“You have to dig deep to bury your dad.”
— Gypsy proverb
Sometimes you have to dig deep to get through Father’s Day. Men are human. They fail. Moses was a murderer. Jonah ran from responsibility.
Some dads make a biological function their claim to fame and never show up for duty. Some sail off into uncharted waters leaving familial flotsam and jetsam in their wake.
In the words of the 1972 song written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, “Papa was a rolling stone. Wherever he laid his hat was his home. And when he died all he left us alone.”
Stephen Leacock wrote that as his father drank more, he went from being superhero to tyrant. Fictional Forrest Gump watched Jenny throw rocks at the vacant farmhouse and memories of an abusive father. Forrest rightly observed that sometimes there just aren’t enough rocks.
Despite this, most dads do show up for the job. They untangle kite strings and are behind the camera at family functions. They set a tone and establish a pattern of undying affection for their offspring. Adult children of such dads often return the affection.
This may be the time to dig deep and bless dad for what he did, even if he had a minor role in the family drama, not unlike Joseph in the Christmas pageant. No lines to memorize, he just stands there watching and worrying. Though only a foster father, Joseph must have influenced his holy son.
Could the seeds of the Beatitudes and the parables have been planted in something Joseph said once? While the Bible is silent on Jesus’ wonder years, it is safe to assume that Joseph taught Jesus some carpentry. The hands that would later gather the children and heal the sick first learned how to hold a plane. The hands that would bless a curious crowd first learned to brace a block of wood. The hands that would be driven with a nail first learned how to hold a nail.
I took my adult children to mom’s grave last week but buried next to her is someone they never knew. My dad.
I’m not one of those who maintain a running monologue with the dead. Some people consider treks to the cemetery to be a waste of time. You’re no closer to the person standing over their corpse than anywhere else. Besides, you can’t go to the family plot and not ponder your own mortality.
But going to the cemetery does force memories from the deep back to the surface. When you pull the weeds around the headstone you think of the gardening he did on Saturday mornings. When you read the death date you remember the last year of his life and how you thought you were ready to live without him but weren’t.
I don’t have to stand on my dad’s grave to think of him. I do it in those brief moments when I catch myself doing what he did. That singular unexpected hiccup that comes when I rise after eating supper. The way I fold my fingers together when listening to someone talk. The way I react to pompous and pretentious people. The way I like to watch a thunderstorm.
And I’ll think of him when I hear the song from 1981, the year my dad died, written and recorded by the late Dan Fogleberg: The Leader of the Band.
“The leader of the band is tired and his eyes are growing old,
“But his blood runs through my instrument and his song is in my soul.
“My life has been a poor attempt to imitate the man.
“I’m just a living legacy to the leader of the band.”
Here’s to all dads whose song lingers in someone’s soul.
Bob Ripley is Senior Minister at the Metropolitan United Church, in London, Ont.