Do-it-yourself forgiveness: you can go home again, discovers Patrick Hannon, but it takes a little work--maybe even some rewiring and well-digging.
I arrived for spring break, a swaggering, swashbuckling sophomore home from the University of Portland, filled with great ideas and grand plans, a kid who seemed to fit only too well the title "sophomore," which is roughly translated from the Greek "wise moron." Mom and Dad, dressed in blue jeans and work boots and heavy plaid wool shirts, met me at the bus station, They looked like something out of the TV show Green Acres.
The previous summer Dad had retired after more than 25 years as a lawyer. He hung up his tie the day he retired and never wore one again. Soon after, they sold our house in Castro Valley and moved north to the farmhouse in which my dad had grown up. It had fallen into disrepair, having lain vacant for the better part of 15 years.
But you could tell by looking at my parents, dressed the way they were--traces of dirt under their fingernails, smiles that rested so easily upon their faces--that they were content in their relative poverty. Thoreau's admonition to a hectic, overworked society to "simplify, simplify" found a receptive home in my parents' hearts. A big day for them now was chopping down trees for firewood or setting traps for mice and rats and other vermin.
The drive home started out well. Mom told me about the trip to Reno, Nevada that she and Dad had taken the previous month and how she had won 200 bucks on the slot machines. Dad described his routine of walking into town twice a day to get the mail and stopping at the Sportsman Bar and Grill for steak and beer with his old grade school pals who had never left the little town. I felt very close to my parents that evening--sitting in the back seat of their mud-caked '78 Cutlass, listening to them go on about their new life, and watching the sun set behind purple hills. It was all so peaceful. Then, as they say, all hell broke loose.
Dad switched the radio on to listen to the 7 o'clock news. Leading off was the ongoing saga of the 53 American hostages held in Iran, and after that came a report on the occupation of Afghanistan by Soviet troops.
I told my parents about the huge rally at my university the previous week during which hundreds of students protested President Carter's reinstatement of the draft, and I criticized Carter's decision to keep the United States out of the 1980 Olympics that summer. I could see Mom's knuckles turn white, her grip on the steering wheel tightening as I spoke. I'm sure she was wondering how far out I was willing to swim in the shark-infested waters of political discussion with my Republican father.
Have you ever been in an argument where you realize immediately that what you're saying is the wrong thing to say but you can't stuff the words back into your mouth? That's what happened to me. I remember saying, in a rather nonchalant sort of way, "Well, Dad, you know, I'm a pacifist. It's against my beliefs to participate in war. I would be a conscientious objector if I were ever drafted." Thud.
Dad turned the radio Off and sat there in complete silence. Uh oh. I began to fill the silence with everything I had learned about Emerson and Thoreau and Gandhi. I expounded on our church's long tradition of nonviolent resistance and pacifism. I even threw in a bunch of talk about saints and Jesus himself, but my dad would hear none of it. His face turned red and his words came out cutting: "You're telling me you would run away, that you would be a coward?" Well, that didn't sit well with me, being my father's son, so I turned it up a notch by calling into question his commitment to Jesus' message of love and reconciliation and forgiveness.
In the end I knew there would be only carnage. I had tapped into some deep vein of patriotism in my father, forgetting that my sophisticated lawyer, city-dwelling dad was first a farm boy schooled in rural, corn-fed values and unquestioning loyalty to flag and country. As my mother put the pedal to the metal, hoping to reach home before our argument deteriorated into blows, Dad turned around to face me. "I'll tell you this," he said. "If you were ever to resist the draft, you would no longer be a son of mine." My response was equally harsh. "Fine," I said, leaning forward till our noses almost touched. "Who needs a father who would so easily disown his own son!" Then I slumped back in my seat, utterly destroyed.
The last five miles were spent in silence. I looked out into the night with tears in my eyes and a knife in my heart. And though I couldn't see my father, I'm sure he was equally devastated. Don't think the irony escaped me, even then, that in my attempt to speak passionately about peace and nonviolence, love and reconciliation, I had entered into a battle with my father that left us both deeply wounded.
