I never thought it strange, not having a father.  I was barely a year old when my father died, so I didn’t miss him.  How could I?  I never knew him.

In elementary school some kids didn’t know better than to ask, “How’d he die?” and when I told them polio, my status went up.  Bubonic plague or suicide wouldn’t have had more effect.  On the walls of every school hung March of Dimes posters of children wearing metal braces on their legs, or lying in a scary-looking contraption called an iron lung.  When I added that my father had stayed in one of those iron lungs for several months, eyes widened like they do when kids don’t know what to say next.

“You poor child,” women would cluck to me at church.  I glowed in the attention, the sympathy my very presence coaxed out.  To my mother they would say things like, “Bless you.  I don’t know how you do it.”  Meanwhile, their husbands took a sudden interest in their fingernails, or studied their clothes for stray whiskers.

Sometimes the pastor would read a verse about caring for widows and the fatherless and I would sit up straight.  Being part of a group mentioned in the Bible gave me moral stature.  At school, too, I felt a kind of pride.  Growing up without a father made me different, and I liked that.  Sometimes bullies would take it easy on me when they learned I had no father.  Sometimes they got even meaner—I had no protector to march to their houses and lay down warnings.

I have no memories of my father.  For me, he existed mainly in two grainy, black-and-white photos.  One shows a thin, rakish sailor leaning against a rail fence, his Navy cap at a jaunty angle.  A more formal portrait has him with wire-rim glasses and looking a bit older; he’s wearing a double-breasted suit with wide lapels and a wide tie, his curly hair parted on the side and piled in a heap on top.

My brother, who was three when our father died, has an actual memory, one that haunts him still.  Our father, lying in a bed, now paralyzed and fighting for air, turns his head to the side and gets out the words, one or two at a time, between labored breaths, “Son…you’re the…man…of the…house…now.  It’s up…to you…to take…care…of your mother…and little…brother.”  This happened three months after my brother’s third birthday.  He nodded his head and accepted the weight of that responsibility as solemnly as a three-year-old could.  Then, on the way home, he told Mother that he should probably take charge of my spankings right away.

Back then parents didn’t divorce much, and so all my friends had two at home.  I won’t deny there were times when being fatherless felt like a burden.  We were dirt poor, which came as part of the package.  We had no father to teach us how to catch and throw a ball, or how to shave, or how to talk to girls—to teach us what a man is.  We had no one to appeal to when Mother wouldn’t let us do things every other kid did with no opposition from their parents.

Having no father created a hole in my universe, something like a black hole, a powerful unseen force that disturbs everything around it.  Though he was hardly a real person to me, more of a myth, his life shadowed mine.  His absence felt like a presence.  “He looks just like his daddy,” the women would say as they tamped down a cowlick on my head, “He’s got that same head full of curls.”  They referred to him as “your daddy,” but I never called him anything.  He died before I could talk.

Apart from the rare male teacher in school, church was the main place where I had contact with men in my childhood.  Colonel Doran stood ramrod straight and sometimes wore his impressive blue uniform to church.  Another veteran, a former sailor, had a tattoo of an anchor and a woman on his arm, possibly the first tattoo I’d seen and definitely the first one in church.

I had several favorites among those men.  Mr. Crain always took me for a ride when he got a new car.  He owned a hand-crank ice cream machine, and sometimes he made ice cream with fresh peaches.  I had never tasted anything so delicious—like touching heaven with my tongue.  

Another, Mr. Warton, had an eye that wandered in a different direction from the other one, and I never knew which eye to stare at.  He became the all-time hero of us kids because for special events he brought his very own cotton-candy machine to church.  It looked like a stainless-steel washtub with a tube in the middle.  He poured sugar in the tube, flipped a switch, and Presto!  All we had to do was hold a paper cone and lovely, sticky strands of pink cotton candy appeared like magic, winding their way around the paper and our fingers.

