Shouting at an Empty Chair, Father’s day 2015

Tyrone presented the family’s new puppy in for his first exam yesterday, and brought along his son, “To meet me.”  I was taken back by this comment, and quickly replied that I was so glad that he had, and then I said something about how I was sure he was glad school was out for the summer.  I asked if they had plans for the summer, and Andrew, reaching his hand out for me to shake it, said, “Yes sir, I’m working as a camp counselor at Wadeview Park.”

“Really?” I said, “That’s fantastic.  What a great summer job!  What kind of a counselor? Will you be teaching, like arts and crafts, or more like a coach, supervising athletics?”

Andrew, who looked to be about 15, respectfully looked me directly in the eye, and said he’d be willing to do whatever they needed, working with the underprivileged kids there. I looked over at his dad, and I said, “Good job, what a great person you’ve raised.”

Tyrone agreed, “He is a really good kid,” but shook his head, claiming none of the credit.  But I knew better.  If nothing else, he had been present for the boy, and done his best to be a really good man.

What makes some fathers step up and be “Dad,” and others walk away or stay around, but not really be “present,” is such an important question.  What, in fact, is a “good father?”

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Do you have to be perfect, never letting your shield down to reveal your human-ness?  Should you lay down the law, and be the disciplinarian (because you used to be so wild and get into so much trouble).  Or should you strive to be their best friend, letting them drink beer and smoke weed, high five-ing over last night’s “conquest,” and providing the latest and greatest toys?

I’ve seen both extremes.  I’ve been both extremes.  OK, not really so much the last one, although at some level, I really wish I could have been “closer” as a friend to all five of my kids.  But we don’t get any do-overs.  A priest at Whitehouse retreat in St. Louis once told me:

We are (and more specifically, that I am) much too hard on ourselves.  “The world only has one Messiah, and you (thankfully and most assuredly) are not Him.  You are not perfect.  You are the way God made you – imperfect, but with the heartfelt longing to be as good as you can.  And that’s good. But you can’t go back and do things differently, with all your new-found wisdom.  Didn’t you always act out of love?  Didn’t you always do what you thought was the best at that time?”

“Yeah, but…”

Yeah but nothing.  By continuing to add that qualifier, Yeah, but…, you deny that Jesus is the Messiah, the Redeemer, the one who makes all things new again.  We must strive to accept Him as our redeemer, and allow ourselves to be human.  You are how you are, and its so much better to accept that.  We are called to always strive to be better, even perfect, and we must try, day after day.  But we’ll never be perfect.  Not on this Earth.

You are made of blood and bones, breath and vapor.  You are the product of the genetics He orchestrated, and that imperfect nurturing from your parents, or lack of them.  Let Jesus carry the cross, you have plenty of other things to do.  As the song goes, “He is God, and you are not.”

A lifetime ago, I was doing everything I could possibly do to save my first marriage.  So in our first session with the marriage counselor, I proudly puffed out my chest and said I’d do anything to save the marriage, that divorce absolutely, positively was not an option.  Less than two months later, he was just as positive that it was the only option.  But we should continue on, to counsel with him, so we could be “better,” and so that we’d not keep “making the same mistakes” (presumably in our next attempts at a relationship).

And so, right out of his Gestalt theory textbook, the family therapist (sic) had me pacing around the psychologist’s office, shouting at my father, “seated” in the empty chair “What I really felt! What I needed so badly to tell him!”  When I couldn’t come up with enough garbage to dump on him, I was goaded and prodded, “Tell him about all those little league games, band concerts, award presentations, and wrestling matches! Tell him he should have been there!”  I continued to pace in silence.  “But shouldn’t I be shouting at his father?”

He looked at me like a deer in the headlights, “You’re enabling him, you’re giving him excuses, he wasn’t present!”

“Can’t I just forgive him?”

Fritz and Laura Perls' Gestalt Theory

Fritz and Laura Perls’ Gestalt Theory

“This will help you do that, you’ve got to put the blame on him!”

“But it’s not his fault.  I think he did the best he could do.”

