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Reflections on Fatherhood: ‘There Is Hope For Healing’

In the absence of my father, I have longed at times in my life for affirmation, for the steadying hand on the shoulder; for the paternal love that is reassuring, establishing, uplifting, grounding, life-giving—only to find none. Its deficit in my upbringing was devastating.

I am the son of mostly de facto fathering, of the pieces and particles that fell from the cloaks of men who filed past my life, men whose paths crossed with mine or with whom I walked for a time.

But I cannot say with certainty whether it was the case that those men closest to me would not or could not promote me, or whether they never fully embraced or fully esteemed me, at those particular times in my life. What I can say and what I do know is that as a result, for so much of my life, I felt fatherless.

Strangely, perhaps—and at least certainly this was unexpected—I eventually found solace and healing in my reflections as an adult upon the frailties of all fathers, including my own frailties as a man; in the forgiving of those men whom I deem to have in ways failed me; and also in my own journey of fatherhood and my willingness to provide paternal nurturing and substance to my own children and even those who are the seed of other men.

John Fountain holding his daughter, Imani

I have found strength and a measure of healing in my earnest desire to be a better father and a better man than my own natural father, and to learn as I travel this course from the mistakes of others and those that I have made myself.

I published my book, “Dear Dad: Reflections on Fatherhood” in 2010 in hopes of offering not so much a blueprint for fatherhood as testimonies of other writers who have found healing, reconciliation and hope from their journeys as sons and daughters of men who succeeded as fathers or failed, some of them wholesale abandoning fatherhood. My book incubated during years of hurt and eventual healing from the paternal desertion I experienced in my own life.

It was, in fact, an essay I wrote in 2004 for National Public Radio’s, “This I Believe” series about the absence of my father and what “saved” me, and ultimately the responses that subsequently poured in from around the country from people of all walks of life that led me to consider writing more on the subject. That essay appears in Dear Dad, which will be republished in a forthcoming paperback edition along with a few new voices, among them Kevin Sconiers whom I have known since childhood. Kevin’s memorable and stirring essay on reconciliation and a son’s enduring love for a father also appears as an addendum to this column.

Fatherhood, for me, has not been easy. Parenting never is. And whether I have been a good father ultimately is not for me to say. For as fathers, we are not the best or most crucial assessors of how well we have kept the unspoken charge we owe to our children.

This much, however, I think, every father, at the end of the day, should be able to say: That I have done all I know as a father. That I have endeavored to do better when I have come into that knowledge. That my mistakes are never an excuse. And that I have exhaustedly poured my heart, mind, and soul into loving and caring for my children—in my case, five, all of them now grown.

As fathers, we must learn to say, “I’m sorry.” To seek forgiveness, and yet to try from the start to avoid those regrettable, hard-to-forgive, and egregious inflictions that can so indelibly stain our children. And we must forgive ourselves, though the prospect of forgiveness and the miracle of grace must never abdicate personal responsibility.

A call to responsible fatherhood without condemnation is what is needed to redeem those men who have vacated their vocation as their children’s paternal guide, to help restore those fathers who have failed or fallen down on the job. A celebration of fatherhood and unbridled praise of those men who, though less than perfect, embrace their role as fathers, is also what is needed—for our posterity and the restoration of the institution to its rightful place as being among the most sacred of life’s callings.

This is my hope. My prayer.

To all fathers, Happy Father’s Day

Dear Dad

A Song of Reconciliation; A Son’s Enduring Love For A Father

By Kevin Sconiers

I knew this day would change things. I wasn’t sure exactly how. But I knew that things, that life, would be different now. I had decided to bring my 93-year-old father from Enterprise, Alabama, to suburban Chicago to live with me and my wife.

It was a cold wintry Tuesday, on Feb. 9, 2021. It had taken me more than a year to make a final decision on moving my dad in with us. And with good reason: I wasn’t sure that I could handle the responsibility of taking care of him. What if it turned out to be too much? Too taxing? Too problematic? What would I do then?