Another favorite, blind Mr. Baker, relied on a German Shepherd to lead him around.  We were strictly warned not to pet the seeing-eye dog unless Mr. Baker gave us permission, so I made it a goal to win him over.  It proved easy, for Mr. Baker had a soft spot for kids.  I tried to sit in the row behind him in order to watch how the dog handled boredom in church.  He must be bored all the time, I decided, because he always has to obey his master.  He can’t even be petted without permission.

In the years since I was a child, the percentage of single-parent homes in the U.S. has tripled.  Now, nearly a quarter of all children grow up in a home with no father present.  Looking back, it occurs to me that church offers a community that can help fill the holes in our world: not only for fatherless children, but also for single and divorced adults, widows and widowers, refugees, and foreign or out-of-state students.  Certainly, it did that for me.

Later, as a young journalist I had the good fortune of reporting to male supervisors who saw their role as developing people, not simply producing a magazine or turning a profit.  Men like Harold Myra and Jay Kesler spent hours offering guidance and shepherding me through personal crises, functioning much like substitute fathers.  And then while writing a book (Where Is God When It Hurts), I came across Dr. Paul Brand, who had learned much about pain while working with leprosy, a disease that causes insensitivity.  He was the first surgeon to use reconstructive surgery to correct deformities resulting from the disease in the hands and feet.  When I met him, he was living in Louisiana, applying the same principles to diseases such as diabetes. 

As we worked together, Dr. Brand became a true father figure to me.  Over a fifteen-year period of time, I wrote three books with Dr. Brand.       I accompanied him on trips to India and England, where together we retraced the main events in his life.  I spent hundreds of hours asking him every question I could think of about his experiences with medicine, life, and God.  Dr. Brand, who died in 2003, was both a good and a great man, and I have everlasting gratitude for the time we spent together.  At a stage in my spiritual development when I had little confidence to write about my own faith, I had absolute confidence writing about his.

I changed because of my relationship with Dr. Brand; he became a channel of spiritual growth for me.  My faith grew as I had a living model of a person enhanced in every way by his own relationship with God.  I now view justice, lifestyle, and money issues largely through his eyes; I see the natural environment differently; I look at the human body, and especially pain, in a very different light.

My relationship with Dr. Brand affected me deeply, in my core, on the inside.  Yet as I reflect, I can think of no instance in which he imposed himself on me, or manipulatively sought to alter my opinions.  I changed willingly, gladly, as my world and my self encountered his.  Indeed, our relationship avoided many of the father-son dynamics that I hear about from my friends.  I never competed with siblings for Dr. Brand’s attention; I never angered him by my clothes or hairstyle or the choices I made; he never held an inheritance over me as a power move.  Our relationship was simpler, more pure: that of an eager learner and a wise and caring teacher who had my best interests at heart.  His example filled the word father with meaning for me, a word I tentatively learned to apply to God.

Reviewing my own life calls to mind the role any of us can play for someone who lacks a complete or healthy family.  As Father’s Day rolls around each year, I’m reminded that I never bought a card or racked my brain for a creative gift.  Yet rarely did I feel like a fatherless child.

 

 

 

 

 

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40 responses to “Fatherless”

  1. Krista Robbins says:

    Thanks for this post. I could sonrelate.to identifying with the scripture about the fatherless. My dad had been in and out of my life since I was a baby and had only really been getting to know him for about a year before I lost him at 20. I spent so much time feeling “fatherless”. Last year when I heard Chris Tomlin’s song Good Father “You’re a good good father. It’s who you are, it’s who you are, it’s who you are
    And I’m loved by you. It’s who I am, it’s who I am, it’s who I am” I felt like God revealed to me I’ve never really been fatherless at all. I was just looking in the wrong place and feeling the lack.

    I also want to say, though raised in church, life and circumstances in my adult life have cetainly taken my faith for quite a journey. Two of your books have really been life changing for me. I give copies of The Jesus I Never Knew and What’s So Amazing About Grace to everyone that is receptive to receiving them. So thank you for sharing your searches with the rest of us. I’m about 2/3 of the way through Prayer and look forward to reading the rest.

