Tuesday, June 14, 2011

About the Book and Prologue

About Dear Dad

This project was inspired by my essay for National Public Radio’s This I Believe series and is itself a compilation of true narratives written by a group of journalists and writers I assembled for this project. Men and women from various walks of life and various generations, they are black, white, and Hispanic. A good number of them have written for some of the nation’s best news organizations—the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, Time magazine, and others. All of them write in the pages that follow about the impact of fathers, and fatherlessness, on their own lives. This comes at a time when the focus of a national initiative and even President Barack Obama have sounded the clarion call for responsible fatherhood amid a continuing crisis of paternal absenteeism.

Fatherhood is a subject that deserves our attention. A key component of that critical socializing agent known as family, “father” is important to us all.

So what better time than this—than now—to lend to and perhaps spur the national dialogue on fatherhood, to raise to the light images of the best of our fathers, and also examples of some failed or flawed fathers, with the hope that from each may be gleaned a more perfect model to which all fathers might aspire? And there seems no better way to examine fatherhood and to extract lessons from the past in the hope of creating a brighter future than to follow the reflective journeys of writers who remember their fathers lovingly, poignantly, vividly, at times longingly, even sometimes with disappointment.

Through the prism of our collective lens, these mini-memoirs recall time we spent with our fathers, or in some cases, the lack thereof. And each seeks to provide insights on the best of fathering, if not also hope for the millions of American children who today face growing up in homes with no father present.

What we present here are hardly religious sermons. They are instead stories steeped in journalistic craft, stories that resonate deeply on the universal themes of childhood, family, struggle, love, and loss, offering a kind of collective case study. They are stories that I—that we—believe have the potential by the power of intimate narrative not only to help others understand the impact of fatherlessness but also to help mend those most wounded.

These stories are not black, or white, or brown. They are not singularly male or female, nor are they solely American. Rather, they are transcendent stories about the human condition, about the human spirit and the universal longing to feel connected to who we are, and whose we are, to that critical figure we all know as father and to the lasting lessons our fathers taught us, by their presence, or by their absence.

In some ways, this book is also a tribute to fathers, a celebration and remembrance of those men who have graced our lives with paternal love and guidance, whether or not they were our natural fathers. It is a tribute to those special men who had the courage, faith, and fortitude to withstand the storms of their own lives and yet remain resolved to produce, protect, and provide for their families.

This book is for everyone who has a father, for everyone who has lost one, loved one, or longed for one, for everyone who happens to be one, and for everyone who longs to be a better one.

And finally, this book is for everyone who longs to make peace with one—a gift to all good fathers past, present, and future, and sealed with a prayer for them all.

John W. Fountain


In the absence of my father, I have longed at times in my life for affirmation, for the steadying hand on the shoulder; for the paternal love that is reassuring, establishing, uplifting, grounding, life-giving—only to find none. This deficit in my upbringing was devastating.

I am the son of mostly de facto fathering, of the pieces and particles that fell from the cloaks of men who filed past my life, men whose paths crossed with mine or with whom I walked for a time. But I cannot say with certainty whether it was the case that those men closest to me would not or could not promote me, or whether they never fully embraced or fully esteemed me, at those particular times in my life. What I can say and what I do know is that as a result, for much of my life I felt fatherless.

Strangely, perhaps—and at least certainly this was unexpected—I eventually found solace and healing in my reflections as an adult upon the frailties of all fathers, including my own frailties as a man; in the forgiving of those men whom I deem to have in ways failed me; and also in my own journey of fatherhood and my willingness to provide paternal nurturing and substance to my own children and even those who are the seed of other men. I have found strength and a measure of healing in my earnest desire to be a better father and a better man than my own natural father and to learn as I travel this course from the mistakes of others and those I have made myself.

Still, there is a hole, a feeling of emptiness, in a certain place in my heart, a place that was meant to be filled with a lifetime of memories made with my father. I suspect there always will be. And yet I have found strength in the presence of an Eternal Father, and in that good gained from even the imperfect men I encountered from boyhood to manhood. And though I remember not the joy of my own father taking delight in me, now I do know and embrace the joys as well as the responsibility of fatherhood.

And there is a part of me—the little boy in me—who finds in me the kind of father he always wished he had. That has always been my endeavor, my promise to myself as a little boy, a promise I intend to keep until my last breath.