I don’t think I went back to Dr. Tony after that session.

And so this father’s day I had much to reflect on.  And even more to let go of.  If I can let the old man off the hook, shouldn’t I do the same for myself?  It was a chair I’d sit in too soon myself.

Cullen's Empty Chair

Florida State University graduation, 2012

There are consequences to sins, and since we are social creatures, such consequences often impact others, including within the family and subsequent generations.  I think this is called Generational Sin.  The concept, I’d suppose originated with the “original Adam,” whose act of rebellion and disobedience resulted in our sinful nature, not coincidentally coined “original sin.”

Regardless of whether or not you buy into the whole Christian creation story, it’s a striking allegory.  Clearly, something happened along the lines of (I’d maintain, “designed”) human evolution and development where we as a species developed a sinful nature.  As a reasonably intelligent science based professional, I know of no other “creation” with the the willingness, or even the ability to choose to do evil.  And somewhere, somehow, we made the first act of defiance; Our greatest gift became our greatest curse.  Free will spawned original sin.

But God does not hold children, or present generations, morally responsible for the sins of their parents and ancestors. This is clearly laid out in Holy Scripture when the Israelites were blaming their troubles on the sins of their forefathers (see Jer 23:5-6, and Ez, 18:1-4).

Indeed, we need to look into our own hearts and repent so that we can find (and give) our own forgiveness and healing. God is surely not so unjust as to force children to “pay” in justice for the sins of others.

On the other hand, it is also true to say that the sins of our ancestors — right back to those “first parents,” do affect our lives today and leave us inheriting some pretty heavy baggage to carry around. With each passing day and event, I’m more convinced that we are connected by that “red thread,” or what ever you would call Providence, so that we can and do suffer both spiritually and bodily from the sins of others. We may think this unfair, but remember that the interdependence of the human race is also the source of most of our highest blessings, for example, the solidarity and intimacy of family life and the communion of love with all of us as brothers and sisters.

To make such supreme blessings possible to creatures with free will like us, our creator also had to permit us to misuse that freedom and interdependence, with all its tragic results.

This “interdependence” of the human race also means that the sins of ancestors and parents can affect us in other, more subtle ways. For example, some destructive conditions (such as alcoholism, depression, and hair-trigger tempers) can be passed down to us by genetic inheritance.

Moreover, the problems of our immediate parents and grandparents can be passed down to us in other ways, too.  If they set a bad moral examples for us as, sadly, people tend to do from generation to generation, or if they abused us or failed to give us the love we needed when we are growing up. In such instances, we can become “saddled” with emotional and developmental scars.

For instance, if we weren’t given the love we needed as children, we may spend our lives struggling to learn how to love others and ourselves. This does not make them fully “responsible” for our sins and all our problems today, of course, and we have the responsibility to take action to find healing for these generational wounds ourselves.

Furthermore, in a concept known as transference, we tend to see God the father much as we have had that model of fatherhood displayed by our own father.  If our’s was not forgiving, compassionate, and capable of unconditional love, it is extremely difficult to understand that our heavenly Father could behave in ways like this.  And how could we believe selflessness and unconditional love even exist, if we reject that Jesus came to show us that very thing?  St. Paul says Jesus brought this undeserved grace to the world as the “second Adam.” (Romans 5:12-21).

We did nothing prior to our conception to warrant or deserve original sin.  Likewise, Christians believe we do nothing to “deserve” this Grace that Jesus brings.  But we must accept it, we must open the door He’s been pounding on.  We must forgive, and accept His forgiveness, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  Jesus the Christ came and suffered to show us how to love, what unconditional, undeserved love is.  When people fail to fully receive that gift from Him, through repentance and faith — i.e., if their contrition for sin and love for God was “half-hearted” in this life — then they remain in partial debt to God (still owing for, in theological jargon, “the temporal aspect of sin”).