  2. Sue says:

    Dear Mr. Yancey,
    I was the only child. My Mother died when I was young & my father reminded me in various painful ways he wished I had died too.
    Now as a middle age woman upon learning I had separated from my husband of 25 yrs. due to his Adultery, my father “comforted” me by stating …hundreds of women would give their right arm to be married to my husband. He followed up with even more cruel comments. He does not know how to love.
    In the story of the Prodigal Son my focus has now changed to the Father in the story.
    After the hurting years I have finally come to the understanding that Father is my Heavenly Father!
    Thank you for sharing your story.
    Sue

  3. Brett Baker says:

    Thank you for reminder that we all have a role to play in the world of fatherhood and being a source of guidance to the younger generation. I am not a father, yet have an increasing desire to mentor or teach kids in some capacity. I hope to still have a role to play in that arena as the years go by.

    Thanks also for sharing about your own father. I can’t thank you enough for your faithfulness to God’s call because you have helped me see that faith can persevere through all of our doubts and fears.

  4. Ginnye Mills says:

    Thanks so much for your blogs. My Daughter Peggy De Orio got me in touch with them. She belonged to the same Church you were once with in Colorado. I have read every one and they are very inspiring. Thanks again Ginnye age 83

  5. Silvia Chaves says:

    Thank you for your article. Can you talk a little bit about the role of your older brother in your life? how did he manage your father commandment?
    Your books in Spanish are a blessing!

    • Philip Yancey says:

      I’m in the process of writing a memoir, which will tell the whole story. My brother has had quite an odyssey, very different from mine. You can read it in, oh, a couple of years!

  6. I knew you had grown up without a father, but didn’t know the back story. I’m grateful you shared it. The stories of those who would later fill that role to some degree is equally touching. I had a father, but he was gone a lot and had little interest in me. We were wired differently, and this annoyed him. I still struggle with this even as a middle aged man, there’s always been something missing as a result. Thanks Philip for the vulnerability and transparency, very engaging and helpful to have another perspective.

  7. Andy Ledbetter says:

    My son was inspired to pursue a career in medicine in part by Dr Brand. After reading Fearfully and Wonderfully Made he decided to pursue medical missions. For years, I have FWM or The Jesus I Never Knew to the graduating seniors I taught in Sunday School. Thank you, Mr Yancey for your heart and your willingness to wrestle with faith in writing.

  8. Selam Getahun says:

    You have no idea how much your books have helped me. I read ‘Where is God when it hurts’ and ‘Disappointment with God’ at a very critical stage in my life when I was doubting the existence of God and his love for me. Thank you for these beautiful gifts.

    And thank you for never shying away from asking hard questions that are constantly avoided and never addressed in church – like ‘Prayer, does it really work?’ Thanks to you, I’ve learnt to never be afraid to be honest with God.

  9. Margaret says:

    Oh, Philip! Once again you have brought tears to my eyes as I read your blog, and then read what some of your readers wrote – how you have touched the hearts of others who grew up without a father’s love. Though I had a wonderful father, I am always meeting people who had fathers and mothers, who had died when they were young, abandoned them, or just never gave them a taste of our Heavenly Father’s love and grace. I am so grateful you had Dr. Brand! And so thankful for your willingness to share your thoughts to this hurting world. Your books have helped me through many difficult times and enabled me to help others in ways that bring me amazing joy!

  10. David Kopp says:

    Philip, thanks for your meditation on fathers. Your description of an absence that felt like a presence speaks worlds to me. I’d say this for my experience both as a son and as a father. Regrettably, distance and separation defined those relationships. I wonder if the absence can take on even greater power than a presence because it gets filled up with so much ‘stuff’–anger, guilt, regret, longing, all kinds of imaginings. I kept thinking about my dad’s long hug yesterday–the rasp of his beard, his hard-as-wood muscles, the body odor of a working man. Also I was thinking with gratitude of this line from his beloved psalms–“You have given me the heritage of those who love your name.” Sorry to ramble on. I guess that absence or presence, much blessing was passed along, and I hope this for my children as well. Thanks again for your wonderful piece.

