Father's Day: Looking Back

“The Lord will restore the years the locusts devoured.”  Joel 2:25
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never overcome it.”  John 1:5

Father’s Day has come and gone.  

As I scrolled through the pictures and tributes to their dads posted by friends on Facebook, I was suffused by a bittersweet (more bitter than sweet, I fear) sense of nostalgia for what never was for me.  

I’m sure a lot of people can relate.  We had fathers who walked out, were alcoholics, were abusive, or all three.  My own father committed suicide when he was only 33. Yes, he was alcoholic, and I have a few neutral memories of him and a million negative ones.

Week after week, my husband and I sit in our preferred pew among the young families of the church, and I watch the fathers, amazed at such a witness of love, and wonder what it would have been like to have such a father.

This side of heaven, I will never know, but there is one memory that shines through the darkness and the tragedy of his early death.  Not long before he died he chose to be baptized. He stopped drinking, started taking the family to church, and accepted baptism.

The little that I remember of him, and what I’ve gleaned from others, is that he was witty and bright (handsome, too—photos prove that), but also insecure, a scoffer, and arrogant and dismissive concerning middle-class values.  He would take a job, work for a while, dazzle his employer, and then throw it all over.

Needless to say, our life was precarious.

In any case, he didn’t seem to be someone who would submit to anyone, even God.  And yet, he sought baptism and a new life shortly before he died. What the circumstances were that led him to it I will never know, but I know that doing it required humility, a quality never mentioned in connection with my father.

On the night he was baptized, I sat with my brother and aunt in the darkened church as a curtain was drawn back on a large window high in the brick wall.  There was my 6’ 3” father in a billowing white garment, sitting up to his waist in water—an amazing and incomprehensible sight.

The preacher placed one hand on his forehead, and another on his back and pushed him down under the water three times, declaring loudly: “Paul Abraham Page, I baptize thee in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”

I began to shudder, my eight-year-old body shaking like a leaf, alarming my aunt and angering my older brother.  (The latter didn’t take much). This experience seared into my memory, and to this day—68 years later—I can still practically count the bricks in the wall.  

Sadly, my father’s conversion did not take.  He soon relapsed, and that was most likely what led to despair and his suicide.  So, Father’s Day rolls around year after year, and, while I honor my husband, and remind our daughters to honor him, I have not known what to do or how to feel about the day itself, given my experience as a child.  

But this year it occurred to me that my father, by his baptism, had presented me with a parting gift, the gift of hope, an inheritance of a sort.  He had proclaimed faith and truth, and he bequeathed them to me, albeit in a roundabout way.

You see, his death almost destroyed his mother.  He was everything to her, and they were similar in cynicism regarding churchgoing.  Yet my grandmother, in her late 40's at the time, followed his example. She was baptized and became a practicing Christian, and when I went to live with her a few years after his death, she brought me into that faith my dad had only been able to reach for.

So this year, I honor my dad for that gift.  

I’m sorry I didn’t recognize it before; as my Jewish grandfather used to say, “So soon old.  So late schmart.” I pray for my dad—not as much as I should, but I plan to pray more. God’s time is not our time.  His mercy endures forever, the Psalmist says, and I hold onto that.

Only God knows what demons my father fought, but by God, he made it to the battlefield, and that must count for something.