Happy Father’s Day, Jesus: A Fatherless Girl’s Journey of the Dreadful June Day
Like the other kids, I folded the big blue sheet of construction paper in half. Next, I followed the lines on the piece of yellow construction paper with the scissors, cutting out the shape of a tie. I glued the yellow tie onto the blue card, then glued cotton balls and googly eyes on it.
“Your dads are going to love these!” cooed the Sunday School teacher, who bore a close resemblance to Miss Piggy, with her round figure and big, curly blond hair.
The other kids giggled excitedly, jumping the gun on the happiness with which they would tackle their dads after church, when they hand-delivered their cards and yelled, “Happy Father’s Day!” I sat still.
At the end of class, the other kids rushed out of the room with their cards pinched between their fingers. I left my card on the table. I hoped the Sunday School teacher wouldn’t call out for me to pick it up. I didn’t want to have to tell her pleasant porcine face, “I don’t have a dad.”
Technically, I had a father. He lived around the corner from my mom and me, when we lived with my maternal grandmother in Camden, NJ, and he visited us a lot. When he relocated to Rhode Island for Bible college, Mommy and I moved with him. My parents got married there. Just shy of age three, I sat in the front row of the church, watching the whole thing go down while eating the baby’s breath flowers my mom had put in my hair for the occasion.
At our house in Rhode Island, my dad taught me how to tie my shoes and how to zip a zipper. He taught me that the tag goes in the back of your shirt, so if you put it on and the tag is under your chin, you put it on wrong. He bought himself a fishing rod, and he bought me one that looked identical, only smaller. We never actually went fishing, but I loved knowing that he’d bought me something that looked like something he had.
When I was in first grade, we moved to North Carolina. I anticipated running around with my dad on our new lawn, which was wet with dew every morning. I thought he might buy me a catcher’s mitt, so we could play catch like the dads on TV did with their kids. But he didn’t buy me a catcher’s mitt or run around with me on the lawn.
My dad had four children before me. They were my half-siblings, but my mom never allowed me to call them that.
“They’re your brother and sisters,” she insisted, demanding unity in our blended family.
Dad never told me to call them my “brother and sisters.” He called them “his kids.” That made me guess that I was “Mommy’s kid,” not completely his. When my four teenaged siblings came to live with us in North Carolina, my inkling proved correct.
While my sisters and I sat in the living room watching TV, Dad sometimes ran by us, splaying his fingers in a tickling motion. He tickled my sisters’ necks and stomachs until they couldn’t help but scream with laughter. I grinned, tensing up my stomach so it wouldn’t tickle as badly. I was nearly on my feet, grinding my teeth, with anticipation. But the touch never came. After Dad tickled my sisters, he went back to his and Mom’s room. There, he studied the Bible and listened to taped sermons over and over again, still hoping to become a preacher, while my Mom slept, drowsy from her anti-anxiety medication.
One of my sisters once told a neighbor, “My dad said it’s our house, they just live there with us.” The they meant my mother and me. The neighbor told Mom, and Mom asked Dad if he’d said that.
“Yeah,” he said, barely sheepish. “I just didn’t want my kids to feel excluded.”
I could see my dad. I could smell him. I could hear him. But he was not there. I sometimes wondered, though, if I was the invisible one.
Dad, my sisters, and I sometimes watched a movie together before he went to study the Bible some more. Although I sat on the same couch and laughed along with everyone at whatever was on the screen, I felt like I was outside, on the porch, peering at us through cupped hands at the window. Dad usually saved comments about the plot for my sisters. But the rare occasions when I worked hard enough to snag his attention stand out in my memory even now.
“Beat him ’til his license expires!” I yelled at Steven Segal during a fight scene, my hands up triumphantly.
Dad burst out laughing. My sisters looked at me, stone-faced, and one asked, “What does that mean?”
I shrugged. It didn’t matter what it meant. My dad had laughed, and that was all I wanted: To be seen and to know that I counted, too.
My parents separated when I was eight years old. That summer, when I had to make the Father’s Day card in Sunday School, I addressed it to God because we called Him “Heavenly Father” when we prayed. I didn’t know when I was going to see my earthly father, and it didn’t feel right to make him a card when I didn’t know when we’d meet again. God would definitely see the card because I left it at church where, I thought, He lived.
My parents finally divorced when I was 13, and I was jubilant. I bounded up to my friends at school that day and announced the news with a broad smile. I looked past their confused expressions. They didn’t understand.
Divorce meant that I would no longer be invisible. I would belong in my own home, the one I shared with my mom in the next town over from where my dad lived. It meant that I could have a true home, where I would be loved, accepted, and comfortable. Plus, I wouldn’t have to make those stupid Father’s Day cards anymore.
But that one day every year haunted me, reminding me of what I didn’t have: A protector, a teacher, a model of fearlessness. My dad didn’t show up at school when bullies teased me. He never taught me how to drive a stick shift. He never took me to the lake and held my body safely in his arms in the water to ease my fear of drowning. I wanted my dad to be so many things that he didn’t want to be or couldn’t be, and each Father’s Day poured salt in the open wound.
After my parents’ divorce, I prayed that God would be not just my Heavenly Father, but my dad. I prayed that He would scare off stupid boys who didn’t mean well, that He guard my heart, and that He help me forgive my father for not being a dad.
Over the years, God gave me male friends who showed me how men of integrity behaved. He put a sign on my forehead that said, “Stay away from the King’s daughter,” or at least that’s how it felt, since no guy was interested in dating me until my twenties. I know that was divine protection. My heart was made of the finest ceramic, thin and fragile. My father broke me into pieces and God kept some random guy from coming through and shattering me completely. God later sent me a husband who loves me for who I am, even when I question why.
God helped me forgive my father. He helped me to see that I would never be able to accept myself if I continued to hold my dad to expectations he would never meet. In order to be free indeed, I had to forgive the one who planted all those feelings of inadequacy. I said the words, “I forgive you,” to my father long before I grew into the corresponding actions and emotions. But God was with me every step, guiding me.
By the time my father passed away from cancer just before my 30th birthday, we had reconciled as best we could. I wasn’t devastated by his passing. But, because I had forgiven him, I could let him, and myself, finally rest in peace.
Even though I didn’t have a dad, I always had a Father. I rarely understand His ways, but He has never let me down.