My father never knew his father or did he ever really know a father’s love. When my grandfather walked away, he didn’t know that his sons would carry an empty spot in their hearts for him. One the fullness of years could not remove. He left home on the day of my father’s birth, leaving behind my grandmother and three small children. This grandfather has always been something of an enigma for his grandchildren. We’ve puzzled over his life, tried to fit pieces together and to make sense of who he was. I don’t think my grandmother ever stopped loving him. As a rather impertinent nine-year-old, I once mentioned to her that if they hadn’t gotten divorced, they would have been married fifty years. In her acknowledgment that “Yes, they would have,” tears sprang to her eyes and a deep countenance of sadness was written on her face.
One of my uncles remembered his father as a likeable person. Another carried so much pain, he would refuse to talk about him. My grandfather’s major flaw was that he was a compulsive gambler. According to family lore, he had gone through all of my grandmother’s inheritance. There were hard words spoken. The year was 1918 and a deadly flu was racing around the world. A priest was sent for, my newborn father was baptized and then my grandfather left his home forever. My grandmother was devastated. Three weeks later she caught the flu and nearly died. But, she was a strong woman, who took what life threw her and did what she could with it. Her courage was born of her faith. Eventually a divorce would end her marriage, and cause her to be excommunicated from the church of her childhood. A stinging pain would remain with her as she embraced another faith tradition.
I don’t know if anyone realized at first how permanent my grandfather’s absence would be. The family heard about him occasionally, as someone bumped into him in the Twin Cities, a very distant place in that time and era. To my knowledge, no one ever received a telegraph or letter from him. He died of smallpox, a lonely, broken man six years later. At his death, neither those who were working with him nor lived with him were aware he was the father of three sons. I doubt he believed that anyone cared about him or for him when death came. His life has always been something of a cautionary tale, of what can happen when an addiction takes over a life. I suspect that my grandfather was quite ashamed of the mess he’d made of his life. I imagine deep regrets for his lost sons and his inability to know them.
My faith tells me that he and they, all of us are held in the loving arms of God, who never forsakes us or leaves us. I’ve always felt sad when I’ve heard a person say they couldn’t believe anyone – even, or especially God – could love them. The scripture points to a different reality. The psalmist says of God, “If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. (Psalm 139:9-10) There really is no place where God is not. God waits for us, chases after us and celebrates each returning child. While we are still running fast and furiously away, God’s hand is hovering over us, anticipating the moment we will realize that God has been there, with us, all the time.