Then came the moment I now knew was inevitable. Jimmy looked at me, both of us clearly lost in this moment. His finger, the one that had gone from unknown to dreaded in a matter of minutes, crawled toward me, slowly I'm sure in his eyes, but in mine it was a missile. In my mind my hands were all but covering my ears, but still the question came.
"Do you have any idea what it's like to grow up without your father?"
This was Jimmy's moment. Wherever the rest of us had been in our own lives then mattered little; we were now living out Jimmy's struggle. His life. His world. I wish I knew if anything we said that day changed his life, or even helped it, but I don't. Mostly because I don't remember much of what we said to him or how he responded to our discussion. I confess, he lost me at the finger point. When he looked at me with a mix of sadness and anger reflective of a pain I had never seen, and when he asked me that question, a question I suddenly realized I should have asked myself long ago, I was no longer in his world. I had raced off on an adventure to a part of my own world I had never dreamed of exploring before. But, in many ways, once I discovered it, I never came back.
My mother had me when she was a teenager. My father was only a year or so older. Yet, I never once in 30 years thought to ask myself, or them, if their life together started with a plan that included me, or if it was actually a plan initiated because of me. Not only did I never ask myself this, I never cared. Because of our conversation with Jimmy Forrest, that suddenly seemed remarkable to me.
When I crawled into my tent to sleep that night, I lay there awake pondering that. How did I grow up assuming security in a situation that today is filled with tremendous insecurity. An overwhelming majority of the fathers of children born to mothers who are under the age of 20 have little if any involvement in their child's life. So how is it I never had to wonder if my dad would stay in a situation most dads don't, while Jimmy Forest spent every day of his life wondering if a dad he never knew was going to appear out of nowhere. Statistics would suggest that I should have been standing next to Jimmy doing some finger pointing of my own.
I thought back as far as I could remember for the explanation. I recalled my third grade year when my father packed our family up and moved us from the big city of Columbus to the country to live near my grandparents and great-grandparents. A drastic move, but I think my dad knew surrounding us with grandparents was surrounding us with a lifetime of memories.
I thought about the years my dad came home from long days of climbing telephone poles and sometimes leaving in the middle of the night in raging storms to do the same. All the while going to college in the evening for the mere possibility he might be able to present his kids more opportunities in life.
I thought about the years after he got the job that provided those opportunities. The job required him to spend days at a time away from home. Yet, every one of those days he picked up the phone to call my mom and us kids to tell us goodnight and that he loved us. I thought about the magic that took place every time he arrived out of the blue for a sporting event or at any one of a million activities my sisters and I were involved in, many times at the precise moment we might have been tempted to fear he wouldn't.
I thought about the night as a 15 year old boy I borrowed a man's car who foolishly thought lending it to me was a good idea. I drove it out of a driveway onto an adjoining highway where it abruptly met the front end of an 18-wheeler. A flurry of activity followed, which isn't uncommon when a thirty thousand pound truck saws off the font end of a Ford Grenada. The Ohio Highway patrol showed up, an ambulance, and the owner of the car, trying his best to recall what his car looked like before he started lending it out for self-taught driver's ed classes. But my memories of any of those folks are shock riddled and cloudy at best. I remember clearly, though, my dad arriving. And instead of first choosing to ask me if I was an idiot, presumably because that was a foregone conclusion at that point, he asked me if I was OK.
I thought about the dad who took my driver's license away from me -once I was able to get one of course - at the most inopportune time of my life; I had just started dating. For some reason my dad was more concerned that I had been drinking than with my newfound love life.
I thought about the dad who remained in an enduring pursuit of chances to tell me he was proud of me.
I thought about the dad who set a curfew and then waited on the couch until I got home to make sure I didn't confuse a curfew with a "suggested time of arrival".
I thought about the dad who was standing there with his hands spread large and wide like a roadblock every time I had even he briefest thought of quitting anything, those same arms waving me through with excitement like the starter at the Daytona 500 when I had even the smallest interest in starting something.
I thought about the dad who wouldn't buy me a bike but happily let me work at the job my grandfather found me so I could buy it on my own. There was also his sneaky grin when that same job, pulling weeds from a sewage bed at a local restaurant, left me covered head to toe with poison ivy at the start of a long drive out west for a family vacation.
I thought about the dad who courageously showed me the door when I was in my twenties, tired of watching me build my life on a foundation of gambling and alcohol, only to swing the same door wide open when I returned looking for the foundations he had built under me. I swear his hand was imprinted in the wood of that door where he had been holding it since I left.
By the time I was done thinking about my dad and his role in my life, I knew why I had never wondered whether I was a plan, or a baby that sent a couple of young kids scrambling for one. You see, I had gone through my life seeing no mystery in a dad who just happened to show up every time I needed him, many times even before I did, as if he was anticipating need. I took something for granted that really isn't common enough for me to justify having done so. Only when I came face to face with the sadness of a young man who'd found abandonment in the very corners I invariably found a dad, did I truly understand that. All the recollections I had of the many things my dad did came together not in the image of a Superman, but of an ordinary man who built a legacy on staying.
I had a pastor who once said the best way to prepare yourself for the temptations in life is to map out what you're going to do before the temptation arrives. Certainly not foolproof, but helpful. When we found out we were pregnant with our first son, I told my wife she was stuck with me now. I told her I wasn't sure what to expect of fatherhood, but I knew there would be challenging days ahead that would tempt me to run. So ahead of time I told her about a plan I had mapped out several years earlier while laying awake in a tent along a river. I told her my plan was to stay.
I'd like to claim I built that plan on my own, but I believe that plan was many years of inspiration in the making.
I feel like I need to add something here. The Book of Dadverbs is about the things good dads do. It is not intended to minimize the role of a mother. The reality is if I felt we dads were embracing our role as a parent with the same passion and commitment most moms do, I would likely feel little calling to write this book. I am forever awed by the things my mom did for her kids (my parents recently celebrated 50 years of marriage which is always a good indicator of an incredible partner), and by the things I witness my wife do for ours each and every day. Shoot, maybe the sequel to this book will be the book of Momverbs. But my dream is this chapter will inspire more dads to recognize it's a role moms shouldn't have to do alone.
The next time, I'll tell you about a conversation my 7 year old son and I had on the way home from basketball practice last week. Out of the blue he tells me when it gets dark out he feels like someone he doesn't know is watching him. Talk about an attention getter. The more he told me about this the more I thought about Jimmy Forest and the many sad stories I've heard over the years from kids whose dads didn't stay.
I hope you'll come back and follow along as we finish up the Dadverb stay.