Jersus at door 3

In His parable of the prodigal son, Jesus used the image of a family to teach us God’s love.  The “younger son” could not wait – and in demanding his inheritance, he effectively wished for a dead father, or at a minimum, felt that he was “dead to him.”  The only way for the father to allow his son to really learn to love was to allow him that free choice.  We all know how it ends, with the father’s unconditional love allowing the prodigal to return, but we often miss two points.

Is the father angry only grudgingly allowing this man to return?  No! In fact, from what Jesus describes, this father daily peers into the horizon, hoping to get a glimpse of his returning son! After all, he still loves his son!  In tears, he runs to welcome him home!

Although we play both of these character roles during our respective lives, it’s a harder concept for us to accept that more often than not we’re the other son, the good child.  Too many times, I shout up at Him, “You’re not being fair! I do what you ask of me.  I go to church.  I believe in you. I play by the rules!  And yet you allow this to happen to me? Yet I look around at other “prodigals” (from outward appearances) who have so much success and happiness.  Ouch.  The mirror is seldom a pain-free zone.

I was blessed to have a wonderful father. He was not perfect. He had his many faults. He didn’t lose his temper often, but when he did, I was sad and sometimes afraid and, now looking back, very disappointed, because I wanted our home to be “perfect.” Of course, it couldn’t be. But I knew absolutely, without a doubt, that my father loved me, and that he loved my children, and we were all blessed that he could show my oldest three just how much he loved them.

Jean M. Klein and my three oldest children

Jean M. Klein and my three oldest children

What is your story? Many of you have the vocation of fatherhood. Do unresolved issues with your own father or mother hinder your acceptance of God’s unconditional love? Do they cause you to have a negative relationship with your children? Do not let these keep you from experiencing the Father’s ever-faithful love.

Perhaps some among us desire to reconcile with our earthly father. We will need God’s grace either to ask our father to forgive us or to tell him that he is forgiven. If our fathers are already deceased, we can still do this, with or without the empty chair.

The prodigal son believes that his father will take him back, even if just as a lowly hired hand. Jesus paints a brighter picture: The father loves so much that he puts a ring on the son’s finger and kills the fatted calf.

We must believe that Our Father in heaven will do the same for us if only we go back to Our Loving Father. Pope Francis keeps reminding us: “God never tires of forgiving; we are the ones who tire of seeking His mercy” (cf. “Joy of the Gospel,” No.3).

The elder brother stands in the shadows with resentment and judgment, perpetuating his own cycle. But Michelangelo paints it so very clearly: We see how the cycle is broken: The prodigal son is on his knees, asking for forgiveness. We break the cycle on our knees.

Return of the Prodigal Son by Michaelangelo

Return of the Prodigal Son by Michelangelo

After all, we cannot help our sons become the men they need to be until we allow ourselves to return to the Father. We cannot help our daughters become the women they need to be until we enter into the kind of relationship which Jesus invites us to experience. Husbands here today cannot be the husbands they need to be if they are not coming before the Father like the prodigal son.

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Shared Birthday “A Parent’s Coming Out”

My birthday was actually in August and that was the date I had wanted to post here for the first time since walking the Camino de Santiago, but the emotional energy required just seemed elusive.

I’ve tried several times, but I seem to sit and stare at the keyboard, and type, and delete, and copy and paste, and delete, and stare, and just find myself not at all sure where to start, and what to feel comfortable sharing.  It’s been 3 months since I opened up on any of my blogs, and my shield must be back up and trying to protect my “me.”  I got up from my session, and exited without saving anything.

Finally, on my 90 minute drive to work yesterday I had my epiphany.  I got my introductory thoughts, my segue to what I really feel like I need to say out loud.

It’s funny how our childhood events stay with us over the years.  I’m over 50 and I still am moved by some of these experiences; many make me cringe.

I was never particularly athletic as a kid.  So (unless “captains” were best friends), yes I was typically picked last for sandlot baseball, football, basketball, and even pretty awful trying to do stuff like waterski or fish.  I didn’t know crap about how to do these things, I just hadn’t been taught.  My big brothers were much older and weren’t around much, nor was my dad. In fact, modern psychology would likely blame these experiences and their consequences on their father, or on his absence.  I suppose I should cross-post this to my blog involving him, and how the marriage counselor (who I saw as I desperately attempted to salvage my first marriage) had blamed all my faults and flaws on the absence of Jean Klein.  Not that I didn’t try.  I remember vividly climbing up in his lap to pretend I cared about Cardinal baseball or his one TV show, “Combat,” a 60’s series about life in the trenches during the battles of WWII.

