Haunted By His Absence

Sep 07, 2006 |Thabiti Anyabwile

All his father left him was his razor and shaving brush. And an emptiness that endures decades later.

I feel the absence of my father in the most mundane moments.... Like the times when I need to shave in order to look presentable for some outing, only to realize I don't know how to shave. I've never learned. Before the fuzz on my face could properly be called stubble, my father had already been gone four or five years.

The irony is that the two personal items he left behind were his razor and his shaving brush, retired in a casual lean in his green shaving cup. I saw those items daily for several years after my father left. The fragrance from his shaving cream had long since evaporated, but the tools for a manly polished appearance were still there reminding me that he wasn't.

Growing up without my dad didn't seem all that difficult at first. Living in small town North Carolina, I would still see him from time to time. On those occasions he would give me some spending money and ask if I was doing well.

When I didn't see him, I'd sometimes get "updates" on his whereabouts from my older siblings or from friends who thought I'd be interested to know. Truth was, I knew where he was and what he was doing. The entire town did. And I assume they talked about it. But we rarely did in my home. No one brought it up all that much.

Dailyness took over and life went on.

A One-Woman Boy

Perhaps the first hint that something was missing came when I really grew interested in girls. I was odd for my age. As a middle schooler, though the predominant social message and expectation was "play the field," especially for us budding athletes, I wanted desperately to be a "one-woman man." I didn't know why, but I felt the desire so urgently that I think I scared a lot of nearly-pubescent girls away. Too serious way too soon.

Looking back, I tend to think that my "one-woman man" desire sprouted from the knowledge that my father and mother never married and the knowledge that he was habitually unfaithful to my mother. I witnessed the pain my mother sometimes tried to hide, and I saw the resentment welling up in the faces of my siblings, who had a different father and were old enough to understand the weight of things.

At some point, I vowed that I did not want to be like my father. I did not want another mother's face to show that kind of pain. And, on some level, I began to resent my father.

Teenagers Perish for Lack of Knowledge

The second clue that something was missing came while in high school. I noticed in my best friend's relationship with his father a camaraderie I never knew. It was not simply that this dad showed up for football and basketball games, or that he gave my friend an allowance. And it wasn't that his father was married to his mother and that they all lived together; he wasn't and they didn't. What I noticed was that they were not exactly peers, but they shared in life so profoundly that it created a longing in me.

The fathers of two friends adopted me as their "son." They looked after me, encouraged me, and challenged me in some important ways. But neither man was my father. Neither was available whenever I needed them, and neither could be consulted in the most intimate of matters. So, I spent much of my adolescence making my own rules, seeking my own way, and consequently hurting a lot of people.

There were the loyalties I broke, the girls I defrauded, and the responsibilities I neglected. I betrayed a friend by sleeping with his girlfriend. An aborted child could have been mine; I didn't ask. And by the time I was a junior in high school, I was arrested for stealing; at the time, I had a pocket full of money earned at my summer job.

You could say I was arrested for being stupid. More precisely, though, my sins were maturing and controlling my life.

Had my father been there, perhaps I would have had someone to correct me, instruct me, to hold me responsible, and failing all that kick my butt when necessary. At the least, I think I would have had someone to talk to, to ask questions of, and to share in life.

The Lingering Effects of Father Absence

In an interesting sort of way, life after dad has been an attempt of sorts to escape the effects of not having a father around. Father absence has a very real and lingering presence in a boy's life. You're haunted by the absence, and all you want to do is escape the dark void that's always there.

There are the subtle adult reminders of father absence. How does one muster a decent shoe shine or tie a nice Windsor? I spend a considerable amount of time in suits, so these become tiny ever-present reminders of having grown up without a father. There are the mornings when I feel unpresentable because I need a shave and can't. These are the moments that surprise me and bring me to tears. There's so much I don't know because I didn't know my father as a boy should.

I'm all grown up with a wife of 15 years, two wonderful daughters, and a child on the way. I'm humbled by two things: how generously the Lord has been to me in my wife and children, and how little I know about being a man, husband and father.

I am acutely aware that not having a father active in my life left me without a model to observe, to learn from, to sometimes imitate and sometimes knowingly adapt. I can't fathom how much I don't know. The car or the home needs a repair; I don't know where to begin or how to be sure the mechanic or plumber isn't pulling a fast one. More importantly, I don't always quite know how to engage the repairman as a man in an assertive, confident way. Alpha male games are sometimes bewildering. I'm prone to either under- or over-react. I usually over-react; my earliest and most formative models have been buddies from the pool hall or images of black males from entertainment and sports. That's not helpful if godly maturity is what you desire.

Then there is the constant battle with trust. I don't trust myself to be the one-woman man I've longed to be since childhood. I'm terribly afraid that I will fail and my wife will wear my mother's look of rejection and pain. I'm afraid that this is the one area of life where I will turn into my father. If you've never benefited from a model of trusting love, how do you cultivate and protect such love?

I borrow from the good model that my father-in-law provided, but there is that nagging suspicion I'm missing something. And there are the times when that nagging is a missing someone whose absence I feel even when it comes to cherishing my wife.

The Loving Father Who Is Always There

About 12 years ago, the Lord in His sovereign mercy saved this virtually orphaned child and adopted me as His own. I cherish this truth, even though it's not always easy to grasp. God reveals himself as a Father who never leaves nor forsakes us. My response to this truth vacillates between relief and joy on the one hand, to doubt and insecurity on the other.

Christian clichés and knee-jerk assurances are not always helpful. I have to fight for this truth, for joy in the knowledge of God, and to avoid projecting my earthly father onto my heavenly Father.

I suspect I'm not alone in this. The 70 percent of African-American children born without the benefit of both a mother and father committed to one another in marriage also fight to shave off the haunting effects of growing up without dad. I pray that they too will know a special measure of grace from that Father Who never fails.

In my years of walking with the Lord, I've learned a lot. My heavenly Father has taught me lessons that my earthly father did not. I've seen how my heavenly Father gave His only begotten Son to die for those who turn away from their sins and turn toward Him in faith, and now I trust I am less selfish than I otherwise would have been. I've experienced the correction of my heavenly Father, and now I trust I am more righteous and peaceful through His correction than I was during those rogue youth years. And my heavenly Father who promises never to leave me has taught me to persevere with my wife and my children. I'm a pastor now, and I trust the Father has called me to worship Him in spirit and truth, despite the fact that the first time I saw my earthly father in a church was at his funeral.

I'm learning and I'm growing. With each year, I am by the Father's grace less haunted and more liberated from that terrible absence. I'm thankful for the good healing the Lord has and is doing in my life.

If only I could find someone to teach me to shave.... But then again, I do still wish to remember my father.

Copyright 2006 Thabiti M. Anyabwile. All rights reserved.

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