Someone once advised me during one of life’s inevitable storms not to "despise the process." In other words, the sometimes painful struggles of life and their accompanying heartaches and sufferings can ultimately create in us a heart that seeks to heal and help others. I have come to believe that as we pass through our sufferings and survive them, the lessons learned through our own healing can ultimately serve a greater purpose: the healing of others, the mending of broken hearts, perhaps even the healing of a nation.

* * * *
This project incubated during the years of hurt and eventual healing from the paternal desertion I experienced in my own life. It was, in fact, an essay I wrote in 2004 for National Public Radio’s This I Believe series about the absence of my father and what “saved” me, and ultimately the responses that subsequently poured in from around the country from people of all walks of life that led me to consider writing more on the subject. That piece appears in this collection along with several others I have written over the years, in some cases as narrative, and in others, as poetic essays or letters.

The responses to the NPR essay—moving and deeply contemplative—touched me and reaffirmed the depths of the impact of fatherlessness, but even more, they affirmed the need of many others for healing. One of those responses was from a gentleman on the East Coast who said he had heard the essay and wondered if I might send him a few pictures to accompany the NPR podcast, which he had played for a Christian group of mentor-educators who frequently encountered young men and women growing up without a father. I strung together a series of photographs from my childhood, including the only picture I have of my biological father—a faded portrait frozen in time of a smiling man with his hat half-cocked and the swollen lines of alcoholism beneath his eyes and in his gaunt cheeks. I arranged that photograph and also a few of me, as well as some accompanying video clips, coordinated them with the NPR podcast, and sent it along. I understand that the Christian group continues today to show the clip, which has become a tool for training.

I also show the five-minute video clip, mostly to groups of youths and to church men’s ministries. It is part of what the saints at my grandfather’s Pentecostal church would call my “testimony.” And without fail, after having shown the video, the responses pour from the mouths and eyes of those for whom the words of that essay strike a chord, particularly from males, regardless of age or race: a teary young man in a Baptist church in Kentucky; a man driving in his car along a city street; students in a university classroom; or homeless men and women at a Thanksgiving gathering inside a Chicago shelter.

Not long ago, while speaking at that shelter run by a Christian ministry, I showed the video clip. Soon after the closing prayer had ended, a fortyish, burly man with a round brown face approached me and began to share how much what I had said had touched him. He had, in fact, been moved to tears. He, too, had grown up without knowing his father. Then one day after he became an adult, he finally met him. Sometime later, he and his father got into an argument, he explained as I listened intently. They argued, he said—he and his father. Then it happened.

“He shot me in the mouth,” he said matter-of-factly before melting again into tears.

On one side of his mouth, he bore the scar to prove it. But what I understood as we stood there was that his scars and his pain ran much deeper. I also understood that they would be eternally his to carry, were there no hope of healing.

I explained to the brother that day that there is a father who is infallible and loving. That He is a father who, though He be of spirit and invisible, and not of flesh and blood or tangible, is a father no less. That this Father I have found is able to comfort, console, and embrace his sons and daughters with a love and peace far beyond human understanding. He is a father who stands with one foot in the beginning of time and the other in eternity. He is a sovereign Father who allows our earthly fathers to choose to be good fathers, or not. And He is a Father who also finds no shortage of means by which to care for those of us who find ourselves paternally abandoned or disconnected, sinking for what seems like the last time in deep consuming waters that encompass our souls. He is God the Father. God, my Father. God, our Father.

In constructing this volume, I searched my mind and experience for stories of other writers I have met or known through my work as a newspaper journalist for more than twenty years. Mostly, they are people with whom I had shared over the course of our friendship bits and pieces of my childhood experiences. I began to make calls or send e-mails to inquire whether they might be interested in contributing to this project. Before too long, a group of writers emerged.

There is Nichole Christian, formerly on the editorial board of the Detroit Free Press, whom I met first when I was a reporter at the Chicago Tribune and later worked with when we were both staff writers at the New York Times. There is Sylvester Monroe, formerly a Newsweek and Time magazine correspondent and newspaperman, at one time senior editor at Ebony magazine. There is Rosa Maria Santana, a former Chicago Tribune colleague and writer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. There is Mario Parker, a correspondent for Bloomberg News; and the Washington Post’s Hamil Harris. There is my good friend Vincent Allen, a career U.S. marine, pastor, and founder of Agape Ministries in Stafford, Virginia. There is my friend and former journalism colleague Lee Bey, formerly a reporter-columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. There are fifteen other writers, not including myself, whose stories appear in this volume. I am grateful to all of them for pouring a piece of their souls onto these public pages.