We don’t usually see ourselves as others do, especially during childhood and adolescence, so I’m not sure if I was just a little guy and not very macho, or if I truly was the sissy that Paul Sherman referred to as he tried to beat the crap out of in high school; another time involving Sonny Riley also comes to mind.

The point is not that kids bully, or that I was bullied, but frankly, “Why are kids bullied?”
Today we tend to think bullying always involves a “gay” thing?”  Why else (as if that would have been a legitimate reason) would you pick on someone for being what you thought was a sissy?  Was it just to pick on someone who they perceived as weaker, so they could get away with it, ie. nature’s way to ensure the strength and longevity of the herd, by eliminating the weakest – survival of the fittest?

Or was it even more sinister?  Guess there’s no way to know for sure; I’d guess the perpertrators wouldn’t even know, or even remember that they had committed these horrible “hate” crimes so many years ago.  Probably just “boys being boys.”

I did my best to “push back.”  Although I didn’t even try out for the football team – I was just too tiny, and had no idea whatsoever about the rules or what most of the positions did – I did go out for the wrestling team.  I wasn’t very good here either but at least it was size appropriate.  I worked my butt off, and got into pretty good shape in the weight room, but still just wasn’t very athletic.

Not really sure what it was, but I must have put off some funny vibes too.  I remember getting a series of late night phone calls when I was about 14 from some anonymous boy, who was apparently attracted to me.  I was stunned that he agreed when I called him a queer, and kept prodding me to admit I was too!

Bear in mind that this was a small town in southeast Missouri in the 70s; I didn’t have a “odd uncle Donald,” nor did I even know that “homosexuals” even existed in the real world.  The closest I knew of such things was the reading the headlines of the Sikeston Standard Newspaper (as I rolled them for my paper-route) about a group of “perverted men” that were caught “running around naked at the rodeo grounds.”  I had (have) no idea what that even means – perhaps 2 were caught in the act in a car or the restroom, but it sounded to an eleven year old like a naked free-for-all where they were doing rodeo stuff like riding horses, or bulls, or even playing tag or some other worthy olympic endeavor.  Just wasn’t really sure why they wanted to be naked, or why it was against the law or newsworthy, or what a pervert even was, except something really bad.

Anyway, so this kid kept calling me late at night, and I remember getting really upset, and angry, and disgusted that I would be such a target.  He only stopped calling when I claimed that the police were involved, the phone was tapped, and I only needed to keep him on the line for 6 more seconds.  He never called back.  However, I did find these calls disturbing.  What signals or mannerisms had I been sending out?  I was clearly attrective to him, and never gave it any more thought that he (they?) might think I played for their side!

Clearly not.  I liked girls.  Alot.  Really. Perhaps too much, or perhaps it was normal to have my raging thoughts and fantasies about lots of girls.  I couldn’t even name them all without a yearbook, or a phone book.  Whew, what a relief.  I was normal, not a freak.  Hmmm… freak?  pervert?  queer? – what about – pansy?  sissy?  pussy?   Is this what the “bullies” were thinking?  When people were called these latter things, were they really thinking the former ones?

Have I been holding this crap in since I was getting “unsolicited” calls at age 14?  or since I got hit in the face batting in little league trying to bunt at age 11, or when I was laughed at when I ran onto the sandlot for a weekend 10 year old football game wearing my dad’s vintage helmet from his days?  Did they just think I was an idiot, or did they think I was a lesser “guy” because I didn’t have boy “stuff,” equipment or knowledge.  Was my lack of “skills” because my dad never showed me, or was I really some kind of a “borderline” sissy?

