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Sunday, June 15, 2014

Lessons on Fatherhood from My Dad...

Dad and me...
According to national figures, sixty-three percent of youth suicides come from fatherless homes, eighty-five percent of children that show behavior problems come from fatherless homes and seventy-one percent of high school dropouts come from fatherless homes.
And, that’s just a small sample.  The statistics are alarming; from the percentage of people in prisons, to rapists, to poverty levels, crime and a host of other social maladies, they all appear to be heightened by the same constant; the lack of a father or father figure in a child's life. 

We are living in a nation where, because of divorce and children being born out of wedlock, more than 4 out of 10 children live without dad in the home and it jumps to as high as 7 out of 10 in the inner city and poor neighborhoods.
In other words, we have become a fatherless nation and, as a result, have pierced the very fabric of any society, which has always been the family.

With that in mind, I wanted to share some thoughts on fatherhood.  

Of course, since I have only been in the game for thirteen short years and in that brief time have amassed my fair share of Costa Concordia-type mishaps (Sans the tragic loss of lives or pulling a Captain Franscesco Schettino, the guy who said, to hell with this, and jumped ship before the cruise ship sank, leaving his crew and passengers to fend for themselves!), time would be better spent sharing memories and lessons from my own father, to whom I owe the little I know about what it means to be a loving father, the role of a dad and how fatherhood relates to God by his example.

In fact, I can't write about fatherhood without writing about God, the source of all human fatherhood, since earthly fathers are but an imperfect reflection of the Heavenly Father.  And, often times, a child's perspective of God is influenced by the example of their biological or adoptive father.

In my case, I can honestly say that my dad taught me unconditional love of family.  My dad is the product of divorce, at a time when it was not very common.  Consequently, he did everything he could to make sure my mom, brother and I felt loved, protected and provided for.

I also learned commitment and sacrifice.  Not only did he bring us to the United States with just the clothes on his back, like many Cubans fleeing Communism, but he always chose family over personal aspirations, whenever they conflicted with time away from his wife and kids. 

After the initial struggle of working two and three jobs when we first arrived to make ends meet and send me to Catholic school, once we got a little settled, his spare time was always spent with us.  

I recall many Saturday mornings in Port Chester, NY, when he would take my brother and me to the park to hit us ground balls and fly balls and pitch us batting practice during the summer. 

It continued when we moved to Miami to get away from the cold weather and for a chance for him to work as a civil engineer, which was his livelihood until we came to America.  And, once we started playing organized baseball, he and my mom never missed a game.

I also have fond memories of him taking me to work when I was about eleven or twelve.  My uncle owned a gas station and, for a time, my dad was helping him by working as a mechanic.  For several months, he opened and closed the business on Saturdays.  

I recall waking up in the early morning hours, when it was still dark out, having breakfast and going to work with him.  We would open up the shop and I would help customers pump gas and wipe their windshields all day for tips.  I used to get 25 or 50 cents.  Every once in a while, I would even get a dollar!  My mom and brother would come by in the afternoon to be with us and to pick me up but I always wanted to stay until closing.  For me, it was an adventure.  For my dad, it was a chance to spend the day with me. 

My dad worked hard all his life.  He did everything from working at a factory, to a short stint as a mechanic with my uncle, to window blind installation (which came in handy when my wife and I installed blinds at our house!), to door-to-door sales, to selling space on cargo containers for South and Central America.  He never was able to work again as a civil engineer, since when we moved down the company that offered him the job went out of business and he had to latch on to whatever was available.  

Through it all, he taught me humility, loyalty and fidelity, discipline and mercy, piety, patience, humor and an appreciation for what God had given us.  He never complained or showed bitterness.  He led by example and was always there for my brother and me.

In fact, there were so many times that I needed him and he came to rescue me without hesitation; the time in high school when my friends and I got a flat tire on the way home from a party and didn't know how to change the tire, or the night I was trying to make a U-turn on a side street on my way home from a date, after it had rained all day, and got stuck in the mud on the shoulder of the street.  I spent over an hour trying to dig my car out and it only got worse.  The tire sank deeper into the slimy ground.  Finally, covered in wet dirt from head to toe, I walked to a nearby Burger King and called my dad (there were no cell phones at the time!).  It was like a Duck Dynasty episode!

Even today, whenever I have an issue with my car, I don't call Triple A, I call my dad!

Now, I'm sure there were times of disappointment as a father; the day I got an earring and my mother asked my brother, in all sincerity, if I had joined a gang, the night I got home plastered after drinking with buddies and, when I lied down to go to sleep, the room started spinning and I threw up on my bed and probably the biggest doozy, the night he had to bail me out of the Broward County Jail (see blog here), but, even though he would always talk to me and give me sound advice, he never let his disappointment show. 
In his book inspired by the Rembrandt painting of the parable, The Return of the Prodigal Son; a Story of Homecoming, which is one of the most profound spirituality books I have ever read, Fr. Henri Nouwen writes:

“The heart of the father burns with an immense desire to bring his children home.

Oh, how much would he have liked to talk to them, to warn them against the many dangers they were facing, and to convince them that at home can be found everything that they search for elsewhere.  How much would he have liked to pull them back with his fatherly authority and hold them close to himself so that they would not get hurt.

But his love is too great to do any of that.  It cannot force, constrain, push, or pull.  It offers the freedom to reject that love or to love in return.  It is precisely the immensity of the divine love that is the source of the divine suffering. God, creator of heaven and earth, has chosen to be, first and foremost, a Father.”  
For me, that is the heart of what it means to be a true father; a reflection of God the Father and it could well describe my dad.

I, on the other hand, regularly fall short of that image to my kids.

I remember an incident several months ago with my six-year-old son, who I spanked harder than I meant to due to frustration over his failure to pick up his room, after repeated warnings.  Afterwards, as I often do when I fly off the handle with my kids, I regretted my harsh measures.

Every night, I bless my kids with holy water and pray with them before they go to bed.  That particular night, I laid down next to him in bed and said I was sorry for being so mean.  He looked at me tenderly, hugged me, kissed me and said, "It's o.k. daddy.  It's o.k."

At that moment, I felt overwhelming shame.  However, I also felt overwhelming love; God's love coming from my son.  God the Father was telling me through a six-year-old boy that despite my rough edges, I was His beloved son.  Moreover, I felt He was also telling me that I needed to take gentle care of the precious gifts He has bestowed on me to raise and father as my own.  It is a humiliating thought.

A friend of mine often tells me that fatherhood is as much about the love and example we provide as it is about constancy in the ordinary.  It's the comfort and security our children feel when dad is there day in and day out, that he loves mom, loves them and they will always take care of them.  Because, at the end of the day, what most of us want is to be happy, to feel safe and the acknowledgement that we are beloved sons and daughters of our Heavenly Dad.

Happy Fathers' Day... 



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