Lying across the room on his play mat, eight-month-old Asher groaned then coughed in threat of a full-on cry before I looked over to discover him on his stomach staring at me. Catching my attention, blue eyes fixed firmly on mine, he went silent, leaned his weight onto his right arm, lifted his left, and opened and closed his free hand, waving at me. I responded in kind, and a huge grin split his face before he returned to drooling on his toys. I don’t know what I did to earn that moment and cannot imagine a trial great enough to win the prize of my son waving and smiling at me. Children are mysteries, startling in their creativity and surprising in their development. The responsibility of caring for them is an everyday encounter with pure grace, the glowing material from which fatherhood is forged.
Finding my identity changed by this role as daddy, I began to wonder about the lessons I intentionally and unintentionally end up teaching my kids. I question whether or not I help build a character in them of which I can be proud or if I’ll one day find myself wincing at the things they say, the way they dress, the goals they pursue, or the company they keep. I’ve known friends whose fathers left abruptly, and I’ve encountered those whose daddies abused them in word and deed, devastating emotions and marring what could have been their greatest work. Whether I intend to or not, I base the way I treat my children upon the way Dad treated me, which he based on how his father treated him, continuing back, perhaps, through many generations.
What if fatherhood was a physical place one could visit, a factory one could tour to see how dads influence their children? There we could witness each successive generation of men instilling their knowledge and experience to the next while tracing our own forging, seeing how much of our father’s programming found its way into us.
I imagine entering the factory doors to reveal the tour guide standing in the foyer with hand extended, greeting me with: “Glad you could come out today. You’re a recent hire, aren’t you?”
“I am. I’ve been with the company a little over four years now.”
The two of us make small talk as he outfits me with a hard hat, safety glasses, and a sky blue overcoat identifying me as a visitor. The receptionist smiles sweetly behind her desk as I follow my guide down the hall and through the heavy metal doors opening onto a caution yellow catwalk overlooking the factory floor. The sheer enormity of the place strikes me dumb; huge machines monitored by thousands of workers produce so much clamor I clamp my hands over my ears to shut it out. Sheepishly, my companion points to the foam buds peeking out of his ears and taps the left pocket of my overcoat. Soon the overwhelming noise is reduced to a low hum as we begin the tour.
Fifty feet below me, the assembly lines begin. Fed by several conveyors extending through the walls along with a multitude of vents descending from the ceiling, a row of massive, two story metal monoliths stretches so far in either direction, there is no visible end to them. Glowing rivulets of molten grace stream slowly from within them down twisting channels, the raw ingredients shining in purity, ready to be shaped for use.
My guide stops at Viewing Station 1, and my gaze travels down to the factory floor to capture the seminal moment — the production process that sets this factory apart. The raw material, molded and cooled, has been shaped to form a baby boy. His father, Glenn, is there to hold him for the first time, his blue eyes locked onto his son, a wisp of beard clinging to his firm chin, his face young and smiling. This is the moment where a tender bond is formed only to be hardened further down the line. Heart in my throat, I continue the tour.
At the next station, Glenn’s farm-roughened hands pin on a cloth diaper as he coos quietly with his new-forged link. Down the line, he gets up in the night to quiet a cry he can’t explain, holding, rocking, singing to his child. The factory stills itself, straining to hear the song, but Glenn sings low, his bass notes flowing over his son and onto the floor to be swept up later.
My guide removes his earplugs to explain each assembly line is different. “Not every product is sung to by their father in the night. Each employee decides what work he will perform, what he will add to his son’s life.”
The cries still as Glenn continues to sing. The baby boy I imagine myself to have been yawns with his whole body, arms and legs cocked at disparate angles before he nestles his head into the crook of his father’s arm, twitching in dream before we move on.
At 34 years of age, I don’t remember my father caring for me in the night, but my brain is packed with memories of family gatherings, birthday parties, picnics at the park, and Dad making dinner for us on the grill. My father stood up for me if threatened, and I feared his anger, hiding upstairs whenever he and Mom raised their voices. I knew the comfort of his lap as he read to me before bed and the strength of his arms as he wrestled and tickled with me on the living room floor. He held me accountable for the decisions I made, encouraging me to read as much as I could, to never stop learning, and disciplined me when I shirked my duty of mowing the front lawn by making me rake up the entire yard’s clippings one hot July afternoon.
My mother characterizes Dad as “steadfast, kind, faithful, a man of great integrity. Concerned more for his family than for himself, a great Christian – he tries to do the best that he can. I love him very much. He loves us very much. He was very concerned about how you were raised and making sure that you and Chris were good, Christian people and had integrity in your own life, but loved Jesus more than anything else. He’s always saying how blessed we are because you two turned out so well not because of your accomplishments but because of who you are and your characters. He’s always telling me, ‘Honey, we’re so blessed.’”