I didn’t have the answers. But I decided to get on the airplane to bring my father home. Perhaps somewhere in the deep recesses of my heart and soul, I also hoped for reconciliation between us, for some measure of healing with the man I have always loved and longed for.

Of this I was aware, even as I boarded the Southwest Airlines jet to pick up my dad: That life and Father Time, unresolved hurts and unanswered questions too often undermine the possibility of resolutions and reconnections between fathers and sons (and daughters) before death buries those hopes in the grave. My father and I at least still had hope.

William Sconiers

My father, William Sconiers, had begun showing signs of dementia. As his condition worsened, he began needing assistance doing even the simplest kinds of things that come natural to a man: bathing, shaving, and getting himself dressed. His ability to walk had diminished. He needed help simply getting around.

I understood that meeting my father’s daily needs would be challenging. But my greatest challenge was managing my own feelings. My relationship with my father has never been easy. I was rebellious as a child. He was always emotionally unsupportive, physically present but absent. I was angry. He seemed indifferent. I wanted his advice. But for much of my life growing up, he never gave it. Amid his disengagement, I had to figure things out for myself.

Eight months shy of my 20th birthday, I became a father. Even now, 40 years later, I still remember the fear I felt upon my induction into fatherhood, the deep sense of inadequacy I could not escape. My son’s mother and I both had a great support system, and both of our families helped us in every way imaginable. Our mothers were simply extraordinary. Without them, we might have failed miserably.

My father, on the other hand, never even initiated a conversation about me having become a father. It was almost as if he didn’t get the memo. Or maybe it was the case that he just didn’t know what to say. Maybe he was disappointed in me. I don’t know. I cannot say for sure. I do know that I desperately wanted my father to tell me something, to say something, anything. Instead he said nothing.

At The Root: Rejection

My relationship with my father was shaped by my feeling rejected. I am 60 now. When I was a child, perhaps about 8 years old, I bought him a gift. I don’t remember the occasion, whether it was Father’s Day or his birthday. But I remember being excited to give him the gift.

I hoped he would open it and say or show how much it meant to him. I waited but he didn’t open it—at least not while I was there. I can no longer remember what the gift was. But I will never forget the stinging sense of disappointment I could still feel in my heart many years later. There were other interactions that widened the gap between us. I later came to realize, however, that I was, in some ways, just as responsible for our divide as father and son.

Once, when I was a teenager, my father told me to shovel snow from the front porch of our home and the walkways. I was on my high school’s basketball team at the time and wanted to go to a practice scheduled that day. I told him that I’d get it done when I returned from practice. But my father was having none of it and insisted that I remove the snow immediately. I had decided to disrespectfully test my father’s resolve and lost. I shoveled the snow and missed basketball practice. That incident was defining: the snow and cold perhaps a metaphor for our icy divide as father and son.

Now, many years and a lifetime later, he was moving in with me, with us.

My father and I hadn’t lived in the same house in well over 30 years, and in the intervening years we rarely even spoke. Whenever we did, our conversations always felt awkward, as if we were trying to find words that had not yet been invented. There was no animosity between us. Just the sort of disconnection that some fathers and sons experience on the path of life in which misunderstandings, hurts and bittersweet times can drive an eternal wedge between them.

I moved my father in. At first, we struggled, the contrast in our lifestyles glaring. My father was accustomed to staying up late at night. We, however, rarely stayed up much past 10. I tried to make his meals healthier. He wanted nothing to do with that. Once, he disagreed with something I wanted him to do. He decided he had had enough of me bossing him and insisted I take him to a hotel. I declined, of course. But it truly took everything within me to not accommodate him.

The responsibility of caring for my father was not convenient. My wife and I could no longer do simple things, like traveling on a whim, or simply going on a date without finding someone willing to stay with him while we were gone.

