Several months ago in an idle moment I took the back off a picture dad had drawn for me. The picture was of our family home and he'd presented it to me 10 years ago when I first moved to Eastbourne: 'the front door is open' he said 'to show you that you can come home whenever you want.' He then told me he'd written a note for me on the back of the picture. I read it that night when he'd gone home.
10 years on I thought I'd reacquaint myself with what he'd written. I had an idea that whatever was written on the back might result in my emotional undoing (crying for the more emotionally secure) but I was curious all the same; 'What can it hurt?' I reasoned, 'he's been gone for a long time now, surely I've finished grieving.'
My fears were right, it got me. I was a mess for a while after reading that.
The note 'got me' but in a different way than I was expecting. There were tears for sure, a tap load in fact but what I found most unexpected was the way I felt before the tears.
For a moment after reading the note I felt unusually calm a sort of rest in my soul, in a part of me I didn't even realise was busy. It was as though the world went still and in that brief moment dad was there in the room. He was there and he was speaking to me.
In the past 5 years I've grown familiar with the idea of him not being here any more, familiar with the reality that he doesn't say anything new these days; and yet in that moment he was speaking. He was speaking new words of love and affirmation and oh how I hadn't realised I needed to hear them.
Now, my reaction may just stem from me being a desperately needy, attention seeking middle child (entirely plausible) but it may also be that what I experienced is typical of more people than just me.
It seems to me that in some real, but often unacknowledged way, many of us live out our lives with a subconscious 'I hope dad/mum would be proud and impressed,' ticking away in the background. The more people I speak to the more I realise how this is part of our human condition.
I read an article today by a popular atheist columnist reflecting on how much of a longing for his own father he still experiences five years after his death. What was interesting to me was that only a couple of months before this I read another article by this same writer arguing for what he considers to be the social good and virtue of natural selection being exacted upon a society's elderly and infirm. It seems that for all his bravado about the value of a person to society there is still a valuing and longing for his five-year deceased father. It seems that our love of loved ones isn't conditional upon their economic value to a society. We know that but some of our leading thinkers seem to be forgetting it.
Apart from anything else I experienced in the moment I read those words I learnt that I'm still living with an internal ache for approval. What's more I learnt that for all the contentment and joy I get from being loved and approved by God the Father there is still a part of me reserved for dad, a part that only he can reach. Our close relationships define us in many ways. We aren't islands and we don't 'find ourselves' by hiding from the people in our lives. We are relational beings who reflect the nature of our relational God. This gives me cause to ponder for my own children and wonder what sort of hole or mark I might be leaving on their soul.
I've learnt the significance and impact that affirmation and approval plays in our emotional health.
I'm grateful that five years on I can still give thanks for the way dad expressed his feelings toward me. Would I have liked him to have said more whilst he could? Sure but then as I said, I'm a middle child.
Today, five years after his funeral I'm thanking God for the model of fatherhood dad left for me and I'm wanting to do all that I can to leave my boys without any shadow of a doubt about the way I feel toward them.