hall to try to score the winning goal in the Stanley Cup finals. Football was a bit easier. We would use a sock instead of a football and play “goal line stand.” He always seemed to win these battles of brute force, but as with stickball it didn’t matter to me. Just being with him was enough.

I loved my brother whole-heartedly. He could poke me, prod me, tease me and after the initial anger I’d come back for more. I don’t think I ever voiced it, but I admired him deeply. He was all that I wanted to be.

Things change, of course. Bill went to college and I stayed at home with my mother. In time he got married. I remember vividly how his getting married hit me. I was devastated. It all seemed so unfair to me. I’d never had enough time with him; I didn’t want to share him with someone else. In the days after he and Marilyn set off on their journey I was inconsolable. I cried for days. It all seems so childish now, but I think that my feelings illustrated just how much I longed for a father figure in my life in those early years.

In the intervening years we’ve both done quite well. I’ve had a few bumps along the road and I guess he has too. We don’t get together often, the miles between us preclude that. I’m hoping that one of these days, though, that we’ll be able to get together for a game or two of stickball. There are a few fifteen hit shutouts I’d like to reverse.

But there was someone else who came to mind this morning. His name was Scotty. I met him at Sandy Island one summer when we were both working there. I was a “dining hall boy” and Scotty worked in the kitchen. I was a kid with a bit of a chip on his shoulder and Scotty was an old, grizzled veteran of World War II. I don’t know exactly what it was that pulled us together but within a week of knowing one another there was a bond I couldn’t explain. I just liked being around him.

I have some vivid memories right now. I remember many nights in the main lodge. Scotty would sit at the piano and gather everyone around to join him. He had a beautiful tenor voice. I can still hear the strains of “Some Enchanted Evening” lifting their way upward past the rafters of the lodge and then down again, making the whole building rich with song. Tears would always fill his eyes when he came to the words, “Who can explain it, who can tell you why, fools give you reasons, wise men never try.”

I asked him about that once and he told me that there would be a time when I’d understand what those words meant.

He said he had a son who was a lot like me. I asked him once why his wife and son hadn’t come with him to Sandy. His only answer was a few “Ahems” as he cleared his throat.

We used to go canoeing a couple of times a week. I’d always take the front position and he would sit in back steering. We’d just wander around the lake, enjoying the beauty of the summer and just being together. On one of these little trips Scotty said something odd to me. “You know, Dilly,” he said. “You’re a good kid. You’ve got a good heart…..Make sure you always keep it that way.” I told him I didn’t understand what he meant and he told me, “You will one day.”

About half way through the summer I got to see a side of Scotty I hadn’t seen before. A group of us were walking down the trail that goes from the main lodge to the boat house on the other side of the island. We walked along telling stories, laughing, and having a great time. Suddenly a deer bolted out of the woods in front of us and jumped across the trail. As soon as it happened Scotty ran into the woods and crouched behind a tree. He began to tell us all, “Get down…..get down!” We didn’t know what to make of it. What was going on? When we didn’t comply he repeated himself angrily, ‘Dammit, get down, get down!” Then the little episode ended as quickly as it had started. As he made his way back onto the trail I asked him why he had done what he did. His response was brief and to the point – “Memories.”

About two weeks after that incident I noticed that Scotty wasn’t at breakfast with the rest of the kitchen crew. I asked but no-one would say anything. After breakfast was over, Norm Greene, the camp director, came to me and said that I needed to take a tray of food down to Scotty’s cabin. “Is he alright?” I asked. Norm, who was a very kind, patient man, told me that Scotty had been fired. He had apparently gotten really drunk and caused some sort of problem during the night. Norm looked as sad as I felt. “I know you really love him, Dilly, and I’m sorry this had to happen. But we’ve got to let him go.” Norm then went on to explain that Scotty would tell me more about what was going on when I brought him his breakfast.

I cried all the way to Scotty’s cabin. When I got there he was sitting up in bed. As I put the tray on table next to the bed he said, “Everything’s gonna’ be okay.” “No it isn’t,” I sobbed. Without saying another word I got up and went back to the lodge. I never did get an explanation. In looking back at it now I don’t think I wanted one. I just wanted Scotty to stay.

Later that afternoon he came down from his cabin with his suitcase in tow. I was sitting on the front porch of the lodge as he walked out to the end of the dock to the boat that was waiting to snatch him him away from me. The last image of have of him is waving to me as he got on the boat.

I didn’t say another word for the rest of that day. I just sat, crying, wondering why it all had to happen.

Nancy and I were talking about this before breakfast this morning and she made an interesting observation. “Do you wonder why you’d be attracted to someone who had the same problems as your father?” “What do you think?” I asked in return.
“I think it might be a way for you to see that you really could have forgiven your dad the alcohol, that just having him with you would have been enough.”

I believe she was right.

There may come a time when I’ll share more about those days with my brother and Scotty. But for now I need to get to the point of what I’ve said. After hearing last night’s discussions and looking back at my youth I think I’m seeing that our kids really don’t want the big things from us. The little things are just fine. In fact, just our being with them is almost always more than enough to make them happy. I hear some sons complaining about fathers and fathers complaining about sons and I’m hard pressed to understand it all. I have wisps of memories to rely on and as they come to the surface about the father figures in my life and I see so clearly that all that’s really needed is presence, being together.

I think it’s that way with our relationship with God, at least from His perspective. We tend to think that He is the God who is making demands on us. We complain about what he’s “doing to us” in the bad times and thank him for the “good things He does for us” in the times of prosperity. But I believe that there is a simplicity in what He wants from us. He’s a Father just wanting to take a walk. The prophet Amos asked this question almost three thousand years ago – “Do two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?” Beyond all the great things we accomplish in life or want to accomplish, beyond all that we want or all that we ask for, God’s perspective is simple. “Let’s take a walk through life. I’ll be with you in the good times and the bad. I’ll be a Father to you. Come on let’s go…..let’s take a walk!


King of Fools said...

Very moving post, Phil. It is the natural flow of live that provides such meaningful pictures and examples. I love to read stories like this one and find that the artificial versions portrayed on television pale in comparison.

Feeble Knees said...

That brought me to tears. Well said, Phil, well said.

Anonymous said...

"Good boy, Dillon."

a Choicemaker
Psalm 25:12