In elementary school some kids didn’t know better than to ask, “How’d he die?” and when I told them polio, my status went up. Bubonic plague or suicide wouldn’t have had more effect. On the walls of every school hung March of Dimes posters of children wearing metal braces on their legs, or lying in a scary-looking contraption called an iron lung. When I added that my father had stayed in one of those iron lungs for several months, eyes widened like they do when kids don’t know what to say next.
“You poor child,” women would cluck to me at church. I glowed in the attention, the sympathy my very presence coaxed out. To my mother they would say things like, “Bless you. I don’t know how you do it.” Meanwhile, their husbands took a sudden interest in their fingernails, or studied their clothes for stray whiskers.
Sometimes the pastor would read a verse about caring for widows and the fatherless and I would sit up straight. Being part of a group mentioned in the Bible gave me moral stature. At school, too, I felt a kind of pride. Growing up without a father made me different, and I liked that. Sometimes bullies would take it easy on me when they learned I had no father. Sometimes they got even meaner—I had no protector to march to their houses and lay down warnings.
I have no memories of my father. For me, he existed mainly in two grainy, black-and-white photos. One shows a thin, rakish sailor leaning against a rail fence, his Navy cap at a jaunty angle. A more formal portrait has him with wire-rim glasses and looking a bit older; he’s wearing a double-breasted suit with wide lapels and a wide tie, his curly hair parted on the side and piled in a heap on top.
My brother, who was three when our father died, has an actual memory, one that haunts him still. Our father, lying in a bed, now paralyzed and fighting for air, turns his head to the side and gets out the words, one or two at a time, between labored breaths, “Son…you’re the…man…of the…house…now. It’s up…to you…to take…care…of your mother…and little…brother.” This happened three months after my brother’s third birthday. He nodded his head and accepted the weight of that responsibility as solemnly as a three-year-old could. Then, on the way home, he told Mother that he should probably take charge of my spankings right away.
Back then parents didn’t divorce much, and so all my friends had two at home. I won’t deny there were times when being fatherless felt like a burden. We were dirt poor, which came as part of the package. We had no father to teach us how to catch and throw a ball, or how to shave, or how to talk to girls—to teach us what a man is. We had no one to appeal to when Mother wouldn’t let us do things every other kid did with no opposition from their parents.
Having no father created a hole in my universe, something like a black hole, a powerful unseen force that disturbs everything around it. Though he was hardly a real person to me, more of a myth, his life shadowed mine. His absence felt like a presence. “He looks just like his daddy,” the women would say as they tamped down a cowlick on my head, “He’s got that same head full of curls.” They referred to him as “your daddy,” but I never called him anything. He died before I could talk.
Apart from the rare male teacher in school, church was the main place where I had contact with men in my childhood. Colonel Doran stood ramrod straight and sometimes wore his impressive blue uniform to church. Another veteran, a former sailor, had a tattoo of an anchor and a woman on his arm, possibly the first tattoo I’d seen and definitely the first one in church.
I had several favorites among those men. Mr. Crain always took me for a ride when he got a new car. He owned a hand-crank ice cream machine, and sometimes he made ice cream with fresh peaches. I had never tasted anything so delicious—like touching heaven with my tongue.
Another, Mr. Warton, had an eye that wandered in a different direction from the other one, and I never knew which eye to stare at. He became the all-time hero of us kids because for special events he brought his very own cotton-candy machine to church. It looked like a stainless-steel washtub with a tube in the middle. He poured sugar in the tube, flipped a switch, and Presto! All we had to do was hold a paper cone and lovely, sticky strands of pink cotton candy appeared like magic, winding their way around the paper and our fingers.
Another favorite, blind Mr. Baker, relied on a German Shepherd to lead him around. We were strictly warned not to pet the seeing-eye dog unless Mr. Baker gave us permission, so I made it a goal to win him over. It proved easy, for Mr. Baker had a soft spot for kids. I tried to sit in the row behind him in order to watch how the dog handled boredom in church. He must be bored all the time, I decided, because he always has to obey his master. He can’t even be petted without permission.
In the years since I was a child, the percentage of single-parent homes in the U.S. has tripled. Now, nearly a quarter of all children grow up in a home with no father present. Looking back, it occurs to me that church offers a community that can help fill the holes in our world: not only for fatherless children, but also for single and divorced adults, widows and widowers, refugees, and foreign or out-of-state students. Certainly, it did that for me.
Later, as a young journalist I had the good fortune of reporting to male supervisors who saw their role as developing people, not simply producing a magazine or turning a profit. Men like Harold Myra and Jay Kesler spent hours offering guidance and shepherding me through personal crises, functioning much like substitute fathers. And then while writing a book (Where Is God When It Hurts), I came across Dr. Paul Brand, who had learned much about pain while working with leprosy, a disease that causes insensitivity. He was the first surgeon to use reconstructive surgery to correct deformities resulting from the disease in the hands and feet. When I met him, he was living in Louisiana, applying the same principles to diseases such as diabetes.
As we worked together, Dr. Brand became a true father figure to me. Over a fifteen-year period of time, I wrote three books with Dr. Brand. I accompanied him on trips to India and England, where together we retraced the main events in his life. I spent hundreds of hours asking him every question I could think of about his experiences with medicine, life, and God. Dr. Brand, who died in 2003, was both a good and a great man, and I have everlasting gratitude for the time we spent together. At a stage in my spiritual development when I had little confidence to write about my own faith, I had absolute confidence writing about his.
I changed because of my relationship with Dr. Brand; he became a channel of spiritual growth for me. My faith grew as I had a living model of a person enhanced in every way by his own relationship with God. I now view justice, lifestyle, and money issues largely through his eyes; I see the natural environment differently; I look at the human body, and especially pain, in a very different light.
My relationship with Dr. Brand affected me deeply, in my core, on the inside. Yet as I reflect, I can think of no instance in which he imposed himself on me, or manipulatively sought to alter my opinions. I changed willingly, gladly, as my world and my self encountered his. Indeed, our relationship avoided many of the father-son dynamics that I hear about from my friends. I never competed with siblings for Dr. Brand’s attention; I never angered him by my clothes or hairstyle or the choices I made; he never held an inheritance over me as a power move. Our relationship was simpler, more pure: that of an eager learner and a wise and caring teacher who had my best interests at heart. His example filled the word father with meaning for me, a word I tentatively learned to apply to God.
Reviewing my own life calls to mind the role any of us can play for someone who lacks a complete or healthy family. As Father’s Day rolls around each year, I’m reminded that I never bought a card or racked my brain for a creative gift. Yet rarely did I feel like a fatherless child.