Most important in my selecting of these writers, as has been the case with those people I have chosen to write about for more than two decades as a newspaperman, is that they each have a story to tell. But in this case, it was equally important that the subjects, in the vein of the Black Church’s oral tradition of testifying, be able to tell or to write their own stories in their own resonant voices, using the vehicle of narrative writing. Also, rather than to seek to tell the stories of the rich and famous or notable, and in doing so, to risk—at least in my view—the element of “celebrity” taking precedence over the story, I felt led to focus on the stories of somewhat ordinary men and women. In this way, I hoped to provide a common access point for ordinary people to examine the issue of fatherhood and fatherlessness through the fabric of their own unique cultural experiences.

* * * *

For anyone who has ever known the agony of fatherlessness, there is no need to delineate its effects. Nor is there any quick prescription for healing—no clear-cut cure for the hurts suffered due to the lack of paternal nurturing and love. And for those who have known a father’s love and presence, the impact is in many ways immeasurable. In America today, millions of boys and girls, U.S. Census figures show, live in homes absent their biological father. In far too many cases, they live without any semblance of this figure so essential to our emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being. There is no greater issue confronting our children, our communities, and our country. Collectively, the writers in this volume know this well.

The stories here are real.

Some writers in this volume wrestle with the absence of their fathers while growing up—with paternal desertion, with paternal neglect, abuse, or dysfunction, or with the emotional disengagement of their fathers. Others deal with the loss of their father’s mortal presence due to death or incapacitation. And others fondly recall the fathers they dearly love, the making of memories with them, and the learning of lessons that will endure for a lifetime. For among these stories are moving tributes to good and faithful fathers and to all men who choose to be a good and present influence in their children’s lives.

There are stories here of good men who chose to be good fathers, not only to their own children but also to their communities. There are stories of reconnection, stories of reconciliation, redemption, and revelation, stories of healing, and of triumph—stories that also speak so clearly to the importance of mothers and grandmothers, who for many of us were our saving grace.

In this volume, there is the story of the father who died months after his drug-addicted ex-wife succumbed to an overdose, leaving behind a child with a million unanswered questions; the truth leads to an unraveling of the hero she had always believed her dad to be, but it also provides the thread to longed-for answers, to peace and resolution about the man she only thought she knew. There is the story of the granddaughter who finds within a bullet hole in a basement wall a window to the past and memories of a loving grandfather. There is the story of the young black boy who loses his father, and his discovery of their eternal connection, of the paternal lessons that can endure for a lifetime, of that bond that indeed transcends even death. There is the absentee father and the impact of his cold disconnection on a little girl who found through his absence the drive and motivation to rise beyond her circumstance to educational and professional heights, and ultimately consolation. There is the story of the little boy who found more consistency in a drill sergeant than in his alcoholic father. There are the stories of invisible fathers, stories of paternal heartache perhaps more than any one soul should have to bear. There is my own story, the story of a father who died drunk and the story of my own search for solace and reconciliation and my discovery of a God who embraced me. And there is the story of the father and son, separated by years, miles, and the unknown through no fault of their own, and the fateful telephone call that led to their reunion and a baseball game where they, both as men by then, would mend their ties.

This is not a “bash fathers” book. Nor are the stories tell-all exposés. But you will find no perfect men.

There are also no victims here in our collective psalm, only victors.

In some ways, this is a how-to manual: How to overcome. How to succeed. How to live on. How to be a better father. How to forgive our fathers.

We write with the understanding that so many boys and girls across America each day face through no fault of their own the void left by fatherlessness. We set down our words with the knowledge that so many men still have the power to heal by charting a new course in fatherhood. We write in hope of reversing that curse often passed down by the absence or complete failure of fathers. We are also fully aware that even as we breathe, we shape the histories of our own children’s experience with father—or mother—and ourselves are subject to human frailty. We write to encourage good fathers who feel undervalued and underappreciated to stay the course. We write to celebrate fatherhood.

Our hope is that others may find somewhere in these pages a guidepost—at least a beacon to reflect light on their own paternal pasts.

Perhaps it is too much to hope that others might find in our stories some measure of healing. But one can hope.

For anyone who has ever felt like a fatherless child, that is our hope as we write in the pages that follow, reflecting with deep sentiment on these two simple words: “Dear Dad.”

John W. Fountain

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