Don’t Make Me Take Your Place, Dad

About 51 years ago, my father sat me down on the steps leading to my grandmother's basement apartment for a “little talk.” The details of the conversation are not as clear now but the feelings, even half a century later, come rushing back and threaten to suffocate me when I think about it.

Several weeks earlier, my sister and I moved into town from the cattle ranch where we had grown up in Nebraska. Since we had arrived, my parents had traveled to Kansas and Colorado most weeks, checking out larger cities that might make a good home for us.

Even though it was a sad time for my sister and me — we had to leave the country home we had always known and loved, where we’d run free and lived the life of country kids — I began to embrace the adventure. I didn't know for sure what city life would be like, but it might just be a fun, new experience. I had already found out that roller skates glided a lot better on town sidewalks than on our country gravel driveway. Also, getting to be with our maternal grandmother each day and night was a special time for us, especially when our parents were away.

When my dad called me for the fateful talk on that sunny, spring day, I didn't know what to expect. Perhaps it would be the decision we kids had been waiting for regarding where our new home would be. Or maybe I was in trouble for something. Daddy seemed pretty serious.

He said we were going to stay in my grandmother's small town. We were leaving the ranch for good. Though it made me sad, it also felt like an adventure... until he dropped the bomb that exploded my young world. My dad wasn't staying with us! He was going away, and my parents were splitting up. It was totally unexpected and it shook my very core.

He could abandon his responsibilities, but he had no right to hand them over to me!

As I was still reeling over the fact my dad, the man of our family, was abandoning us, he dropped the second bomb that has made me among the walking wounded to this day. He expected his "little man" to step up, step in, and become the new man of the family. I can’t recall the exact words he used to communicate this expectation to me, but I will never forget the soul-shattering fear that overwhelmed me at that moment.

And not only did paralyzing fear rise in me, but anger and rebellion began to flood my young heart, too. Welling up in me was a rejection to his charge — a cry of "foul" from my small boy's soul. It wasn't fair! It wasn't my job! It wasn't right to ask me to do it!

I resolved, that very moment, that I wasn't going to do it. He could abandon his responsibilities, but he had no right to hand them over to me!

Sometimes, as I think back, I wonder why I didn't embrace the challenge, despite my fears. After all, there are plenty of stories about boys whose fathers went off to war, or even passed away, and they were somehow able to man up and take care of their mothers and younger siblings. What was wrong with me? Was I just weak?

Looking back now, I don't think so. Those boys were raised by their fathers to become men someday. When the challenge came, as frightening as it might have been, they were in some sense ready. My father had always been distant, impatient, and unsure of his own manhood. He did not prepare me, and I felt the vacuum. He taught me to run, just like I thought he was doing.

Is there hope for a run-and-hide guy like me?

And inside, I did run. This decision affected my ability to develop close friendships, and it also affected my ability to experience loving relationships. Inwardly I wanted to be a real man and a warrior — someone who could be depended upon. But as I would face difficult challenges, especially in intimate relationships, my go-to mode of operation was usually to become part of the wallpaper pattern — to be as inconspicuous as possible.

This inability to stand up and man up when my wife really needed to depend on me became a hurtful pattern that we are still healing from to this day.

Is there hope for a run-and-hide guy like me? Yes, I must say there is, but change comes slowly and painfully. It means facing my fears every day and choosing to walk through them instead of fleeing. After 50 years of running and hiding, this has not been easy.

How grateful I am for friends and family who have understood my weaknesses, accepted my apologies, and stood beside me through the slow process of healing. Now, more often than not, I do feel like a man — but it has taken decades to reach this point and much grace from those who love me.

Are you dealing with some of the issues that come from growing up in a broken family? There is hope for you. It may take time, but we have mentors who are willing to listen and to help you start down that road to healing. Just fill out the form below and you'll hear back soon.

Photo Credit: Chris Benson