I was 2 when he left. When I became a father and my daughter turned 2, I looked at her and tried to imagine how it would feel to walk away from her. The thought made me shudder, wanting to wake myself from a bad dream.
The childhood memories I have of my father are a patchwork of contractually obligated visits -- one weekend per month, 2 weeks in the summer -- and a phone call on holidays or birthdays; vignettes of time in which I was to suck the marrow out of the father-son relationship as quickly as possible before returning home to the protective wings of my mother hen.
He and his new wife moved on to various towns across the state. Each a step farther away from the 4 children left behind. The farther away they went, the more infrequent our visits became.
I loved him and loved visiting him, though he was half stranger half parent. I knew that he loved me too, but I felt it in a less intimate way then. It was an unfamiliar love. My favorite place to visit him was Catalina Island. I'd take the sea plane over, and the pilot would let me sit in the cockpit and watch the ocean rise to meet us as we descended into Avalon.
His house was up a short hill just out of the main village. One day walking up that hill he stopped, looked over a fence and whistled down into the darkness of a small eucalyptus shaded valley. He whistled a short call, and from nowhere came the response. An unseen myna bird called back, note for note, mysterious and pure. He smiled and we walked on.
I tried to get that myna bird to whistle back to me every time I walked up that hill. I don't recall ever hearing it's song back.
As the youngest amongst my siblings I was the lucky one. Each has a story to tell about their memories of our father. But with no real memorable experience of my father before the divorce, I didn't know what I was missing. You can't crave candy if you don't know what it tastes like. I thought it was weird when the fathers of other kids showed up to cub scout events, tee ball and football games. I thought every boy learned how to play catch with his mom.
Once my father discovered that I liked camping, fishing and the outdoors like him, he did his best to teach me all he knew of these things in our brief visits. It's these moments in our shared passion that are most dear to me. How to pitch a tent, start a campfire, tie a fishing knot or dress a freshly caught trout. He taught me the peace of nature.
Summer visits to his house were both comforting and uncomfortable. I was so glad to see my father and yet the familiarity he had with his new family often made me feel like an outsider. I loved them, but I couldn't wait to hit the road and have my father to myself for just a little while. In the silence of our long drives through the California back country I'd wonder who this man was in the driver's seat. And what did he know about me? Not my friends, or about the kid picking on me at school; nor about the girl I had a silent crush on. He had no idea that I felt like I was pretending to be a teenager nor how much I hated school because I felt so alone.
By my late teens the contractual visits had expired and we saw each other less and less. There would be long stretches with no contact. But I always knew he was out there somewhere, and I thought of him from time to time.
One day when I was about 20 years old and going through a rebellious stage -- minor by most standards -- my mother said to me, "You sound just like your father when you say that." And I was dumbfounded. I had no idea I was anything like him. Absolutely no idea.
I started to see it too, in the way I stood or hooked my finger in my belt. I heard his voice in mine when I laughed or became angry. I had cravings for smoked oysters on a Ritz cracker with a little mayo --his favorite camping appetizer.
It started with a casual phone call for no real reason, just catching up. The occasional letter. As his children grew and demanded less of his time, we would plan to meet up in Flagstaff or Monterey while we were both on long road trips. Just the two of us.
As adults, with the labor intensive part of growing up and parenting behind us, we started our relationship anew. A son needs a father. But maybe a father needs a son just as much. It's never too late to tend the old wounds, though they may never be healed.
I could judge him. As a parent myself now, his mistakes are so much clearer to me. I have moments of reflection when a lonely child's righteous anger wells up within me. These usually come when I'm amazed by my own children and so glad I was present to witness their great triumph or funny dance; to pick them up when they fall and wipe a tear from their cheek.
He's not a perfect father. But I'm far from a perfect son. And we've lost so much time -- too many fatherless Father's Days.
There is only one perfect Father, and all of His children have fallen. Which makes it hard for me to blame my father for his trespasses. While the sins of the father have such a profound effect on us, he's a child of God too. And the sins of the children is what Jesus died for, setting the example of forgiveness for us all to follow. So I'm just trying to do as I'm told.
When I looked into my 2-year-old's eyes and tried to imagine walking away from her, I felt a guilt of such profound depth. It's a pain I'm sure never goes away.
Silent ripples through time. That's what our actions are. And we've no idea the myriad, unknowable ways our actions will impact those closest to us. His absence in my childhood ripples through my life to this day, but not as much as his presence did and still does.
I'm still that kid whistling into the darkness, and the song I yearn to hear back is one of approval and acceptance from a father. A prayer was my last whistle. And from across that valley of the shadow of death, came the call back from a Father who will never walk out on me.