The Living Years

It’s Father’s Day in Australia today.

This has become an interesting day for me for at least a couple of reasons: 7 years ago I was told that I would never have children, and yet here I am with two beautiful daughters of my own flesh and blood. 6 years ago my own father passed away.

So, whenever this day rolls around, I am left with a mixture of joy and sadness. I am filled with inexpressible joy as I behold my own kids, and am supremely thankful for this gift of fatherhood that I have been given. I am filled with sadness at the fact that my own father is no longer around, and never got to meet any of his grandkids. I am filled with joy at the fact that I was on good terms with my dad before he died. I am filled with sadness as I reflect on the lost years of estrangement, when I did not realise that dad wouldn’t be around for much longer.

Allen Dowton (My Dad)

I had a difficult relationship with my dad.

Dad walked out on us when I was 11, and it took me a really long time to forgive him for the fact that he left right when I needed him the most. I was just entering that stage of awkwardness – the point where a boy begins to learn what it means to be a man – and it was a time when I really needed him to be around. But he wasn’t. Sure, we saw him a bit for the first few years, but things became difficult after a while and it just began to feel like he wasn’t all that interested in us anymore. It seemed, at least to my young mind, that he had himself a whole new life, and we were a bit of a hangover from his previous one.

By the time I was 15 I was really angry at him (for a number of reasons that I won’t go into here). I was angry at a lot of things, but he was at the top of the list. To cut a long story short, I ended up telling him that I never wanted to see him again, that he was dead to me. He obliged with my request, and I had no contact with him for nearly 5 years after what turned out to be a very emotional phone call.

I’d thought I was fine with this situation, but by the time I was 20 something changed. I had an urge that I can’t really explain, but all I can say is that I was compelled to reconcile with him, not only to forgive him for everything he had done (and not done), but also to ask him to forgive me. This seemed really weird to me, because I felt like he was the one who should be asking – begging(!) – for forgiveness. He was the one who had walked out, after all, so what was I asking for forgiveness for?

In the midst of the weirdness of it all, my gut instinct conflicting with my rationality, I called him up. Not really understanding it, but compelled by the urge nonetheless, I lead off with asking him to forgive me. I told him about all the bitterness I had towards him, and the horrible things I’d said about him, and asked him to forgive me. I felt strongly before the phone call that my own repentance to him couldn’t be conditional on him saying sorry (or any response from him at all), and to be honest I didn’t really expect anything to come from it (except perhaps some feeling of catharsis).*

But something beautiful happened.

After I’d finished my prepared speech, dad opened up, but it was more than could be said on a phone call. So, we arranged to meet up (for the first time in about 6-7 years), and I ended up driving to stay with him for New Year’s Eve in Dubbo (where he was then living after the breakdown of his second marriage).

It was really a special time.

After that point, we set about the hard work of rebuilding a relationship that had been either dying or nearly dead for almost a decade. It wasn’t easy by any means, and I’ve got to say that trying to see this man in the same way that I had as a kid was almost impossible. The relationship had obviously changed, and much water had flowed under the bridge, but we nevertheless sought to forge a new relationship. I even ended up acting as Best Man for his third(!) wedding.

About a year before he died, he introduced me to a song that had been in his heart for years, as he had mourned the loss of, or change in, relationship with all his kids.** This song is a really personal song, speaking into this sort of situation in a way that I have never experienced before, and we couldn’t have known then quite how significant the song would be.

Within a year my dad was dead, and I was left with the song as a timely reminder of what could have been. If I had not felt that overwhelming urge to contact him, or had ignored it, then he would have been dead and gone and all I would’ve had left was the regret of not reconciling with him while we had the time. No one could have known how short the time we had would be, but I’m so thankful that we were able to resurrect that dead relationship before he was gone forever.

And so I want to finish up with the song itself. I don’t know if it will mean anything to you, but I want to offer it anyway. This Father’s Day, if you are estranged from your dad (or any other significant person in your life) for any reason, I ask you to consider the words of the song. I know sometimes things happen so that reconciliation can never truly take place. I know that sometimes there is abuse or other complex considerations that are way deeper than what I can speak to in this post. I understand this. But I also know that so often relationships breakdown because we are blinded by our hurt and pain and just can’t see (or don’t want to see) any possibility of a way forward. Relationships are difficult, and I realise now more than ever that the relationship between parent and child is all sorts of tricky. Children don’t choose their parents, and no parent is truly prepared for the incredible responsibility (and privilege) they hold.

I know that a lot of people have difficult relationships with their dads. I don’t know why it is, but it seems to actually be an epidemic in our society. Would it change at all, though, if we really comprehended the fact that our dads simply won’t be around forever?

The whole song is powerful, but the final verse speaks so loudly to me that it’s hard to hear the words sometimes, knowing what could have been:

I wasn’t there that morning
when my father passed away;
I didn’t get to tell him
all the things I had to say.

I think I caught his spirit
later that same year;
I’m sure I heard his echo
in my baby’s new-born tears.

I just wish I could have told him
in the living years.

I hope you enjoy the song, but I hope even more that it might mean something to you. Reaching back into my last post, my definition of hope is that, while it doesn’t ignore the reality of the situation, it always leaves room for new possibilities. You might think that a relationship has died but, until the people in the relationship die, there is always…hope.

__________

* I’ve read through this section a couple of times, because it kind of makes it sound like I was responsible for coming up with the whole plan. That’s just not how it happened. I don’t really know how to explain it other than saying it was kind of a ‘God’ moment. The whole thing didn’t make any sense to me, and I fought it, but the gut-level compulsion didn’t let up. To use more theological language, I’d say it was a ‘prompting from the Holy Spirit’…but you don’t have to agree with that assessment by any means.

** I’m not trying to speak for my sister and brother and their relationships with dad, but am just expressing what he told me in regards to his feeling that he hadn’t done enough to stay in our lives after the breakdown of his and mum’s marriage.

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Published by

Josh Dowton

Student of history/theology/nonviolence/permaculture/missional thinking. Large of limb, red of hair. Semper in excretia sumus, solum profundum variat.

7 thoughts on “The Living Years”

  1. Thank you for sharing that story with the world JD. It’s funny how people’s real life stories and experiences, often have the most profound ability to impact others. Perhaps it is the ability to relate personably? Either way, that is a beautiful lesson about forgiveness, and the importance of family. I shed a few tears reading that. Oh and that song, it’s one of my favorites. Bless you mate. You can take comfort in the fact that your own kids (perhaps as an indirect or direct result of your own relationship with your dad) the absence of your dad in their lives, as well ad yours, in some way also gave them the wonderful, loving man they have to be thankful for every single day. He has definitely given them (at least) something to be eternally grateful for, and that is a beautiful gift. Paying it forward my man. Changing lives. Stay cool bro. Really great to see you blogging again.

  2. I really like your definition of hope. When you mentioned it here toward the end, it finally clicked for me what it reminded me of:

    Love is not blind – it sees more, not less. But because it sees more, it is willing to see less.

    —Rabbi Julius Gordon.

    Love and Hope: their power is that they are deliberate; their strength is that they’re not blind.

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