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Saturday, March 18, 2017

A Dad Never Quits

My new book comes out next month.
It was the hardest thing I have ever written and chronicles the six hardest years I have lived so far. I wrote the book from late September until about New Year’s Day. I explored six years of the loneliest, darkest, most broken, desert walk of my life in a four-month period. That time frame made it even tougher. I didn’t have time to decompress from particularly hard chapters, or emotional memories. I didn’t have a deadline on this book, but once I “hit the vein”; I seldom paused for very long.
I don’t sleep a lot, as a rule, so I was up early every morning, writing a few thousand words before work. I would come home from work and write until I was exhausted at night. I don’t mean to diminish childbirth, and what a woman endures, but I feel like I gave birth to this book. I feel like the writing process was uncomfortable, long, arduous, and demanding. It’s never been that way for me before. Every book I’ve ever written has flowed freely and left me happy as I wrote it. This book left me weary.
Six years was hard. Six years without a bed, without a kitchen, or a shower of my own, or my garden. At the start of those six years, I lost the two beautiful Springer Spaniels we had owned. We lost our loving cat, Giacomo. I lost the refuge my daughter would come to need as her world exploded at her mom’s house and she desperately needed to escape the torment of her mother’s husband. While I was trapped in that car, she was trapped in her own nightmare.
I cried myself to sleep more times than I can recall, or care to. I dealt with anger, betrayal, disappointment, shame, loneliness, isolation, fear, and doubt. I second-guessed myself every day. “Was I doing the right thing by staying?” “Was I looking in the right places for a job?” “Was anyone ever going to hire me?” “Was my daughter going to be okay?” “Is she going to give up hope one day, run away, turn to drugs or alcohol, or become so despondent that she ends her life?”
I asked God all of these torturous questions every time they entered my heart. Sometimes I got immediate answers, most times, I did not. Most of the time, I only felt His presence and somehow managed to trust that it would be enough, and that He would work His plan in all this. As a dad, that was barely good enough for me, but not for my daughter. I am her daddy. I needed to give her something concrete and I needed to be her protector. I could not be. Not as I wanted to be and certainly not as she needed me to be. She needed me to get her out of that house, and I kept having to take her back to it. On the nights when it got too unbearable, she would call me in tears, begging me to come and get her. I always did. We would spend a few hours together, but since I had no home, I always had to take her back to that dread. I cannot tell you how that made me feel. Not with all the words I know.
There were many times when I thought it might be best for me to just leave. I could go to Texas, or to North Dakota,…some of the very few places that had jobs back then. I could make money. I could rebuild my life, and then I could come and get her out of there.
I would think of this and always reject the idea out of hand. I know my daughter. No matter what I told her, she would see this as a rejection and an abandonment. Her mother’s husband would have seen it as the end of the protection that my presence in her life offered, and his behavior would have doubtless grown even more violent and abominable. I might have been broke, homeless, and without prospects, but I was still a big, tough, old-school Italian guy from Philadelphia, who would not hesitate to hospitalize this jerk if he went too far. He came close many times, and only the grace of God that kept me from kicking his front door in and stomping him right into a coma. But had I done that, I’d be in jail and she’d be at his mercy.
I could not leave. I mean, I could have, it was always possible. But leaving would have jeopardized my daughter and I could never do that.
When I began writing this book, I had the working title: “A Dad Never Quits”. My friend “K” called me one day, after I had sent her a rough draft. She had a real problem with the title. For her it was personal and I knew why. She had been through a terrible divorce not long after I had endured mine. She has two young daughters and her ex-husband did not live up to his fatherhood, after the divorce. (I’m being kind here) She was serious –as she can be when it hits a nerve with her- and she said, “Craig…not all dads stick it out. A lot of dads quit.” In hindsight, she was taking the title of the book as a literal statement. I explained to her that to me, if a man quits on his family he is not a dad anyway. A real dad will do whatever it takes, regardless of the cost to him. At first, I wasn’t going to change the title. I even released a short, two-chapter galley version with that title. However, as I wrote more, and as the emotions churned, I saw some of her wisdom on this, and I changed the title. This made me sad. Sad because lots of dads do quit. Sad because my own dad quit, before I was even born. I’ve met him once. He and my mother never married. He wants no relationship. I tried to convince him otherwise for a few years but eventually I grew weary of begging for something that no one should ever have to beg for, and I accepted it for what it was. I was twenty-one before I even knew about him, so it’s not like there was a hole. But there was.
A child is born with a dad-shaped vacuum. It’s similar to the “God-shaped vacuum” found within Pascal’s writings. A child needs to have his or her dad around. It’s not popular to say these days. Feminists have emasculated society until men are viewed as unnecessary. But don’t kid yourself. I work at a major University. I see the long-term effects of this dad-vacuum. The lack of manliness among men of this generation is disturbing. It’s not specific to this campus. It’s generational. We’ve had two or three generations now where the dads have vanished, or at least where they’ve been so neutered that they might as well have vanished. It’s bad enough that my friend Rick Burgess had to write a book called “How to Be a Man.” It’s a great book and it makes me wish I had a son so I could employ the things he teaches. Rick is a real man. Real in the godly, biblical sense. He surveyed the landscape and saw the terrible lack of real, manly, strong, unbending, determined men. ( I recommend Rick’s book whole-heartedly.)
I kicked all this around as I thought about my friend’s words to me. I heard the pain in her voice as she reminded me that not all dads refuse to quit. I’ve seen the after-effects in her life. I’ve seen it in lots of kids lives. My daughter has so many friends whose fathers have abandoned them. I don’t know if she ever told her friends that her dad was homeless…I doubt she would volunteer that, but I do know that her friends always seemed to like the fact that at least one of their friends had a real dad, who was really involved in his daughter’s life.
It’s sad to think that men give up on their families. Sad to think that a man would put himself above his own children and go off chasing his own desires. I couldn’t I stayed.
I stayed and endured whatever hell and mankind threw at me because I simply love my daughter. I couldn’t even fathom doing something else.
There are many lessons in this new book. There was a light in all that darkness and I hope it shines bright enough as I tell the story. Hope did spring out of hopelessness. Faith did get me through. God was good in all that darkness. I didn’t intend it to be a fatherhood book. This book was about my fatherhood, and how that kept me in a place that nobody would want to be. But as it turns out, there is a fatherhood lesson. Sadly, there is a subtle challenge within the pages. A challenge not to quit. A challenge to do the hard thing because it’s the right thing.
If a man reads of my hardships and decides that he has no excuse for quitting on his family, then my ordeal was worth it, I guess. I didn’t write the book for that reason, but I’ll accept that as a tertiary product of the six years I endured.

