(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, June 17, 2017)
She’s the Ugandan girl who we left behind in a part of the world where, this weekend, there is no Father’s Day. And even if there was, this girl, our friend, has no father to honour on it.
So while it’s only suitable that so many fathers and children be given one day a year to consider how inadequate we all are with this business of honouring each other, this is about a fatherless girl on just another fatherless day.
On the day we met — more clothing falling on the ground in a convicting trail behind little Gloria — she ran and ran. Until I caught her. Soon after, we visited her house: a shack, really, clothes like rags piled in a corner. Ah, our clothing, all here with the rest of Gloria’s loot.
Soon after that, Gloria gave us a handwritten apology. And the friendship began. My oldest daughter, Liz, and Gloria grew especially close.
She was different than Liz’s other friends, expatriate girls from privileged homes. Gloria visited our Ugandan home more than any of them. For years. Just before our return to Canada we ensured sponsorship for her school costs so she has at least half a chance in a world that’s so very unkind to the fatherless.
Fatherless children, especially girls, struggle more with sexuality and body image. Later, fatherless children also fall easier into poor relational choices and divorce, fuelling the cycle for their own children. It’s all heartache. This is what the social science tells us. Unless the pattern is broken.
Gloria’s new school is a boarding school. That’s common for African children. Even with bare living standards, children can stay focused on their studies. Boarding also gives Gloria at least a measure of safety.
We don’t know what happened to her father. He may be dead. Or he may just be dead to the ways of hope and encouragement that children need, like they need oxygen. Some fathers leave their children like this, breathless.
Funny enough, it’s often not because these men think too little of family life, but because they think too much of it, as a sort of idol, a way to their happiness rather than a way of service. When daily reality doesn’t meet the false expectation, like Gloria, they run and run.
Honour your father and mother is what the ancient commandment, the Fifth Commandment, says. So you can live a long (or, at least, presumably, happier) life. My own father ensured that I knew this well. But, really, how do the Glorias of the world — there are so many — give much honour on any given fatherless day?
It’s not for me to say. The wind knows more. I have my own inadequacies as a father, and son. Even as I know my inadequacies with Gloria. In my lighter moments I’d sing to her a poor rendition of that old Laura Branigan song, Gloria. At other times (“Daddy Daddy, can Gloria stay for dinner?” or “Daddy, Daddy can Gloria stay overnight?”) I just wanted my space.
What I do know is that to give honour, often enough, is to forgive. Even fathers who don’t deserve forgiveness. Especially undeserving fathers.
There’s an unavoidable difficulty in this. And beauty. And peace. And freedom.
Attribution: On another matter, a mea culpa. In a recent column from Jerusalem, in a line on teaching and children, I wrote a specific thought from one writing mentor of mine, Wendell Berry, without formal attribution. Until now. Apologies to Wendell. And to you.