A Balm in Gilead

“A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.”

― Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

Father’s Day is coming up, and what better time to highlight a book about fatherhood? Gilead is a beautiful, disjointed letter from a dying father to his young son, a touching mixture of reminiscent storytelling and haphazard (yet profound) advice.

Narrator John Ames tells it like it is. He’s a dying man and doesn’t have time for soft edges. Not that Ames is a hard man. In the face of his mortality, he finds the world a tender and beautiful place with holiness infusing the most commonplace of moments. Which is what makes his comment on fathers and sons (or daughters, certainly. But John Ames only has a son) so beautiful instead of merely humorous.

In the face of this “mutual incomprehension,” which seems to be a rather normal phenomenon among parents and children, there is something deeper and more important that Ames sees. He is an old man. His son is very young. They have very little in common, and Ames has struggled to connect with his little boy. How can he manage to connect with this small, energetic child who has come to him at the end of his own life? Naturally there is a struggle.

But at the end of his days, this father recognizes a very simple truth: he loves his son. He would do anything for his son. Though he cannot understand his son or identify with him in many ways, he will do whatever he can to equip this little boy to grow into a good man. John Ames will never see his boy go to high school or college. He’ll never watch his child fall in love and get married. But he can leave a legacy. He can write about his past and hope his son uses those stories to learn for his future.

This is who our fathers are. The men of previous generations who, whether or not they can understand us, love us and support us, no matter what stupid mistakes we make. These are men who defend us and protect us and then struggle to let us learn to defend and protect ourselves. Because a father knows that someday he will not be there to do those things for his children, as much as he wishes to. These men are the John Ameses, the Atticuses of our lives. Whether related by blood or not, they are those imperfect men who take infants in their trembling hands and try to raise up good, strong men and women. These are the heroes of Father’s Day. So look for your John Ames this Sunday, and let him know you appreciate his love and loyalty, even if you can’t understand what goes on in each other’s minds.

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