Father Hunger: Why God Calls Men to Love and Lead Their Families
Thomas Nelson, 2012
272 pp., $15.99
Learning from My Father: Lessons on Life and Faith
David Lawther Johnson
159 pp., $15.00
The Playbook for Dads: Parenting Your Kids In the Game of Life
196 pp., $19.99
Stations of the Heart: Parting with a Son
272 pp., $25.00
Fatherhood and Loss
Kelly's book is as full of clichés as one would expect from a sports star. Groan with me now: athletes work hard and play hard. Kelly kept a picture of his hard-working parents in his locker. Behind every great man there is a great woman, for him his devoted wife Jill. There is a picture of a tough friend by the word "tough" in the dictionary. Kids should learn to say please and thank you, show up on time, and look someone in the eye when they shake their hand. And kids should know not to hang out with the wrong sort of crowd. The worst clichés are the Protestant anti-Catholic sort: the Catholics the Kellys grew up with trusted ritual to save them, and the Kellys only "became Christians" when they accepted Christ later. Ok, groaning over. Kelly is a quarterback first and a source for his co-writer later.
But Kelly's forthright depiction of failure rings true. Not only the Buffalo Bills' four Superbowl losses, but also—and more deeply—his loss of a great athlete's physical prime. Now, Kelly's life is pretty much just showing up and being Jim Kelly. There is real self-awareness and pathos in that rueful assessment. Far more important is the loss of his son Hunter, who was born with Krabbe's disease and died very young. The book is almost a letter of longing for his lost boy. The Kellys' fears, their frantic hopes, and their eventual loss are familiar to anyone who has loved someone who has gone through such suffering. Jim's own feelings of failure when he couldn't hold his son right, couldn't parent well under his own roof, when his marriage drifted, all suggest more depth than the typical sports memoir.
Kelly muses that he never asked "why me?" when his life was turning up aces. His newfound evangelical faith has given him resources with which to face loss that his experience of Catholicism failed to. Manners are important, my complaint about the cliché above notwithstanding. (Flannery O'Conner would have agreed with Kelly, Thomas Aquinas too.) So is game-playing. It suggests life is more than what we produce or achieve. And fatherhood does assume the loss of one another and eventual reunion in God's time, whether we far outlive our fathers or not.
These lessons are hinted at in Playbook for Dads. They are sounded in their depths in Richard Lischer's Stations of the Heart. Attentive readers know Lischer's previous book, Open Secrets, about his first parish in rural Illinois. Adam Lischer is a child in that book, newly baptized, delighted in, waking up on its last page on the drive east from the prairie to ask his parents, "Are we there yet?"
As Stations opens, young Adam Lischer's life is already over. He grew to be a man, became an accomplished young district attorney, and was two weeks from meeting his first-born child when cancer took him. This is the book of a good man grieving hard. Reading it feels like hiking at high altitudes. One has to stop and rest. But the book gives us resources for grief, for facing loss, and so for life and facing God. Our clichéd language lacks words for treasures this beautiful. This book is the best on fatherhood I know.
Stations is bookended by baptism, the "dramatic funeral" in which a pastor marks a sign of death—a cross—right on the newborn's forehead. Adam's is remembered decades earlier. The book closes with his daughter's baptism. Lischer's book is sacramental in this way. It shows rather than tells its best stuff. In baptism, our death has already happened. Christ's death can contain all our uncontainable sorrows. The stations of the book's title suggest that pain can be incremental. Chaotic and world-ending as pain seems, it is neither. Death is self-defeating. It only makes way for resurrection.
Lischer overhears a former courtroom colleague of Adam's say that his "daddy" was looking for where Adam used to work—"That is the way southerners talk about unhappy fathers and their lost boys." The actual death of his son itself is less devastating. By then, readers are ready. But the description of the nine-month pregnant new widow, "alone in a way she had never been before," hits home like a hammer-blow. If "souls need opponents worthy of them" (a quote from Merton), death has a worthy adversary in these achingly gorgeous lines.
The deepest point of learning for me came in Lischer's account of the maturing friendship between him and his dying adult boy. They play video games together, sometimes with joy, sometimes in misery. They experience what G. K. Chesterton called "the slow maturing of old jokes." Adam loads up on painkillers to go to a final baseball game with his dad on Father's Day. Lischer marvels at a father's love that has to be "mediated" by such things as sports, whereas a mother's can be more direct, unapologetic. This is no bad thing in a faith as mediated as Jesus'. Mediated by death, the father and the son's love for each other is not gone. It is lamented. And it will rise. That sentence is more triumphant than anything in Lischer's own book. Its glory is partly in its understated hope. Christ is risen. But Adam is not yet.