Our father left us. Not in the permanent, out-for-a-smoke-never-to-return, kind of way. He left us habitually; that is to say, with regularity. He left us outside of supermarkets and soccer games, hardware stores and nurseries. “Here’s a shopping list,” he’d say. “I’ll be right here.” We’d enter the store and then he’d go buy a newspaper, a Diet Coke for my mom, or just take a turn around the block, lost in thought. We’d come out of the store to realize that he wasn’t as ‘right there’ as promised. He’d show up eventually but I grew accustomed to never really knowing when. It was less of a trauma than a character trait. That’s our Dad. He leaves us. But we love him.
Only a few times can I remember actually being forgotten. Once, we were dropping my sister off at school when he gave me a check and asked me to run into the principal’s office to pay some outstanding fees. I came out of the office to realize that the car was gone. With an hour-long commute ahead of them, and anxious to get on the road, my parents had momentarily forgotten that I was now in middle school, another school entirely, a school on the opposite side of town.
After the first bell rang and all the kids filed dutifully into their classrooms, a concerned teacher noticed me waiting on the curb. I explained as best I could what I thought had happened. “I think my dad forgot which school I’m in,” I said plainly. I don’t remember a particularly strong reaction on her part either; teachers are tough. She simply found someone to drive me across town and I spent the day with an interesting excuse for why I had no books. When my parents finished their long commute to the other side of LA and were getting out of the car, they wondered to themselves why I had left my backpack in the back seat. There must have been a screeching Home Alone moment of realization familiar to any parent who’s ever forgotten a child, but I survived and we can all laugh about it now.
My dad’s younger brother, his only sibling and my godfather, died a year ago unexpectedly of a massive heart attack. We had just celebrated my sister’s wedding and the news came Monday morning. He left us without notice, too quickly and too soon. Two of his four kids, my cousins, have since given birth to their first children, his first grandchildren. It’s a strange joy to celebrate this new life in the family after so recently coming to know its unpredictability, its fragility.
If we were paying attention, however, we’d remember that my uncle was a man who knew well the deeply human unity of imperfection and love. Like the rest of us, he had many faults, but good humor and generosity were not among them. A fly-fisherman and a Formula-1 race photographer, a felon and a father, he sought joy in everything and shared that joy with all. In a creative play on my religious vocation, his criminal record, and the Jazz musician Thelonious Monk, in recent years he took to signing his letters and birthday cards, ‘Love always, Your Felonius-Unc’.
I spent an early morning this week in the hospital with one of our ‘Old-Dads’ (an affectionate in-house title for our elderly Jesuits). He was there for a coronary procedure to place another stent in his heart; it’s his ninth. His heart, like an old gothic cathedral, is now full of buttresses. Our community burned a lot of mobile data sorting out schedules, between work, classes and exams, to make sure one of us was with him in the hospital every hour of his stay.
A retired university professor of mathematics, he was nervous about not being permitted to travel to China for a scheduled lecture on science and religion. He was more nervous about being asked to move from our community to the infirmary. He was not nervous enough to lose his sense of humor or intellectual curiosity. He teased his cardiologist about how medics treat their patients like robots. It was really just a clever ruse to lure the doctor (an atheist who calls him ‘my preferred priest’) into a conversation about language, metaphysical and mathematical, personal and public. Being a patient didn’t stop him from being a professor just as his atheist doctor didn’t stop him from being a priest.
A friend recently wondered publicly on Facebook if he should try speaking his imperfect Spanish to his new child. “I hate to break it to you,” I commented, “but, in parenting, imperfection is part of the deal.” Another friend coos at her newborn daughter while remembering the anniversary of the senseless accidental death of a beloved cousin. Many friends are now in their child-rearing years. Many are the stories of near-misses and fumbling faux pauxs of first-time parents. Many more are the fears about what may come. The world being as it is, the worries of parenthood must be unbearable; but we continue to bear them. Our fathers leave us. And we remain.
The atheist cardiologist who spends his life shoring up feeble hearts surely isn’t the only one who struggles to find a meaningful image of God in all this imperfection. It’s sometimes a problem for people to call God father; not only, I imagine, because God is necessarily more than father, but because our fathers are often imperfect models of God. Like any image, it has its limits. Our fathers don’t always give us what we want. Our fathers leave us. Some fathers are inspiring; some fathers are disappointing; most are both. Perhaps the same is true, if we’re honest, of God. Even Jesus cries out from the cross, “Why have you forsaken me?”
What to make of this divine fatherly abandonment? For starters, we must remember that it’s not the whole story. Jesus’ words were the first lines of what would have been a familiar song, a song that begins in doubt and ends in faithful hope, a psalm that speaks boldly of how the great love of God will be praised by a generation yet unborn. In his cry we see a mystery unfolding, the mystery of our own becoming. The heart of this mystery is that we will feel ourselves left behind until our being left turns to leaving. We will feel ourselves forsaken until our being loved turns to loving.
In those last days Jesus knew that he would have to leave, that death was an imminent possibility. In prayer he asked his father how to do it, how to leave the ones you love. We don’t hear what the father had to tell him in response, but this is what Jesus told his friends, and what he says to all of us: I have to leave, but you can remain in my love. Remain in me, and my love will remain in you. His being left is turned to leaving and his loss is turned to love.
Our imperfections make possible the redeeming presence of God’s mercy. Our being left finds its only remedy in our own becoming. Our fathers leave us and their love remains.