Not A God, But A Man
👆That's me, my dad and my grandpa together at a Dodgers' game, circa... I have no idea when. But it's a good one.
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"It's a wonderful feeling when your father becomes not a god but a man to you. When he comes down from the mountain, and you see that he is this man with weaknesses, and you love him as his whole being – not as a figurehead...
It's weird: everyone always thinks of their dad as invincible. But in the end, there's this little, tiny creature - almost all bone. You have to say goodbye to him as this very frail being...
There is this little man behind the curtain going, 'take care of your mother' and 'I love you' and 'I've been very worried about certain things' and 'I'm afraid, but I'm not afraid.' It's an amazing combination to exhilaration and sadness at the same time, because the god transforms to a man."
– Robin Williams, on the death of his father
I'm listening to Dave Itzkoff's biography on Robin Williams, titled (get this): Robin.
Williams' reflection captured the sentiment. One of those instances where words serve as a salve on wounds you haven't quite been able to articulate, yourself.
In the past, I've written about something of an ongoing loss that I feel for never having had the chance to move past viewing my dad as a figurehead. Did I ever move into the realm of friendship with him? The way I’ve been able to with my mom as I’ve grown up and older and out. As I've been able to relate to her in different ways than a child still beneath his parent’s roof is capable of...
I can get pretty bummed out about it, if you want to know the truth.
But Robin’s quote spurred on something of a determination in me this weekend. To remember the fun we had. To remember that however “godlike” I deemed my dad to be, the inconsistencies between who he was and who he wished to have been remained ever before him… and he invested the time, anyway. He did the best that he could have done, and I can see that now. I tend to feel as though it is not the father’s fault for seeming to be something so other. Whether in Williams’ case or mine. Maybe in yours. Rather: youth that cannot yet see this god as a man. And “fault” isn’t the correct word, I know.
Perhaps youth is enough.
I’ve spent the morning going through old journals that I kept during our trip to Asia together.
My dad was a missionary who began smuggling bibles into Asia shortly after the God of that book saved him as a younger man.
When I was sixteen, he took me with him to Thailand, Burma, China and Laos. We spent three weeks together on a half work / half play trip on the other side of the world.
Perhaps I was too young to see how much joy it must have brought my father. To be able to take this young man that he helped create across the world and introduce him to a new one. Skateboarding around Tiananmen Square and sneaking sessions in the Forbidden City the way that he did for the first time in 1983.
I know that it brought him joy because joy is most realized when you share it with someone else. He shared it with me, and it overflowed.
I remember staying outside of Chiang Rai together, in a little town called Mae Sai on the Thai-Myanmar border, at the Wangthong hotel. My dad laughed his ass off at that name. That’s got to be a god-becomes-man, moment - completely losing it because of a hotel named “Wangthong.” Haha. I found it on the internet. It looks a lot more resort-ish now than it did thirteen years ago, but it’s there.
We rented a motorcycle and drove around to find a small motorboat we could take out into the Golden Triangle on the Mekong River, where you can touch Thailand, Burma and Laos all at once. The next night, we visited a a monastery considered to be the high point of northern Thailand. It was an accidental find, but it was beautiful. City lights in both Thailand and Myanmar sparkling in the distance. There were fires everywhere on the mountain in Burma. Not campfires… more like huge, controlled burns, lighting up the night.
I found this journal excerpt from a few days earlier:
“I’m in Beijing… Dad and I went to the Great Wall. Oh boy, you (whoever “you” is) should’ve seen me smile. I was a giddy little boy again. Just an innocent, giddy little boy not sure about anything, but excited about everything. Like the feeling you remember having when you’re young, but continues to dwindle as you get older - and now it’s a special occasion when you feel it at all. Like when you’d wake on Christmas morning with that feeling of excitement welling up in your chest so fast that it’s like it’s all you can do to not scream with joy and wake up everyone in the house - which you do, anyway. Or maybe you never went to sleep at all and you wake up your parents at four in the morning and scream and giggle and hurry them awake.
It was like that. It was amazing. What a memory. And what a cool experience for me to have with my dad – that’s just so bitchin.”
Bahahaha. I love that I described the Great Wall of China as “bitchin.” I probably just heard my dad say it a bunch of times and adopted it as my own.
I love that he introduced me to that kind of wonder, too. What a gift.
I don’t dread Father’s Day the way that I used to. I wasn’t sure how I was going to be able to handle it after my dad passed away. The anticipation was worse than the actual stamp on the calendar, but loss isn’t choosy about the days it decides to sting. I know that days like today are beautiful for some and devastating for others.
This morning, I’ve been texting a few friends who are experiencing this day, absent the man it is dedicated to, for the first time.
My heart aches for them, knowing that however much their proverbial god had begun to transform into a man, they will always have to wonder what it might have been like if he’d made it a little bit further down the mountain.
I don’t know where you’re at this afternoon, but I always make an attempt to tread lightly on days set aside for celebration, because for many, and for that very reason, they end up being cause for, and accentuating, so much sadness. Like salt on a wound. And it’s okay to feel either, or neither, or both.
Finally, today, I want to say that my heart weighs particularly heavy for those whose families are being torn apart in our country right now. To those who would contend that the law is the law – okay. But that’s not what I’m talking about. To those who would contend that the media has a strong leftist bias – okay. But that’s not what I’m talking about.
As the son of a man whose major attraction to the church, after being devastated by his family growing up, was Jesus’ loving intent to place the lonely and orphaned into His own, it is particularly heartbreaking to see that same Father’s words used to rip more of them apart.
To see news stories – regardless of whose "side" they come from – about children separated from their parents, and fathers committing suicide after having been separated from their families, is devastating. And to hear anyone – regardless of political party – justify the separation of a family that God has knit together, in His name, is blasphemy.
God the Father is in the business of “watching over the sojourners… he upholds the widow and the fatherless” (Ps. 146:9).
I remember my dad saying that many people don’t understand the mercy of God because they have not yet suffered to the point of needing it. Before anyone takes that personally, he was referencing me. This is not the blog-version of a subtweet. Not a passive indictment.
It is, simply, a heaviness.
This day, while beautiful in intent, brings out a whole lot of suffering for a whole lot of people, and I pray that the God of all comfort, whose steadfast love never ceases, whose mercies never come to an end, whose mercies are new every morning, whose faithfulness is great, would be yours.
Happy Father’s Day. Grace and peace to you.
P.S. – I wonder if Robin William’s words about what it was like to see his father as “not a god, but a man” are resonant to you? I know everyone has different experiences growing up, but I just loved the way he articulated that.
P.P.S. – Last year, I wrote a poem on Father’s Day titled "The Claw", which you can read here, and it was based upon a tweet that my friend Jamie Tworkowski sent out which was particularly helpful at the time. While I haven’t written a poem this time around, I thought I’d pay forward another JT tweet today:
"To those with no pictures to post. To those recovering from his absence. To those recovering from his presence. To those attempting to navigate the distance. To those crying at the border. This day belongs to you as well.”
P.P.P.S. – To those of you who are absolutely killing it as fathers to your children, bless you. Fight that good fight. May you hear the words “well done, good and faithful servant” today.