Say Something

Dad and K and dog

I pray to you, O LORD, my rock. Do not turn a deaf ear to me.
For if you are silent, I might as well give up and die.
Psalm 28:1

You’ve probably heard the song by the same title.

Maybe you saw the moving performance on Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance.

Or the subsequent rendition on NBC’s The Voice.

Since it soared in the charts last November, I can’t sit for any amount of time in my favorite coffee shop without hearing the clear piano chords. The piercing voice of A Great Big World’s Ian Axel. The sweet harmony of Christina Aguilera. And those simple lyrics. That keep tugging at hearts. And calling up a universal desire.

For answers.
For connection.
For a second chance.
For something—anything—to be spoken.

Three days before my eleventh birthday, it was oppressively hot in Minneapolis and in our little post-war tract house. Our two electric fans only shifted the steamy air from one side of the room to the other. So to escape the extended heat wave, my parents decided that we should take a little vacation up north. Our destination was the historic and picturesque Naniboujou Lodge, which stands right on the shore of Lake Superior, just fifteen minutes shy of the Canadian border.

Our plan was to travel on Sunday. But as we shoved shorts and sweatshirts into suitcases that Saturday afternoon and anticipated another sleepless, sweaty night, my mom made an uncharacteristically spontaneous suggestion. “Let’s leave now.”

She called the Holiday Inn in Duluth—the halfway point—and booked a room. My little brother and I helped her load the car. Filled the backseat with books and toys. Then climbed in—damp legs sticking to vinyl. And we headed north.

Dad rode shotgun, per normal, holding the atlas on his lap and the little slip of paper on which Mom had written our hotel reservation number. To pass the time, Dad decided that I should commit this number to memory.

Dad loved numbers. And he knew a lot of them by heart. He could tell you the population of Minneapolis in 1955 and the batting averages of most of the Minnesota Twins.

So as we drove those three hours to Duluth, all of the car windows down, enjoying the temperature drop, Dad called out that reservation number. Then asked me to shout it back to him. Over and over and over again. Hooting with appreciation each time I got it right.

I didn’t love numbers. At least, not as much as he did. So I rolled my eyes. Emitted exaggerated sighs. Feigned frustration at the whole pointless exercise.

But it stuck with me. In my poor, dim memory, something about this event shimmers.

I even still remember the number in question. 245O7X7XOO6.

Why?

Maybe it was his attention. Or his intention. The opportunity to be the object of his focus for a period of time. Maybe it was his pleasure. His laughter. The fact that it became a long-standing, inside joke. Maybe it was his persistence. His passion for the goal. His very unique version of leadership and power. His desire to impart knowledge. To shape in some small way my heart and mind. Maybe it was all of this. And more. Which—taken together—evoked in me the rare feeling of being fathered.

Father hunger is a fierce but fragile thing.

While we instinctively look to our mothers for nurture and affection and a calming touch, dads are designed to provide something different. Equally important. And irreplaceable.

From our fathers, we seek strength and stability. We look for excitement and exploration and adventure. We want our fathers to teach us how to take initiative, to compete, to stand firm.

Of course, many of us have survived without a dad. Whether he was taken by death or divorce or—as in my case—disability. By abuse or addiction or even adoption. By an all-consuming career or his own callousness. We have survived. With varying degrees of burn.

I know I am not qualified to address the more searing of these. (Though my dad was distant, he was always present and always kind.) But I think I can safely say this. Our survival doesn’t negate our need. Though the wound may be sutured, it is not necessarily healed. And no matter the source or the severity, father loss must be faced.

In her book Longing for Dad, Beth M. Erickson, Ph.D., describes “father hunger” as a “gaping hole in the soul” (19). Then she lists several ways that we might seek to fill it up. Alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, sexual promiscuity, violence, serial relationships, and overwork. Monique Robinson describes another set of common remedies. “Many fatherless children grow into pleasers,” she says, “who fail to set boundaries for fear of abandonment and rejection. Others become perfectionists; they keep everything in order externally to shield their internal, emotional chaos. Many women overcompensate for their lack of self-esteem and become overachievers to prove to others (and themselves) that they are somebody” (Longing for Daddy 1).

But all of us, Robinson says, wrestle hard with the sovereignty of God. We are reluctant to rest in His control because either we hold too tightly to the reins ourselves or we have become accustomed to running wild.

