Christmas day, 1985 my dad picked my two older sisters and I up in his smoke-filled 1967 Volvo. A car I despised until he upgraded to a 1975 lime pinto with a moldy ceiling, and then I missed it terribly. After a brief tussle over who called “shot-gun” first, the middle sister and I slid into the back seat as the oldest gloated from the deep bucket seat in front. I waved good-bye to my mom who stood on the porch; I was five-years-old and alive with anticipation.
The Volvo rumbled down a gravel road resting under the carport of my dad’s 500 square foot home. I was still small enough then for the house to feel big. As I aged, it shrunk and confined me. My dad remained quiet most of the way. I assumed he just wanted it all to be a surprise; the gifts, the goodies, the entertainment he planned.
What my imagination had envisioned was quickly drowned out by nicotine stained walls and an empty refrigerator. There was no Christmas tree. There would never be a Christmas tree (except for the year that he hung a pine-scented car freshener from the overhead lamp). There were no gifts piled in the corner, no ham simmering in the oven.
In those days my dad was so out of touch with reality that I am not convinced he even knew it was Christmas. He certainly did not understand that Holidays shut down everything. So he loaded my sisters and me back into the Volvo and began to drive the streets of his small town. The roads were empty, the sidewalks clear. An unfamiliar sense of reality settled into the car as my dad smoked more vigorously and mumbled under his breath.
Sheer panic settled in. He had no food, no gifts, and three small girls relying on him. The car eventually sputtered into a Mini Mart with a neon sign blinking “Open.” We piled out and scanned the aisles. The hot bar featured miniature wieners and a small pile of potato jo-jos. My sisters and I tried to make the best of it, filling our arms with snack foods and sodas. My dad paced as his demeanor changed. He spoke frantically about how it was “just all wrong.” I remember crying with hunger when he made me put all the food back. He herded us to the car, only this time we did not fight over the passenger seat.
We returned to the small shack where the oldest settled in the couch, stoic and acting like nothing was out of the ordinary. I fought tears, determined that I may never eat again. The middle who was always resourceful and peace seeking; took to the refrigerator where she found moldy potatoes, stale tortillas, and a block of cheese. Whipping out a knife and pan she prepared a feast of french fries and quesadillas. She made me giggle and forget how awful it all was. My dad could not forget, he huddled in the corner depressed and guilt ridden. By morning he was wound up, driving us to the store and buying everything our hearts desired. Spending money he did not have at a lightning’s pace.
That Christmas is one of my most vivid childhood memories. The middle sister and I laugh about it, my mom fumes at its mentioning (adamant that “if she had only known” . . . ), and the oldest sister denies it ever even happened. For me it was a turning point, though still too young to fully comprehend, I began that day to understand my father’s frailty.
In the year’s that followed my understanding deepened. My sister’s grew weary of him, and had every right to do so. I was declared his favorite, nominated his keeper. I rode the waves of his every mood, the hamster wheel of emotional ups and downs. And through it all, as only a child could, held out hope that someday he would pull it together. He never did.
He missed every violin concert, tennis match, graduation speech. His extreme moods brought chaos to every major event in my life. His skewed reality crashing into my world at the worst possible moments.
Some days I have deep compassion for him. Some days my heart breaks for the darkness of his days. Some days I am angry; I have seen him lucid and acknowledging his need for help, and I will never understand why he did not fight to get better for his children. But there is never a day that I wish I had a father, because I do.
Jim came into my life when I was just three-years-old. For the past 29 years he has filled in the gap left by my father. He suffered through my school choir concerts, drove me and my friends to the movies, gave me money for a prom dress. He has been the support and standard by which my life has run its course.
My father does not know how old my children are, how long my husband and I have been married, how many miles I ran for my 30th birthday. Jim is sitting at this very moment with my son, enjoying his first Globetrotter’s game. He helped my husband lay 1100 feet of flooring, he knows when I am having a bad day just by looking at my face. Jim has given me the memories my father could not.
When Jesus hung on the cross he looked down at His mother and, seeing her sorrow, turned to the the disciple John. “Son behold your mother, mother behold your son.” Jesus knew His death, though filling a void in the heavens, left a gap on earth. He commissioned the disciple whom He loved to fill the gap.
He commissions us to do the same. We are strategically placed by God to stand in the gap; to be the mother to the homesick college student, the friend to the lonely co-worker, the youthful presence to the woman who has lost her son. Christian love is not always about doing, sometimes it is just about being. It requires that we are present in one another’s lives, available with our time, making room in our hearts.
The other day Jim came into my work. Someone called him my dad. “Step-dad,” I corrected. It hurt his feelings. I told him later it was a compliment. He is so much more than my dad. He is a gift from God; given when God saw my sorrow and filled the gap.