I was in shock standing in the front pew of the church at my father’s service (a traditional funeral was not held). Monsignor was at the podium saying kind words about the departed. But he knew my family’s situation for almost a decade before this day. The turmoil and chaos in my household was something that I now know was not hidden. Sometimes it was brought to the door of the parish school and church.
Monsignor was performing his duty to two children that lost a father physically earlier that Thanksgiving week but spiritually and emotionally years before. My father ended up on the streets in the last years of his young life. He died at 39, I was 13.
Monsignor was a good and decent man. He assisted my mother with tuition for my sister and me. He came to my house when my mother broke down in tears because she didn’t know how to fix my bike. While at school he would give me an encouraging word. At Mass, it seemed as if he was talking directly to me. He wasn’t a surrogate father, but he did make a difference, and as an adult his kindness to me is remembered. Monsignor knew how to show mercy and live as Christ would want all His children to live.
Many years later he would baptize my son.
Without a Father
The disruption caused in our household from the lack of a father was catastrophic. It did not start with my father’s death, but with a divorce. It occurred when I was young, maybe second grade. I don’t know exactly what happened, but the result was dad was not going to live in the house any longer.
I saw my father quite regularly because he would show up at our house, often drunk. Sometimes he would stay, sometimes not. While going home from school I would see him on the street in his wheel chair, or see him when I was wandering the city. We would talk, he would offer advice, ask about homework. Sometimes he would show up at school. The kindly nuns would then escort me to the front office so I was able to talk to him.
Since he lived on the street, he was filthy. The body odor that emanated from him was wrenching. When I was in the Marines as an infantryman, I would only smell like that when I was in the field for weeks on end in the jungle. He was unshaven. His beard was black, long and uncombed.
He wore a cowboy hat, which made him more unique, and let me see him from afar. Sometimes when I saw that cowboy hat coming down the street I would duck down an alley or corner. Not because he was mean to me, he never was. I was just embarrassed to be seen with him.
With this broken family, I barely graduated high school and my sister never did. I went to school when I wanted to, missing weeks at a time. My mother could not control me. I only became serious when I discovered I could not join the Marines without a high school diploma.
The house was always a mess, emotionally and physically. Men that my mother met came and went. Fights, yelling, neighbors asking if everything was alright. Seeing them the next day, I avoided eye contact.
The debris of the divorce still impacts my mother till this day – she has fallen into deep alcoholism (more so now than when I was young) and refuses to attend Mass. Though she was divorced for more than five years before my father died, she calls herself a widow. Maybe deep down, she knows that the divorce was wrong?
I never felt that God abandoned me during this time. I did feel that I didn’t do other things boys did my age though. No organized sports, no boy scouts, no fixing cars, no lessons about handyman duties around the house, no one teaching me how to shave, and the regular manly things a boy should learn. The one thing that I was able to do was run wild around the city without supervision. And with that came the attendant juvenile hijinks.
So what was God’s purpose for this type of childhood? God’s purpose, I think, was that I learn from my experience to be the best father and husband I can be to my family. God showed me what a broken family can do to children. The uncertainty, the mortal danger of strange men coming into the house, the feeling of the lack of love, and the instability; all these cause havoc on the emotional well-being of children.
God’s purpose for me is to have me show my children and society the consequences of a marriage failing and when the responsibilities of being a father and mother are not taken seriously. When desires of the flesh prevail over those of the Spirit, disaster strikes, and children are the victims.
Living God’s Purpose
Being an adult now and realizing the hardship that other people have endured, my childhood wasn’t that tough or even unique (which says a lot) in this day in age.
My experience has shown me that marriage and fathers are important to children and to society as a whole. As we have seen over the past decades, without stable families, children are more likely to become victims of predators. They can drop out of school, resort to drugs and alcohol, and participate in premarital sex. Children in these types of environments will not grow into healthy, emotionally stable adults.
Dozens of studies prove the above. But I don’t need to read studies to know the damage caused by a broken family. I bore witness. But I was blessed and lucky that things turned out well for me. Others close to me were not so fortunate.
When I read or hear that marriage or fathers don’t matter, I cringe. I know what occurs when marriage is easily dissolved – the family and society suffers dissolution as well.