Father hunger takes different forms throughout our lifetime. As young children, we simply don’t know any differently. Our experience of “father” is what “father” is. We may be aware of wanting a connection with a man we call “dad.” And we may feel a measure of pain when that desire goes unmet. But young children instinctively figure out how to cope. Self-preservation at its best. We build defenses. And elaborate strategies. To either meet those needs or bury them.

As we get older, though, we may come to understand more of what we missed. How deep the hole goes. Old, unmet needs may surface under stress. Our coping methods may begin to crack. And if the loss is not addressed, if we do not walk through the grief, if we do not tear down the defense, if we do not seek true healing for the hurt, our father hunger can manifest itself in other ways. It can masquerade as fear or control or worry. Depression or anger or distrust. To name a few.

At various times, my father hunger looked like each of those.

And for all my life, I coped in exactly the ways that Robinson describes. The pleaser. The perfectionist. The overachiever. These strategies “worked” for me. Oh, sometime in my 20s I had an inkling about what was going on. I learned to identify it. Acknowledge it. Talk about it a bit. And then set it aside. Send it back underground.

Until.

Mom and Dad moved into This Old McHenry House in August of 2005. And I kept bumping into my father loss. On a daily basis. When every time I turned around. My dad was there. But really he wasn’t.

In the fall of 2007 my dad fell next to his bed. And broke his hip. The surgeons said that—because of his cerebral palsy—he wasn’t a good candidate for a replacement. They did a Girdlestone instead. Removed the ball of the hip and sewed him up. They said, “Since he isn’t walking anyhow, I don’t think it will change the quality of his life.”

Nothing could have been further from the truth.

It drastically changed his life. And ours.

Since Dad could no longer transfer himself, since home healthcare was not practical or affordable, since I couldn’t safely lift him on my own—after weeks of research—we finally resigned ourselves to the reality that Dad was never going to return home. The most agonizing decision I have thus far had to make.

Almost every day we would visit him at the nursing home. On the weekends, Peter and I would bring Mom. And we would all spend the afternoon on the patio, chasing the sun. During the week, though, either Peter or I visited each night after dinner. Often, Dad was already in bed. Watching Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy. And I would sit in the pink vinyl wingback chair. By his side. He might tell me that he got his toe nails cut. Or that he saw the Feldco commercial. He liked the jingle. Or that a fellow resident Dawn tried to feed him again and got yelled at by the staff. He might try to solve the Wheel of Fortune puzzle or answer a Jeopardy question. He might ask me—with wide and terrified eyes—when he could come home. And I might have to explain again that it didn’t look as if he would.

But for most of the time, we would sit in silence. While inside I would scream. At him. At myself. “Say something!”

Something honest. Something significant. Something to bind your soul to mine.

Too, during that time—for months on end—I would wake up most every night at 3:15 a.m. My mind awhirl with worry. About Mom. About Dad. About infertility and adoption. About the fact that we just might lose TOMH in the face of nursing home bills. And I would slip down to the sofa lest I wake Peter. And I would toss and turn and pray. Begging God for answers. For connection. For a second chance. For something—anything—to be spoken. But hearing no word that I could recognize as such.

And what had for so long been a fierce anger at God for His cruelty slowly morphed into a sad resignation in the face of His seeming silence.

If father loss has been a part of your journey, I would love to hear how you have processed it.

And how it may have affected your spiritual walk.

Here or in a private message.

Thank you for reading.

9 Comments »

  1. Sweet friend! A daughter needs her daddy in so many ways, doesn’t she? He is a major player in her understanding of her heavenly father, a bit of a magnet for her moral compass, and her first human “protector.” When he fails, and he does, in the important role he plays, it isn’t without effect.

    My dad was stolen from me more than once. I lost him to long hours at the office. I lost him to perfectionism (this was the most painful, since angry discipline was often the result of unmet expectations). I lost him more permanently to divorce at 18. By then, it didn’t translate as loss, but more of a release. We all exhaled.

    I saw him briefly at my wedding. He’s in the photos in a ginormous bin that bulges with too-fat envelopes that can’t contain all the duplicate prints. He looks happy. A phone call later said he wasn’t. Ah, perfectionism will always steal joy, even on the most special days, won’t it?

    How does a woman process this kind of thing?

    I’ve sorted. And sorted. And sorted some more. What’s mine, I will need to sift through, own, and seek peace about. What’s his, he will need to take a look at. Sometimes I wonder what my role is in the whole thing. Am I the one who can have that conversation about the “loss” before it’s out of the realm of recovery or reconciliation? Ah…I’ve been granted so much grace and forgiveness. He knows nothing of such things. I guess that’s what Romans 5:11 and 2 Corinthians 5:11,18-19 are all about, eh?