Let’s get back to the times when it’s not a stretch to say “A dad never quits’”

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Life After Homelessness...

I’m 53.
I’ve been a dad for almost nineteen years. Six of those years I spent homeless. Those years are the ones that hurt me the most right now. I think about them far too much. I think about how my daughter’s life might have turned out if I hadn’t lost my career and then my house. I think about how much happier she’d be. How much safer she would have been, away from her mother’s second (now second ex) husband. Happier to have grown up where she was born, and remained there, and gone to a regular high school and, had a dad with a respectable job who made a good living.
Instead she was trapped at her mom’s house while I lived in a Yukon and struggled to remain alive, and in her life.
I missed far too many moments. But I haven’t missed them entirely. I keep seeing them in my heart. They won’t go away. I can’t forgive myself for being homeless. I still see myself in that Yukon, sleeping on that foam roll. It still hurts.
It’s infusing itself into everything I do these days. Maybe writing a book about it wasn’t such a good idea. Maybe I shouldn’t have dredged it up again. But I did.
Now I can’t escape it. I can’t stop wondering “what if?” I can’t stop thinking about how my bed used to feel, how my house smelled, how my coffee tasted when I drank it looking out the window at five acres of the Tennessee countryside.
I can’t stop thinking about my daughter when she was my little girl…not an almost-nineteen-year-old woman who needs me less and less and has dreams of her own that she is struggling to get off the ground.
I’ve never been a “Who am I?” type of guy. But now I am. I’m not confidant in my role in life. I wonder what it is I’m really here for. To be good at my job? I’ve always been good at whatever job I’ve held, dating back to cutting the neighbor’s grass for five bucks a week. Good at being a dad? I was great at that until she was ten and I became homeless. I was as good as I could be after that. By the time we got here to Lynchburg she was sixteen and I was dealing with an adult. I feel like I’ve failed her. I feel like I failed me.
For the first time in my life, I am truly afraid.
Even when I was homeless, somehow I had faith that it was going to work out eventually. I was frustrated, angry, sometimes bitter, weary, hopeless at times…but never afraid. Not for long anyway.
But I am now.
I’m afraid of ending up there again. I’m afraid of failing my daughter somehow. I’m afraid of growing old alone, and afraid of growing old with the wrong person and ending up divorced again. I’m afraid of failure. Petrified of failure.
I check my work emails at night, even though I know there won’t be anything there that I need to address before work the next day. I read emails I’ve sent; afraid I’ll catch a mistake. I look at my calendar afraid I’ll forget a meeting or that I forgot to set one. I re-think conversations and wish I had chosen different words. Every Thursday we’re tasked with emailing a few accomplishments for the week. On Wednesday night I worry myself sick wondering if anything I accomplished is actually an “accomplishment.” I have lately taken to analyzing myself into oblivion. Because I’m afraid.
I’m afraid that I’m old and I’m the only one who doesn’t realize it. I’m afraid I’ll become that old guy who doesn’t get it, he doesn’t understand that he’s become old and all the younger people smile politely but snicker when he walks past, because he’s an entire generation remove from relevance.
I’m afraid that the tail end of my “best years” were spent homeless instead of being great at my job as I once was. I’m afraid my daughter is permanently scarred from all she’s lived through.
Rich Mullins wrote a song right before he died. It’s called “Hard to get.” There is a line within the song that goes like this:
“I’m reeling from these voices that keep ringing in my ears,
All the words of shame and doubt, blame and regret.”
I’m reeling. The voices won’t stop ringing in my ears. The voice of my daughter calling me “Daddy” (which she no longer calls me. Now it’s “Dad”) and asking me to push her on the swing just a few minutes more. Or her delight watching our litter of pups being born. I hear her voice on the phone on those horrible nights when she would call me and beg me to come rescue her from her mom’s house and I couldn’t do a darned thing, because I was homeless. How betrayed did that make her feel?  When will I forgive myself for that?
It’s been three years since I was homeless but I’m still -in many ways- trapped in that Yukon. And I’m afraid that’s where I’ll remain. At least in my heart.

And I hate being afraid…