I want to be able to say that about my own kids. When they’re grown and out of the house, I want to look back at the job I did with a full heart, thankful for the way Maggie and Asher turned out, but how do I emulate my father without being him? How do I access his work log from my imaginary factory to see exactly how many hours he invested in forging my character so I can be sure to do the same for my kids? And how do I know the investment he made in me and my sister beyond time spent? How do I recognize the type of parent he was? What percentage was encouragement, and how much of it was discipline? How many jokes did he tell, and how much praying for us did he do? How many times did he wipe my butt and dry my tears? How many bandages did he apply to my scraped knees and my hurt pride?
As I pose these questions, a pool of anxiety spreads like oil in my gut. There’s so much I don’t know about being a father. No physical record exists of the hours and type of work Glenn Lees did for me. All I have is who he is, the tenets of his beliefs, and the memories of how he cared for us, but I fear that won’t be enough.
Upon meeting Dad for the first time, strangers have to work hard to get him to talk to them, because like a boulder in a streambed, he allows conversations to flow about him while he remains steadfast and still. Dad’s afraid of being negatively noticed and hates change because he doesn’t want to make a mistake. Growing up, Dad retreated to protect himself as Uncle David was loud and domineering, but when they sit down together now, they talk for hours about the price of corn and other farming matters. If you bring up something that interests Dad, like the woodworking he does in the basement, the teardrop camping trailer he’s building in the garage, and the stories of God’s interventions in his life, he opens right up. To kick-start a conversation, inquire about the machinery he installs and repairs at the wastewater treatment plant or ask him what’s been going on in politics.
While Dad sits quiet, keeping his own company and pondering things internally, I talk through things to reason them out and strike up conversations with complete strangers despite Laura’s groans of protest. Because of this, Dad’s silence seems to hang in space between me and the answers I seek. If I want to know what he’s thinking or feeling, I ask Mom, the mediator between my father and I, a role she’s played for as long as I can remember, but I don’t want to have to go to Mom or guess what my father’s thinking anymore, nor do I want my inquiries rebuffed by him as trivial or too personal. I want him to speak to me about important matters. I want to know how he feels about being a grandfather and his mother’s declining health. I want to know how Grandpa’s accident affected him, but I’m afraid if I ask, all the pain of it will bubble up to the surface, hurting Dad all over again. There’s no bad blood between him and me, just a lifetime of little communication.
When approaching my wedding night with the level of excitement only a 26-year-old virgin can muster, I asked Dad if he had any advice to share. I wasn’t looking for him to provide step-by-step instructions; I just wanted to have my father speak to me heart-to-heart, to impart wisdom. His response? “You’ll figure it out.”
Thankfully, Laura and I did just that, but I feel as though I’ve had to figure out multiple life lessons minus Dad’s input, adding to my sense of isolation and increasing my nerdiness. Instead of his being a formula to help determine the unknowns of life, he himself is an unknown, a constant with fixed values, which I have to solve.
When faced with a situation that’s new, like transitioning to a different job or Grandpa falling off the roof of his grain bin, Dad retreats. He does what needs to be done, but does it as quickly as possible like the first time a kid has to remove a hook from a freshly caught fish. Witnessing my father’s reactions programmed me to allow tough situations to intimidate me. If he, my symbol of strength, balked at visiting his hospitalized father, who was I to handle it any differently? When under duress, Dad tends to sleep as an escape, while I find a new narrative in which to lose myself. Seeing Dad lacking confidence to handle life germinated in me the thought that I wasn’t up to the challenge either, exacerbating my procrastination.
I don’t know what it was like for Dad to lose his father to slipped footing, a gravel driveway 16 feet below, and a serious brain injury. Grandpa was never the same after he fell off the roof of the grain bin: blinded, bedridden, and capable only of short conversations where each reply ended in drawn out laughter. Dad claims his father died in 1988, the year of his accident, not when Grandpa actually passed away in 2002. Dad losing Grandpa is the elephant of which I avoid speaking even now 25 years after the fact. For so many years, Dad couldn’t speak of it without pain in his voice; maybe that’s what started my nightmares.
I know Dad’s silence and distance are part of who he is. I may not like those portions of his personality, but who doesn’t have flaws? God graced me with a father that loved me unconditionally, and Dad’s core, tempered by physical, emotional, and financial hardship, is resilient and worthy of trust. When he leaves his employment at the Fatherhood Factory, passing from this earth, I hope his work in me will be proven worthy and that I continue that work in my own children with only one caveat, that my kids will find me a ready conversation partner.