In the midst of the difficulties adjusting to my new life with my father, there were times that I’d thought about all the times I needed advice from him—about sports or music, about being a father—and he was mum. Or the lifetime of events I participated in and he was MIA.

Even into adulthood, I had to navigate those feelings. It was easier to navigate from a distance but now, with him lying in just the other room inside my house, it wasn’t so easy.

Some nights I climbed out of bed to attend to one of his needs, and all the while I felt resentment. It coursed through me with a kind of crippling heaviness that gnawed at my psyche and soul unrelentingly. I knew I needed healing. I needed peace. Reconciliation.

A Song For My Father

I play my piano for my father. His face beams with joy. His lips spread into a smile whenever music wafts through our house, turning back the hands of time, penetrating the wall of his dementia to his heart, mind, and soul. It is part of our father/son ritual months since he moved in. Our conversations began to unfold more easily as we sat in my home, as I shaved him, washed him, played my piano for him.

Despite my earlier resentment, we arrived here at this juncture as father and son, after resolving that I needed to make a conscious decision to be led by empathy rather than by hurt. To love without requirement of recompense, with no regret. To forgive, even if I may never forget.

That journey to healing began by recognizing my own imperfections. As I reflected on the grace that people had extended to me in my darkest moments when I felt the most unworthy. I thought about my own sons and the times that I have certainly disappointed them. I thought about the time I had wasted in my life and about the uncertainty of the time left to us. I thought about my father. I thought long and hard about how much I wanted to have a relationship with him even if I didn’t really know how.

It took some time and patience. But I began to prioritize my father’s needs over my unmet hopes and expectations as a son. Over a lifetime of what-ifs, and over feelings of rejection. It wasn’t easy. But eventually I started to see, to feel, changes in our relationship.

We talked over piano and during the myriad responsibilities of caring for my father. And I began to learn things about him that I didn’t know. I learned how much my father enjoys music, how much it lifts his spirit. Whenever I play songs like Nat “King” Cole’s, “Straighten up and fly right” or Louis Jordan’s “Caldonia,” my dad sings along. One evening, he even asked if he could play the piano. (Keep in mind, the home I grew up in always had a piano, but my father never sat down to play it.) That evening, he played for 30 minutes.

Dad has always loved sports and he can still call balls and strikes with the best of them. His favorite thing is having a good laugh. We laugh a lot now, especially while watching a good movie, or a silly YouTube video, or a joke told by one of my brothers.

My father smiles a lot these days. He is never happier than when his family—me and my wife, my brothers, and his grandchildren are around him. He never really says how much we mean to him. But I know. I see it. I see him. And I know he sees me.

Home Sweet Home

Next month, my father will turn 95. I am grateful that we have a chance to talk and laugh with each other. Things have changed, however. After caring for him for nearly two years as his primary caregiver, I have had to make the decision to place him in a care facility for veterans, where he can best be cared for, having the opportunity to engage with others and receive medical treatment and care.

It was a hard decision because we’ve grown really close. Months earlier, we talked with him about the move and assured him that we would always be available to him. That we would never abandon him. That I will always love him.

My father has since settled into his new surroundings, where they all call him, “Papa.” He and I talk several times every day and I make sure to visit him a couple of times each week. Occasionally, he comes to spend time at home.

During one of his recent visits home we went fishing. It was the first time I had ever gone fishing with my father. It occurred to me that we have come full circle in our relationship. And that the healing process simply needed our permission to begin.

I love you, Dad. Happy Father’s Day.

Your son, Kevin

#JusticeforJelaniDay You may reach Kevin Sconiers at: [email protected]

John W. Fountain
John W. Fountain
Professor of Journalism at Roosevelt University | [email protected] | Website | + posts

John W. Fountain is a professor of journalism at Roosevelt University and a 2021-22 U.S. Fulbright Scholar to Ghana, where he is a visiting lecturer at the University of Ghana-Legon and researching his project titled, “Hear Africa Calling: Portraits of Black Americans Drawn to The Motherland.”

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