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.
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 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.
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.
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.