My dad and I didn't speak for three days. How do you bridge the deep canyon of hurt that sometimes divides father and son, mother and daughter? Meals were eaten in silence or not at all. Dad spent time at the Sportsman Bar and Grill while I sat at home, bending my mother's ear and resisting her pleading to at least meet Dad halfway. On the evening of the third day, Dad announced that he and I were going to dig a well the next morning. I just shrugged.
We started digging at dawn. First I dug a hole three feet long, three feet wide and three feet deep, laughing with morbid humor at the thought that Dad had cleverly gotten me to dig my own grave. When it passed my father's inspection, we began, with the help of our posthole digger, to dig the actual well. It really is a two-man operation, because after a while you attach more and more poles to the post-hole digger, allowing it to reach deeper into the earth, tapping the deep reservoir of water in the ground. You create such suction digging so deeply that it requires four strong arms to pull the poles out.
By sundown, my father and I had built our 40-foot-deep well. We had made three trips to the hardware store to purchase cement, the well piping, and the pump. We had followed directions meticulously, and by 7 that evening Mom's beautiful front lawn and flowerbeds were being soaked by well water. That night we had steaks for dinner, and the conversation turned to water tables and how easy it was to build a well when you think about it. Politics never came up.
Dad must have caught the home improvement bug that week, because a couple of days later he decided we needed a few more outlets in the house--and by God we didn't need some electrician to come in and do what we could easily do on our own, what with our brains and common sense. We spent the whole day putting in the wiring, having purchased the 150 feet of 220 wiring at the hardware store in town. I spent the afternoon on my back under the house feeding wiring to my dad, who was barking instructions at me from inside the house. We ended up putting new outlets in the kitchen, bedroom, and living room.
At the appointed time, Mom plugged the toaster into the kitchen outlet and the vacuum into the living room outlet. With a flip of the switch the vacuum roared to life, its dim front light shining in sweet victory. Dad and I were like little kids, slapping each other on the shoulder and betraying sheepish grins, not wanting to be too proud of our stunning achievement.
The toaster exploded right about the time the light on the vacuum grew brighter. Mom quickly unplugged the vacuum and retrieved the fire extinguisher to put out the little fire on the kitchen counter. The electrician told us the next day that the house was wired for 110 volts and that Dad and I had pumped in enough electricity to light Wrigley Field. Of course, we were completely crestfallen and defeated, mere shells of our former selves. It took every ounce of energy for my dad to write out the check to the electrician. We spent the rest of the afternoon at the Sportsman, buying each other beers in a dark corner, keeping the story to ourselves.
Later that evening I left for school. Dad drove me to the Greyhound station by himself, after spending 30 minutes in the kitchen making me three roast beef sandwiches for the long trip. We enjoyed each other's company along the way, recounting, with a laugh, how we'd almost burned the farmhouse down, and talking about wells and wiring, life on the farm, and schoolwork.
We arrived at the bus depot just as the sun descended over the hills. We stood before each other, looking at our shoes, hands dug deeply into our pockets. I finally looked up at him and said, "Well, I better be heading out." "Yep," he said, "I guess it's time to go." I reached out to shake his hand, but Dad, with calm and grace, reached out with his arms and hugged me tight and kissed me on the cheek. I don't ever remember my father doing that before, at least since I could walk. I told him I loved him, and he told me he loved me, too; and with the biggest lump I ever had in my throat I climbed onto the bus and waved goodbye.
Dad, dressed in his worn jeans, plaid shirt, and John Deere cap, stood next to his still-caked-in-mud Cutlass. I thanked God the Father that he had seen fit to bring my father and me together again.
The bridge that brought my father and me back together was constructed of simple materials--around 150 feet of electrical wiring, 40 feet of plastic pipe, a few roast beef sandwiches, and a kiss on the cheek.
These human constructions are essentially prayer. They speak to God of pain and shame and hurt, and of hope and healing and peace and forgiveness. That kiss was one of the most powerful prayers my father ever prayed. Being held by my father and feeling that kiss, I wasn't sure if there was anything sweeter in life. It was homecoming for both of us. I who bore my father's name was his son after all and would always be. And he would always be my father.
That's the way it is with God--stopping at nothing to heal whatever wound we may be nursing, secretly or otherwise. The road back to God, much like California Highway 39 that my father and I traveled together, is always paved with mercy. Despite how long the road seems at times, in the end it always brings us home.
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|Date:||Apr 1, 2006|
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