I have reflected on the question for the last few days as I ponder the passing of my father. It is easy to focus only on the end of his life and the decisions that led to his isolation and estrangement from his family but I do not think that is fair. My father was a mean and angry man who did mean and angry things, but he did not do only mean and angry things. Like all of us, he was much more complicated than that.
He was a violent man who beat my mother while they were married. When she took their three young children (we were all under 5 years old), he could have abandoned us. He could have ignored his responsibilities and refused to pay child support. He could have, but he didn’t. The checks always came.
When my mother divorced her second husband and became a single mom to three teenage boys she found herself in dire financial straits. She asked my father for more child support. He didn’t have to pay her more as there was no court order compelling him to increase the payments, but he did. As seemingly incapable as he was of giving emotional support he never wavered in his financial support.
As a father, he was often impossible to please. I have vivid memories of being a small child and him harshly criticizing me for the way I pulled on my socks, took off my shirts and even my choice of spoon when I ate my morning cereal. I was a pigeon-toed and awkward child and his biting “humor” found in me an easy target. He called me "spastic" and when someone else was clumsy he said they had "pulled a Bart." His words were incredibly hurtful and damaging. To this day the memories of his words still bring a sense of fear and anxiety.
As mean as he was this angry man found the time to play with us. He taught us card games, played board games with us and organized football and basketball games with the kids in the neighborhood. He took us to San Diego Padres baseball games and Chargers football games and took us to the beach and taught us how to ride the waves on an inflatable raft. These moments were not idyllic, he was often impatient and critical and some initially pleasant times degenerated into tears, but he gave us attention. He was inconsistent and unpredictable but there were times when he tried to be a dad.
His struggles with being a parent did not end when I reached adulthood. He struggled with my independence and career choices. He wanted more from me than I did for myself. He appropriately questioned my decision to drop out of college and forcefully encouraged me to re-enroll. When I did, he paid my tuition all the way through medical school. In spite of his financial support he did not have much faith in me. I will never forget his response when I told him of my perfect GPA at the end of my first year at the University of California, Irvine. He said, “I honestly didn’t think you had it in you.”
He was not a man of encouragement. He seldom gave praise and never gave hugs. Growing up I never thought he was proud of me or that he loved me for who I was. He seemed to see every flaw and catch every mistake while missing or minimizing every success. And yet, when I looked into the audience as I walked off the stage with my Medical Diploma in my hands I saw my father head and shoulders above the crowd, standing on his chair and proudly pumping his fist in the air.
For the three years I was in my Family Practice residency he was incredibly supportive of me and my family. Each month a check for $500 came in the mail, (almost $1000 in today's dollars.) He knew my resident’s salary was not enough to support a family and he did not want Lisa to have to work. It is because of him that she was able to stay home with our son.
His generosity had a profound impact on our lives, which made his decision to disown me shortly after graduation so difficult to process. I knew he was angry and had fits of temper, but I had always hoped there was some measure of good underneath. I had heard the horrible stories told by my step-brother and mother, of physical and verbal abuse, but thought that he had softened with age, and that love, especially for his grandson, would win out. It didn't. His choice to cut off all contact with me and my family for the remaining 24 years of his life proved that anger ultimately won.
So how do I measure his life?
There is no question that his anger and inability to love left marks on me. My battles with anxiety, insecurity and anger are part of his cursed heritage. I struggle every day to overcome the damage he wrought. It is only by the grace of God that I have learned what it means to be a loving husband and father. Although I had no role model in my own family, God blessed me with a father-in-law who modeled goodness and kindness.
In spite of the damage my father did it does not seem fair to ignore the support he gave me earlier in life. His gifts were tainted and had strings attached but they made a difference nonetheless. They had value. While the good he did is dwarfed by the harm, his warped generosity did help my family through difficult times. He was not a good man, but he was more than just a bad man.
I think this is the reality for all of us. None of us are totally good or totally evil. We are all broken people who fail and succeed to varying degrees. This truth of universal brokenness begs the question- How do we measure a life? Do we pull out a set of scales and divide up a man’s deeds and see where the balance lies? If so, do we give greater weight to more recent harms or blessings? Many people have done terrible deeds believing in the moment that they were doing the right thing. How do we decide where to draw the line?
I do not believe that I am in a position to answer this question for others. It is not my place to decide. As I think about my father I realize there are pieces of his puzzle that are hidden from me. I have no knowledge of his childhood or of his relationship with his father. I do not know if he was abused or scorned, loved or hated. I do not know his mental history. As an experienced physician I see in his behavior hints of mental illness that were not visible to me when I was young. I do not know if he battled his demons or embraced them. I do not know if he was even capable of love.
What I do know is that he paid a price for his sins in this life. I have wonderful children who fill the world with love, joy and laughter. My father never knew them. Theirs is a joy he never shared. In my relationship with my father-in-law I experienced the incredibly rich blessing of shared respect between two grown men. I received the wisdom of his years of life experience and he received the joy of seeing his wisdom shape me into a better person. My father never experienced this blessing, the joy of adult friendship with a son. My father lived the pain of loneliness.
Sadly for my father, the pain of this life pales in comparison to the pain that may await. My father rejected faith many years ago. To my knowledge he never turned to God. For the rest of eternity he will give account to His creator for his choice. It is God who will judge.
As it is God who will ultimately judge there is little to be gained expending energy judging my father. My time is better spent judging my own heart. When I turn my gaze inward I see incredible room for improvement. I have more bad in me than can be expunged in one lifetime. While true goodness eludes me I nevertheless intend to spend the rest of my life striving to be a better man.
The success of my self improvement efforts will be measured after I am gone. I often tell others that I have two goals in life, both to be fulfilled when I die. The first is that when I stand before my God I will hear Him say, “Well done.” The second is that my children will tell others on my passing that I was the greatest man they ever knew. I do not know if I will ever achieve these goals but I am certain that they will not be achieved without continuous intentional effort on my part.
I am also certain that the pursuit of these goals will bring peace and joy in this lifetime, and confident hope for the next.