On this eve of my 71st birthday, I travel back through the years, wondering what dreams or fears swam through my dear mother’s head and heart as her body prepared to usher me, her second child, into the world from a hospital bed in Orange, California.
I wish I could ask her.
And then, as I sweep nostalgically over the past 7 decades, I consider my three fathers, and how different my life might have been without them.
My First Father
My first father, my biological father, with whom I share both a middle and his last name, taught me practical things like how to drive a car, ride a motorcycle, hunt and work on cars, and most importantly, to love the land.
He was a dreamer, and I inherited his wanderlust, his sense of humor and unfortunately, his blinding temper, among other of undisciplined characteristics. It saddens me to realize I mimicked too many of his selfish actions in my younger years.
Growing up, we lived in constant fear of my father, never knowing when he would come home late at night in a rage, pull us from our beds or spank us for something we did or did not do. I remember several times trembling as he yanked me out of bed late at night and sent me and my siblings out in the shivering darkness in our underwear with flashlights to finish chores he had set for us. I vividly remember one frightening episode when he shouted that he wished we were all in hell. I truly believed he was going to kill us all that night.
As a teenager, I ran away from home several times, once after he chased me with a tire iron, threatening to beat me because I was having fun moving rocks in the creek driveway, something meant to be a punishment. I returned a few days later, after his rage had quieted.
Because of my fear of him, and contempt for the way he treated my mother, I almost killed him after slipping into his bedroom with a loaded pistol while he was sleeping. I pointed the gun at his head. Thankfully, I didn’t pull the trigger.
His example was confusing and often contradictory. He was resourceful, a hard worker, and often helped others in trouble. He taught me many good things. But keeping company with his many good traits, he had a quick and violent temper, and a vengeful spirit.
He believed in ghosts, spirits and flying saucers, and never talked of God, except to curse His name.
I remember as a boy sneaking through a dark night and helping him pour bags of sugar into the gas tank of our neighbor’s tractor because the wealthy and unscrupulous man tried to steal our property. But my dad wasn’t always like that.
In fact, my early years were wonderful, happy times when my father was present, taking me hunting, fishing, and riding motorcycles. We went camping and took family vacations. But through hard financial times and unrealized dreams, a deep bitterness grew to own him. It wasn’t until late in his life, he seemed to have found some peace.
In spite of his sometimes cruel and selfish behaviors, I think he wanted and tried to be a good father. It just felt like he didn’t know how.
He died several years ago at the age of 89.
Though sadly, we were not close much of our lives, we became friends and shared some wonderful times together his last ten years. I told him often how much I loved him, and thanked him for raising me and my siblings in the country, away from the asphalt and noise of the city, where we could run barefoot and learn about nature.
And the man I never heard say he loved me growing up, learned to tell me often he loved me.
My Second Father
In most stories of survival, there is usually at least one person, an unselfish soul who offers hope and keeps us from giving up. For me, he was a beautifully imperfect man named Mason French, an angel sent to me during a lonely and dark time in my young life. Though I have been blessed with several mentors, no man has changed the course of my life more profoundly. For 50 years, he has demonstrated what sacrificial and compassionate love looks like.
I was around 21 when I met Mason, a landscaper and preacher,15 years my elder. My brother Steven was living with the French family at the time. Though he had two sons and two daughters, Mason graciously accepted stray souls in need of a home and guidance, much the way a mother cat accepts stray kittens, feeding and protecting them as her own. I immediately fell in love with this man and his family, and he soon became a second father to me, as he was to my brother Steven.
I was jealous of his children. They had a father who played ball with them, talked with them, worked with them, spoke often about God and took them to church. As the Biblical Timothy was to the apostle Paul, I became Mason’s son in the gospel of Christ.
He taught me what love looked like, while patiently introducing me to the person of Jesus. When he talked about Jesus Christ, it was if he knew Him personally. By example, he showed me the meaning of mercy and forgiveness, for others and myself. In fact, it was through him, my second father, I learned to forgive and love my biological father.
I once watched him forgive and embrace a man who had deeply hurt him and his family.
That man was me.
There is a famous Biblical seen in the book of Luke often titled “The Prodigal Son.” It reads, “ …and he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.
I have been that son more than once, and hope someday to be that father.
But of the many life-gifts he has given me, no gift has been greater than introducing me to my third Father – my real, eternal Father and Creator, of whose offspring I am.
He is a man of great courage and even greater humility. With a quick wit and sense of humor to match, he remains a great storyteller, powerful speaker and patient teacher.
I have met many people who love God, who would surrender their lives if need be. But I don’t know anybody who respects, cherishes or loves the Word of God more deeply than Mason French.
The Bible says of the virtuous woman, that her children will grow up and call her blessed.
So also, will the children of a good man.
My second father, turned 87 earlier this week, and he continues to contribute to the world as a loving father, grandfather and dedicated gospel preacher.
But just as my biological father died a few years ago at 89, I realize if I live long enough, I will have to face losing my second father, too.
A final thought
Some, the lucky ones, are blessed with caring, loving fathers – guideposts who show the best life paths, teaching their children to navigate a sometimes harsh and confusing world.
Others never know their fathers, raised instead by a single mother, a relative or even by strangers.
So, on this night, 71 years after my mother brought me into this world, my heart is filled with love and gratitude for her and the men, like Mason French, who have been a father to me.
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