  11. Mary Ellen Zent says:

    Praise God for Dr. Brand! Because of his influence on you, you are now able to influence thousands of other people’s lives through your deeply thought-provoking, unafraid-to-tackle-the-hard-issues books. Thank you for sharing your unique perspective on Father’s Day.

  12. virginia youdale says:

    I forgot to say in my comment that my father died when I was 8, with two younger sisters, and he had been ill with TB for several years, and my mother coped with us all and brought us up, and this was during the war. We never appreciated fully what she went through – having to earn a living without any English qualifications, only a Swiss Diploma from the Genevan Institute of Dalcroze Eurythmics. She was a wonderful musician but never recognised as such! We just accepted all this. Too late to show our appreciation…

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Maybe not too late. From another dimension, your mother may be looking on with pride and gratitude…

  13. virginia youdale says:

    thank you for all that you have written – I re-read all your books regularly and I love the books with Paul Brand. Feaarfully and Wonderfully made makes one look at one’s make up in a completely different way! The trouble is I lend out all these books and don’t always get then back!!! I feel I have got to know you as a friend.

  14. Wanjiru M says:

    I grew up with a Father, yet never really had a Father-daughter relationship; he was a man full of contradictions, an alcoholic yet he loved to go to Church and had a deep seated belief in God. But this has somewhat warped the view my siblings have of God and Christianity. Out of three, one is an atheist, one an agnostic and the other a Christian. I struggle to separate the earthly view of a father and who God is as my father. Sometimes it comes easily to me and at times not. Yet, I am grateful that I did have him as my Dad and am learning daily to forgive him, to forgive myself for not being a good daughter. He has been gone for the last 13 years, and not a day passes when I do not think of him.

    Thanks Philip for the books you write. I read Dr. Brand’s book many years ago and it touched me greatly and my mother who has worked with Leprosy patients was able to explain to me some of the more scientific issues raised in the book.

    God bless you for your insights which are full of grace and love.

    • Philip Yancey says:

      I recommend Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers: Finding Freedom from Hurt and Hate by Leslie Leyland Fields. So many struggle with recovery from a family like yours. –Philip

      • Alton Rawls says:

        Thanks for this recommendation by Leslie Fields. I will be reading it soon. I would like to grow up in this area of my life.

  15. Lauren Venn says:

    I’ve been a widow for 5 years now. I’m raising my own orphans (age 16 and 17). I haven’t darkened the door of a church in several years (faith crisis-death has a way of forcing you to look life Square in the face) and find that without that community, it very difficult to form deep relationships for both myself and my children.

    Thanks for writing this Phil-your books have got me through the hardest times in my life.

  16. Judy Teo says:

    Dear Philip, I am an educator in Singapore and have read practically all your books. Your writing touches my heart, challenges my mind and stirs my soul in a way few other authors could. My journey as a child of God has been made so much more meaningful because of what I learnt from you. Life is not fair but to me, God is just and God is good – and I am immensely grateful for His Amazing Grace and Mercy. Thank you Philip for touching my life and making an impact through your books!

  17. Shirley W says:

    Widowed at thirty with five children aged 6 weeks to 8, i have found a mother can try but never fill that need for the affirmation of a father. Fifty years later I am still asking The Father to fulfill His promise in a very revelatory way to be a father to the fatherless. Wonderful kids with their own children, they know God loves them but…..the hole remains needing to be filled with God’s intimacy for them individually.
    My father died when I was six. At 26 I met Jesus, knew the Holy Spirit but I was in my late sixties before I knew God as Father. I am still trusting God for His kindness, mercy and intimacy with them…..not one of abandonment, non-availability or distance. God is not in a hurry or on my timetable….and the relationship cannot be “caught”. Hopeful with not much time left for me.
    Thank you for sharing your experience, Philip.

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Your life is a total inspiration. I’m sorry for the hardships you’ve faced, but rejoice with you at the redemptive way you’ve endured. –Philip

  18. Frank Procopio says:

    Thank you Philip for sharing your story! I just finished reading Fearfully and Wondefully Made and I have grown an affection and admiration of Dr. Paul Brand. I have read many of your books and I share them with younger folk here in Melbourne, Australia! Your blog also encouraged me to keep mentoring to young adult males who come from fatherless or motherless homes. God bless you mate!!