So this has perhaps been my lifelong shield – to overcompensate, to hide my “issues.”  Wow, the shrinks would have a field-day!  Hours spent in the gym, so I could look manly.  Dozens of girlfriends as “conquests,” again, proving what a “man” I was.  An embarrassing, phenomenal amount of alcohol (etc) abuse – was it to numb the confusion and frustration? or to be like my old man, so history could repeat itself, yet another generation?  Hundreds of weekends away, proving what a “great father” I was, at dance, gymnastics, and cheer competitions.  The only thing I’ve proven is that I can be a shitty husband too, since my first attempt resulted in her infidelity after 19 years, and immediate divorce.  I’m apparently pretty forgiving too.

So I’ve now spent a thousand words setting the stage, describing where I came from.  How could this crap really be relevant 40 years later?  Well thirty years ago, I became a father.  Certainly I wasn’t the first man thrust into this role without a guidebook, or even much of a role model.  Some of the finest men, strongest leaders, and successful athletes never even knew their fathers – or knew that they were a bum.  So I really and truly doubt that any of my faults were because my own father didn’t have much of a guidebook either.  His best friend, Mr. Dick Tongate, told us after Dad’s funeral that when they were kids together Papu would berate him and didn’t think he had ever told Daddy that he had done a good job (on anything), ever hugged him, and certainly never that he loved him or was proud of him.  Wow, my brothers and sisters were so moved to learn this.  So, would we kids be expecting too much from the old man?  I should expect him to realize that it was important to teach me how to throw, buy me football gear, take me fishing, watch my band concerts, little league games, wrestling matches, teach me how to tie a tie, jog with me, discuss the Lord with me, talk to me about love and sex, or even explain what was going on in the Cardinal baseball and the Mizzou football games?  To hold me with one hand, even if a Falstaff beer was in the other?  This is rhetorical, of course.

Perhaps Jean Klein really did do the best he could.  He had a rat for a father (had Papu’s father been inattentive and cruel as well?). Dad faced death in Belgium, France, and Germany.  I’m sure he saw (and did) horrible things during that war.  He had come home from that overseas hell addicted to nicotine and alcohol.  Mom told tales of war demons that would haunt him for decades, often through nightmares.  Life was frustrating also – as a farmer, he constantly pleaded for rain, or less rain, or less heat as his crops often failed, and his father berated his efforts for a bountiful harvest.  Yes indeed, Jean M. Klein may well have done the best he was “capable” of.

Anyway so I quickly fathered two daughters, and thought I was a pretty good dad.  Perhaps I was, but it was, in retrospect being a “pretty good mom.”  You see my parental role model was really Mom.  Maureen Blanton Klein was actually a bit of a supermom.  I can deal with that in a different post, but suffice it to say, her’s was really the role I was playing.

But, as I would later say in his funeral eulogy, “Although daughters are wonderful, and mine hung the moon, a man wants a son.”  So twentyone years ago, on my own birthday, I was blessed with William Cullen Klein.  Not only did we share the same first name and birthday, I’d soon find out just how much alike we really were; and how different.

Like me, Cullen had my daddy’s piercing beautiful blue eyes.  He was always so determined – it seemed like he could do almost anything he set his mind to.  Despite the fact that I really (or so I remember) tried to teach him to throw and hit a baseball, and throw and catch a football, or even shoot a basketball, he had about as many athletic gifts as I did.  I took him to Marlin and Dolphin and Cardinal games, and tried to explain the games’ rules to him, but he didn’t really care.  Regardless, he was incredibly intelligent, in the “gifted” program at Gemini Elementary School, honor society, and strait “A”s.  When I overheard a couple of his classmates call him a pussy, i flashedback to my own inner torment.  My beautiful son was me, all over again.  I saw a the proverbial “target” on the back of his head, and had to do something.  I enrolled him in Tae Kwan Do, and even went to classes with him.  He had his second degree black belt in no time, and we even went to the boxing gym together.  My son would NOT be bullied.

