Tears. They flowed freely at a men’s Friday morning prayer and Bible study a few years ago where I asked the brothers, many of them ex-cons or felons hardened by life, to speak to their dads.
To talk directly to the man who had dropped them somewhere along their road to brokenness, or else cradled, nurtured, lifted them. I asked them to stand voluntarily or else sit in the midst of the assembly of brothers and to imagine — whether their fathers were long dead and gone, still alive, or simply vanished like the wind — and to speak to them.
To share their heart: those things left unsaid by sons to their fathers; the lifelong questions that still vex and nag; the stabbing hurts that haunt grown-up boys wounded by fatherlessness. To speak, not to us, but to their dads.
It quickly became apparent that most in the room of roughly a couple of dozen black men — and one woman — had been fumbled or altogether abandoned by their fathers. Clear too was the void and longing still — after all these years — among graying or bald middle-aged men in the West Side storefront where we met.
Clear were the tears that streamed from the eyes of those who spoke and also from those who found in other men’s words reflections of their own paternal hurts.
I was not surprised.
On other occasions over the years while speaking at churches, schools or for community groups, I had invited men — sometimes women, boys and girls — to take part in the exercise, which once opened the door to my own healing as a son whose natural father aborted his responsibility.
The longed-for conversation with my dad I had dreamed about as a boy finally occurred in summer 1995, as a full-grown man. Standing over my father’s unmarked grave in Evergreen, Alabama, I spoke my piece.
The words spilled from my soul and poured from my lips as hurt, and ultimately as forgiveness, for the man who never so much as gave me a Christmas gift. A father who never even called to wish me, “Happy Birthday.”
That day I was set free.
Free of the anguish of fatherlessness. Free at last to forgive the man who had deserted me — whether I understood his absence, or not.
Free to be a better father.
Planted that day was the seed of my book, “Dear Dad: Reflections on Fatherhood,” and also the desire to help set other brothers free from this curse that contorts our lives. Free from the paternal chains that cause us to rage, to become inflictors of the pain deposited in us as children, and that cause us to become purveyors of a cycle of paternal dysfunction, which can be reversed.
Born that day was this simple exercise that I have found particularly helpful for brothers. For black men too often fearful or ashamed of sharing deep hurts and disappointments or our “feelings” and emotions, which, we are taught, is “weak” or “effeminate.”
I begin the exercise by briefly sharing my story. By being transparent about the hole in my heart and soul called fatherlessness, and my own “Dear Dad” moment…
At a Baptist church in Kentucky, I asked brothers to participate. Theirs were stories of good, loving functional fathers but also stories of pain… The story of the father who once made his son put on a dress and walk around outside as punishment. The story of cruelty and abuse by fathers as experienced by still broken sons.
It was the same at the men’s prayer that summer morning: Tears. An open door to forgiveness.
And more tears.
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