I. We all need an ally. We need sympathetic eyes and someone that has our back just like we need a listening ear and someone to hold the map of our soul and heart as we traverse through life. In life, we will not have many of these, but we will have a few. I met my first ally nearly forty nine years ago and today is the day the world recognizes this.
Father’s Day has a meaning beyond just doing something nice for Dad. It is a day when we acknowledge the one who honored life in an act of love that would give us life and who would be for us a model of how we should construct our lives with lessons that are often beautiful, but sometimes hard.
I have filled pages about my father. I have spoken of his distress when away from his family in the time of war and I have referenced more than a few stories of his protection and nurturance. They are stories like hiking to Grafenstien and being caught in the rising tide at Amador. These are the stories of the times my father taught me about alliance as I had to depend on him and would one day be echoed in the stories where others would depend on me.
II. In the highlands of the Carolinas, my father would navigate the switchbacks and changing elevation. As a child I was always fascinated by these types of drives. I would think of the day I could be the one at the wheel unafraid of the drops and the curvature of the road. I became accustomed to seeing my dad in uniform and knew he was often in harm’s way, but it was on drives such as these I most thought I wanted to be like him, to be that unafraid. I wanted to be the one on whom others relied, the one awake while others slept, being “that unnoticed and that necessary.” On such drives I would try to stay awake seeking to prove myself to be his ally, though I always feel asleep.
Even at those moments, he knew he did not go it alone. My mother would hold the maps and look out the window gauging the distance of the car from the side of the slope. She would rouse herself from drowsiness and make sure he was okay handing him coffee and locating towns in an atlas all the while thinking we should have made Durham five hours ago. (Like most men, my father knew the destination better than the route.) At these times, my mother called him Charles, a name I share with him. To this day I introduce myself by this name, but then quickly settle into being Chuck, preferring to hear Charles only from those who are unique in all the world, those I have come to most depend on just as they depend on me.
III. I have since made a few harrowing drives and I have stayed awake while others slept. Like my father, I have watched and aided a son’s stumbling into adulthood and like him I distressed I was not better suited for the task. That I could do any of these things at all is only because of him. From him, I learned when I would have to be the one who is strong and when I would have to be the one to say “I need you.” Everything I learned about being important to another and letting them be important to me came from this man.
IV. The best dads teach us the power of one when it is necessary as it is when children or a companion must sleep as they grip the wheel. They also teach us that this is no way to live life in a sustainable way, that it is better to have someone next to you to hold the map and to take hold of your hand when you visit beautiful and wonderful places. They know they must be the ones that grip you around the wrist to pull you up the rocks that line the trails so that you can see towns and valleys below, but they too must allow their hands to be held for a world without this is no world at all.
V. My father and the best fathers live a life of paradox. They know that as they face outward, the world is cruel and brutish demanding a cynical pragmatism, but the inward life is always inhabited by the allies who accompany you on the hikes and drives. They know ultimately creation is beautiful, but the creature more beautiful still.
They also know the pain of one day telling a child that they are no longer a child and they must go out there and find their own allies. When he does this, a father is offering up the greatest gift of love telling the newly formed man or woman it is time for others to sleep as they drive and to let these new allies be their compass when they are lost. (Fathers know you will often be lost.) When he does this, a father is rightfully saying life is about discerning when to lead and when to follow, when to be protective and when to slide into another’s protection. He is preparing you for all those moments he will not be there seeking to know that others will be the ones to do this for you and urging you to be that way for them.
Image: My father at Amador Beach, Panama Canal Zone 1971.