  19. Molly Coyner Cozens says:

    Beautifully written, Philip. We were so very blessed having the Brands in our lives.

  20. Alton Rawls says:

    Even at age 61, I have ‘father-abandonment’ issues. My father is 89, still alive and has been running from us, his three boys (men) all of his life. Only in the last two years have been able to separate my image of, ‘God-The Father’ from my earthly father’s ‘distance’. This partial healing has been brought about through loving, gracious teaching and examples in my church. I am now in the place where I look back when I was much younger person and see how God provided Jesus-like men in my life to,
    grow-me-up. I am thankful to Our Father for not leaving us alone or abandoned. Thanks Yancey.

  21. Donald Scamehorn says:

    Thanks so much for posting this, Philip. I have this in common with you–we both lost our fathers early (although in my case I have a few cherished pictures of him enjoying daddy time with me & my sister). Sometimes I dread the approach of Father’s Day, but you’ve blessed it this time around, with empathy and showing how ‘father figures’ can impart the parental blessing without its (some times) attendant manipulation.

  22. Lisa simmons says:

    Beautiful reminder. Thank you.

  23. Annie says:

    Your books are life-changing. Your books were among the first books I read as a teenager, and most influential in my faith. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and insights.

  24. Dave Linsay says:

    Philip:

    Thanks for sharing your story that is so infused with grace. It was a delight to read that Mr. Crain’s ice cream was like touching heaven with your tongue! It looks like you also got to touch a bit of heaven through the life of Dr. Brand.

    Dave

  25. Thanks Philip. I always appreciate your rare perspectives, insights, and encouragement. But also, as Martin DeHaan stated above, we appreciate the open and honest assessment of your own personal experiences. Thank you.

  26. Belinda Lat Galvez says:

    Hello Sir! I’m kinda shy but I can’t help but say, I truly am blessed having read a few of your books. I’m a fan obviously, and I pray that you’ll be able to write more books in the future. I’m amazed how God works in your life, especially upon learning about your life as a child. May the Good Lord continue to bless and keep you, protect you from all harm, and continue to use you as channel of His grace and blessings!

  27. John Isaak says:

    Thanks Philip.
    If you’ve written anything not worth reading, I’ve yet to discover it.
    When I need to verify a password, I always choose: “Who was your favorite author?” I know I can count on that answer never changing for me.
    Thanks.

  28. Tom King says:

    Powerful story, Mr. Yancey. Thanks for sharing it. We can learn much from a parent who loves us, or anyone who cares about us for that matter. That said, while it’s hard to not have a dad in our lives, it can’t stop others, including ourselves later in life, from being a dad to others. It’s a gift that keeps on giving.

    I sure hope your brother came through it all intact and well after the torch was passed to him at a young age. Often the older child gets saddled with this challenge, regardless of having a father in our lives. You were lucky to have a Paul Brand in your life, and you were able to emulate his blessings to others in your many, fine stories.

    Thanks and a Happy Father’s Day to you whether or not you have any children. You do have many who look up to you.

  29. David Marshall says:

    Thanks, Philip. Your article is a beautiful Father’s Day gift — especially appropriate for me, not just as a father myself, but as I begin a position as Academic Principal at a new international school in China. May God guide all of us who are given the chance and sheer pleasure of guiding and encouraging young people who are stumblingly trying to find their ways in life.

    It’s also wonderful to see Dr. Brand’s smile again, too. It’s hard to believe he has already been gone for so many years. Those of us who knew Paul and Margaret in Seattle — and they got around — all loved them.

    Your father looks like a nice man, too. But so young.

  30. Robert Killian-Dawson says:

    This article reminds me once again why Philip Yancey is one of the finest voices writing about issues of faith today.

  31. Martin R DeHaan says:

    Your personal reflections have made this Father’s Day one to remember. Thank you for once again opening your life in a way that gives us a better understanding of our own.

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