My relationship with my own father has mellowed much over the years. This is what marriage and children and grandchildren and an ocean of separation can do.
(I think you know I live in Africa most of the year, the genesis of which is for another conversation at another time.)
But there was a time when maybe the best way to describe my relationship with my father is by considering the boy Michael in the movie Road to Perdition.
It’s a very fine film. Very good. One of my favourites, the Road to Perdition, that is the road to hell. So fine, but a bloody show too. Have you seen it?
Tom Hanks plays a mafia hit-man who is also a family man and the father of Michael. Jude Law plays a photographer who photographs the dead, but is actually out to kill the killer. Paul Newman is in it. Do you like Paul Newman?
In one poignant scene, Michael, the boy, is by himself reading his Lone Ranger paperback. Michael loves The Lone Ranger for his freedom and strength and intelligence and love. And what boy wouldn’t, to the extent any boy tends to, or at least hopes to see these traits in his own father?
But in this scene, tears flow down Michael’s innocent little face. Because, while reading, he comes to the startling realization that his father is, in fact, not a hero. His father is somebody else. And not just anybody else. There is blood on his father’s hands.
So, while his father, unknowingly, is being hunted, the boy Michael faces the inevitable question: Is my father a hero or a villain? Is he a good man or a bad man? The tears continue. It’s too big a question, really.
What do you think, Mr. Millard?
Oh, I’m not suggesting that my own father has any blood on his hands, not in that sense, no. Not any more than your father had any blood on his hands. The truth is that sons can have just as much blood on their hands as their fathers can, if you know what I mean.
But many sons do come to this realization sooner or later, that the Old Man just isn’t what the boy thought he was, or what the boy thinks he should be, and then more ugly thoughts with more ugly things sometimes follow.
Would you agree with this?
I’m thinking it all over, I suppose, because of your own father’s death. It was so very ugly. And because of what you wrote in your father’s obituary. One reporter at one media outlet described as “unusual,” but I didn’t find it so.
(If I can paraphrase, you wrote that your father was generous and patient and stubborn; he was an admirer of Christ and Gandhi, of course, Charles Lindbergh; he didn’t like racists, and he was “a good man in a careless world.”)
Doesn’t seem so strange to me. What interests me more is your subsequent declaration of how much you loved your father, more than anyone else in your life, really, how you would, for one, enjoy long discussions with him.
This isn’t so common anymore, this sort of love and this sort of time. I’d say that you were very blessed, Mr. Millard, with the sort of relationship — if this is how you say it was — that many sons can only dream of. So blessed.
When I was younger, a bit younger than your age, I’d actually have long discussions with my father (although you might imagine who did most of the talking) in the office of our own family business. A couple were so long, even from night ‘till sunrise. It was really something.
(Like you, I was raised by my father without my mother in the daily picture, although for different reasons. And we had a family business which, in a way different than yours, I left.)
But to get back to the Road to Perdition, the good news is this, that the torn boy, Michael, eventually found peace. He found peace by knowing the truth of his father and still giving honour where honour should be given. And eventually, as the story goes, Michael was given new choices and a new family and a new road.
It really is some story.
I don’t know what this may mean for you and your relationship with your father. But I do believe that even after our fathers are dead and buried – whether they go peacefully or bloody and violently – we have a sort of “relationship” with them.
We have a relationship with their memories. And sometimes, we have a relationship with their ghosts. With our mothers, I suppose also. But maybe especially with our fathers. Those ghosts.
I believe this is true Mr. Millard. I’ve seen it. Would you agree? I just wanted to ask this of you, a son who knew that kind of blessing from his father.
There is one more thing. I know this is getting long, but just one more thing. Is it okay, Mr. Millard?
I also wanted to say that, yes, Michael experienced some things not so different than in my own life. I wrote about this once in this book.
In this book I also shared about a chance meeting I once had in a Toronto café with a young man from Yemen who was on the run from Yemeni authorities. He explained that he had become a Christ Follower, that is a follower of the Christ that your father, you say, admired.
You might imagine what that means in Yemen. Yemeni Christ Followers might be, for one, jailed, and in conditions, since you know about this in your current position, more difficult than a typical Canadian prison.
Then this young Yemeni man shared with me his overwhelming desire to return to Yemen, for the love of his people, which would obviously put him in some danger.
Now you’re wondering what all this has to do with fathers and sons. The truth is, I can’t really say. I’ll leave it for you to imagine how it might relate to my own familial experience.
But before he and I parted, that young Yemeni man said something else. I’ll never forget it. He said, “We’re all God’s children. We’re all his sons and daughters.” And he said this in way that was more than trite.
Now this does have something to do with fathers. And with children. With you, really. And me.
He said it in a way that gave a different feeling, maybe the feeling of what I shared with you in my last letter, about the reality of evil. He said it in a way that gave a feeling of, maybe … I don’t know. Mystery?
Well, this all I wanted to share with you Mr. Millard: some things about fathers and love and mystery, all along what can be, funny enough, the road to hell.
I did get rather long this time. You know how it is when you just can’t help yourself, when you do the things you don’t want to do.
But this is all now.
Do have a peace-filled day.
A Fatherly Friend