    And it’s less about the “should” and more about the freedom, as I see it. Not necessarily his. Perhaps it’s all about mine.

    Just some first thoughts…

    J~

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  2. Thanks for sharing vulnerably on this issue. It’s one that I have definitely struggled with, but because my father is still living, I’ve wanted to be careful about how much I say, so that I don’t end up shaming him.
    My dad left the faith and left our family when I was in my later teen years (I’m 22 now). While eventually his absence created a numbing affect, sometimes (like when I transferred to a Bible college and saw friends who had terrific relationships with their dads), I was jolted and remembered that I didn’t really have a healthy daddy-daughter relationship. My father loves me deeply and it’s not that we’re estranged. Rather, he’s just not really involved. I typically do the reaching out. One way I think of it is comparing it to the scene in Fiddler On the Roof when the father says their daughter (who ran away and married the Gentile) is “dead” to him. In many ways, I feel like the Daddy I knew when I was 5 or 10 is “dead” to me. I don’t have him anymore. His life choices and philosophy make him a different person.
    The last time that I really ached over this “father loss” was last fall. He wanted to become more involved in my life again, but because of our spiritual differences, I don’t think that our relationship will ever be the same as it was…unless God performs a miracle in his life.
    I feel bad because my heart isn’t really burdened for his salvation. I think part of it is that it hurts to think about too much, so it’s easier and more convenient to just not think about the fact that if he died today he probably wouldn’t be going to heaven. Also, I’ve realized over the years that it’s harder for me to hurt emotionally when I hear about some tragedy. It’s like I’ve become calloused to it, and I hate this about myself (It’s not just the daddy issue, it’s a mixture of family issues, and personal issues too)…but it’s probably impacted it for sure.
    All that to say, I definitely can sympathize. I’ve had to be careful in my relationship with my boyfriend, that I don’t let distrust run it’s course. Because I’ve been burned by my father, it’s easy to think that my boyfriend will do that to me now or in the future if we get married. But they are not the same person, and I have to preach that truth to myself. I have to remember that God redeems beauty from the ashes.
    Thanks again for your blog posts. I’ve really been able to relate to so much of what you write about. You have such a gift at writing!

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    • Thank you, Amy, for your very open response. I will revisit this issue as I continue to work my way through my own narrative. And I hope that when all is said and done, this space can be a source of hope. Blessings!

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  3. Kelli, where do I begin? 😉 What a deep and complicated topic. Lots of thoughts are coming to me (don’t worry -a lengthy email will come your way 😉 . I guess one of the things I’m taking away from this is to stop being petty and reach out to my parents while they are here. I do have to admit that imagining you on the sofa in silence and resigned was heart breaking. You have gone through so much pain to become more beautiful. It must be God. Keep writing, my friend 😉

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  4. How beautiful and honest. Thank you for sharing. My heart is heavy with the losses you and your family have experienced. I lost Daddy a few months ago after an awful battle with cancer. This grief journey is painful yet i long more for hope that this world can’t fulfill.. Sometimes all i can do is cry to God as my “Abba, Father.” Your words will help me reflect and heal.

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  5. Thanks so much, Debi! I very much appreciate your comment. These things run so deep. After I posted this afternoon, I went out on my own to run some errands. I played the song “Say Something” in the car and just bawled. 🙂 The healing happens, but slowly.

    If Peter is asked to preach at First Baptist again, hopefully our whole family can some along. It would be lovely to say “hello.”

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  6. Hi,

    I’ve been following your blog since Peter spoke at our church a few months back (First Baptist Church of Downers Grove). Your hubby and mine, Tom, know each other from camp over the years and I finally got to meet him.

    I just felt moved to comment on the “father loss” posting as I have grown up as a child of divorce since I was 6 and I’m now 53. I have felt everything you have described and am trying to work through my issues. I’m in a support group thru my church which has been a blessing, but I still have the walls up, the insecurities etc. where it is still very hard for me to look to God as my “father”. I know what I’m supposed to do, but it just doesn’t seem like it will do any good. I have really been blessed by your posts and am always encouraged when I see an email that you’ve posted. Thank you for your open, honest writing.

    Debi Haring Sent from my iPad

    >

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