Not so deep down, just under the surface, I saw the writing on the wall, and when he didn’t act on the advances of an absolutely beautiful 12 year old neighbor girl, I knew for sure.  Cullen was gay.  It doesn’t take much digging to know that I knew long before then; its likely that’s why I tried so desperately to do those guy things with him.

Was it my trying to protect him from those hurtful words and fists that I had felt 30 years earlier?  Or was i actually continuing to protect myself?  Did those same taunts still keep me up at night? Would this prove them right, what a pussy I really am if I raised a gay son?

So this was my epiphany as I drove home.  Does this explain some of the pieces missing from the puzzle?

Of course I did the typical things all parents do when a child “comes out.”  This will be a later blog post, but here’s a snippet: I grieved the loss of MY OWN dreams – family name would not go forward, no grandchildren, no generational Christmas mornings or Easter egg hunts;  Fear for his physical and mental health and safety; Fear for his soul – as Catholics, we weren’t exactly “bible-thumpers,” but I certainly doubted this was part of God’s plan; We’d never do those things I had so longed to do with my own dad – football games, hunting trips, girl stories, grandchildren on the lap.  Yes, and as I’ve read, those are pretty typical selfish emotions for parents of a gay child.  But for me, there was much more, and I was just beginning to realize it.

So here it is.

To this day I have never posted on FB or even said to my social friends or employees, or even a single person on the Camino the words, “My son is gay.”  Lots of people know, of course, but I have never said the words, except to family and my closest friends.  This, in fact, makes me very, very sad.  I have lost my son and will never again on this Earth hold him in my arms, and yet I’m still too embarrassed to tell people.

I’ve always used the excuse that anyone’s (his) sexuality is a non-relevant detail – like blue eyes, or a big nose, or even whether or not they like asparagus.  These details don’t “define” the person; someone (Cullen) isn’t a “homosexual” or a “gay,”  they are not a noun, they are an adjective.  Instead, someone (Cullen) is a person that happens to be attracted to the same sex, and that’s ONE of many things about him, it certainly doesn’t define him.

That, in fact, is all true.  That’s what I often told him.  He wasn’t a “gay.”  He was a great kid who happened to have SSA, as well as all of his other attributes.  But has this all been a convenient excuse?  My belief set was clear – absolute unconditional love, and this one feature did not define him.  Although he didn’t choose this cross, he could certainly choose how to act.

But really.  Was all this rewording simply an exercise in semantics?  That’s the topic of a future blog.  But my point is, did this re-wording allow me to sweep under the rug this little fact?  When someone asked if he had a “little girlfriend,” I would smile and just say, “No.” Was I also obliged to share that his choice would rather be a “little boyfriend?”

Admittedly, there was a difference between asking Cullen to be discrete and not post “in your face” pictures of Tim and him embracing or kissing when Mom was alive and followed all her children and grandchildren’s every move on facebook.  But those days are past, so what’s my excuse now?

I just don’t know.  Hopefully simply expressing these feelings, and posting them, no longer so anonymously, is a first step.

Dear God, Thank You for this Family

Father’s Day, 2013

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My girls here with me.  We took up an entire row at Mass – the only thing I asked for today.

So much love and support from Sharon, Kayla, Noah, Camille and Emily.  What have I done to deserve this?  I am humbled by my gifts in this life.  I miss my son so much it hurts, but I would be selfish to ask for him back.

I have this warm faith inside that Daddy is with Cullen today, together with Mom; all in our Lord’s embrace, sending out love.  Actually makes me smile.

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I prayed for three things today.

Thanksgiving for all I have.  My family is the personification of Your love, supporting each other every moment.

That my God cradle and hug him, and let him know how much we love him.

For healing, faith, and consolation for my wonderful family.

We are sad for us, but so very hopeful in our faith and love that our God has him in His loving embrace.  This father’s day is so different than last year.

Perhaps it’s the Camino.  Perhaps it’s just time.  Perhaps it’s the Holy Spirit.

Thank you dear Lord for the confidence that my dear son is ok.  And that you allowed me to know him for 19 years. And that you inspired him to do so much good.  Much Love.

Happy Father’s Day 2013

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