I believe in God. Not that cosmic, intangible spirit-in-the-sky that Mama told me as a little boy “always was and always will be.” But the God who embraced me when Daddy disappeared from our lives—from my life at age 4—the night police led him away from our front door, down the stairs in handcuffs.
The God who warmed me when we could see our breath inside our freezing apartment, where the gas was disconnected in the dead of another wind-whipped Chicago winter, and there was no food, little hope and no hot water.
The God who held my hand when I witnessed boys in my ‘hood swallowed by the elements, by death and by hopelessness; who claimed me when I felt like “no-man’s son,” amid the absence of any man to wrap his arms around me and tell me, “everything’s going to be OK,” to speak proudly of me, to call me son.
I believe in God, God the Father, embodied in his Son Jesus Christ. The God who allowed me to feel His presence—whether by the warmth that filled my belly like hot chocolate on a cold afternoon, or that voice, whenever I found myself in the tempest of life’s storms, telling me (even when I was told I was “nothing”) that I was something, that I was His, and that even amid the desertion of the man who gave me his name and DNA and little else, I might find in Him sustenance.
I believe in God, the God who I have come to know as father, as.
I always envied boys I saw walking hand-in-hand with their fathers. I thirsted for the conversations fathers and sons have about the birds and the bees, or about nothing at all—simply feeling his breath, heartbeat, presence.
I had been told about my father’s drinking problem and felt more than anyone the void created by his absence: from school assemblies where I received awards, at graduations and church plays and at all of those irredeemable moments that occur in a little boy’s life.
Still, it mattered not that Daddy was “no good,” as I was told, nor that the physical portrait of him that had once existed in my mind by my teenage years had long faded. What mattered was that he was my dad. And I was his son.
That fact alone drew me to him. It also made paternal rejection my cross to bear.
As a boy, I used to sit on the front porch of our apartment, watching the cars roll by, imagining that eventually one day, one would park and the man getting out would be my daddy. But it never happened.
When I was 18, I could find no tears that Alabama winter’s evening in January 1979, as I stood in a small church finally face to face with my father, lying cold in a casket, his eyes sealed, his heart no longer beating, his breath forever stilled.
Killed in a car accident, John Fountain Sr. died drunk, leaving me hobbled by the sorrow of years of fatherlessness.
By then it had been years since Mama had summoned the police to our apartment, fearing that Daddy might hurt her—hit her—again. Finally, his alcoholism consumed what good there was of him until it swallowed him whole.
I had not been able to cry at his funeral. But sixteen years later, standing over my father’s unmarked grave for a long overdue conversation, my tears flowed. They flowed freely as I began to have that talk that I had always dreamed of having someday with my father.
Much of what I said at the gravesite that day remains a blur, though I do recall telling him who I was, telling him about the man I had become. I told him about how much I wished he had been in my life. But it was only those words that I found most liberating that I clearly remember saying:
“I love you, Dad,” I said, wiping away tears, “and I forgive you.”
With that said, I climbed into my car and drove out of Long Corner Cemetery, away from Evergreen, Alabama, away from death and back toward life. And I realized fully that in his absence, I had found another. Or that He—God, the Father, God, my Father—had found me.
This post is an excerpt from Dear Dad: Reflections on Fatherhood. For more information, visit WestSide Press Books.
I’d Rather Have You
By John W. Fountain
I’d rather have your breath
Have your touch
Just one day.
Rather see your face
Again and again with my eyes
Than imagine in my mind.
Rather have you here
Than have to seek to find.
Rather know your foibles
And love you in spite.
Never have to imagine with all my might.
I’d rather know your imperfections
Than be left with my own reflections of the man
I can’t see
And each September forget which day
Was the day you were born.
Instead I mourn
The man I never knew.
How much I’d give
How much I’d do
Just once to hear you
Just once to see you
Just once to be with you
To walk again hand in hand
To know and touch the man
Who is my father.
This poem is an excerpt from Dear Dad: Reflections on Fatherhood by John W. Fountain.