Father at Night
by Michael D. O’Brien
Every father knows that there are seasons in the life of a family when troubles seem to mount up and spirits burn low. It had been one of those months around our house. In early December, we had record snowfalls in the narrow valley of the Rocky Mountains where we then lived. It fell and fell for weeks on end, without a glimmer of sun. The record accumulation of snow threatened to crack the roof beams, and ice backed up under the eaves, sending little waterfalls cascading throughout the house. Three times already that winter I had stood waist-deep in snow on the roof, shoveling madly, but enjoying the novelty of it all. The children too had great fun hurling themselves off the peak to land harmlessly in the drifts below. Three times I had cleared the roof, and the pile of white debris now reached the eaves. We had to dig a hole down to the living room window to let some light in.
But by the time a fourth shoveling was needed, I had developed a growth on my spine that was poisoning my body. Surgery was needed, but due to a long waiting list at the closest hospital there would be some months’ delay. I was in a great deal of pain, unable to sit, stand, or lie without discomfort. By January, I was in constant pain and unable to do much of anything, which is perhaps the most frustrating thing of all for the head of a household. To watch and wait helplessly as one is buried alive is a terrible feeling. Family and close friends lived in other towns and cities, too far away to come to our rescue, and besides, they couldn’t have got through on the blocked roads. Everyone else in our village was as desperate as we were.
One day in the midst of this, I managed to dig out our buried car. Desperately hoping for a long-overdue cheque that would help pay our bills, I ventured out to drive the three block journey to the post office. There was nothing in the mail slot for us that day—and indeed the cheque did not arrive until many months later, further complicating our lives. Furthermore, on the drive back home, a distracted driver pulled out from a side street without seeing our oncoming car and demolished both vehicles. Thankfully, no one was seriously injured, but until the insurance was settled we were without transportation. Day after day, small disasters kept piling up, one of the more notable being a plugged toilet caused by a certain small member of the family throwing a toy truck down the hole and flushing, “to see what would happen,” he explained innocently. “I thought it would make daddy laugh,” he added.
As the village plumber was away, vacationing far to the south in a land of palm trees, we resorted to an antique chamber-pot for a few weeks, a state of affairs which the children found rustic and exciting. This and other events had left us still able to chuckle over the uncanny way life does come in waves of feast or famine. But at some point, shortly after, we lost our sense of humor. Daddy stopped laughing. For, with extraordinary timing, we were all flattened by an unusually virulent case of the flu. We could not telephone the doctor because the lines were down in the heavy snow. His office was seventy miles away, we were carless, and besides, we could not have got through the blocked roads anyway.
There are ways of dealing with trouble in an affluent age. If you have enough money or influence, health and power, you can stave off trouble for a long time. You can pad and buffer and distract yourself until the illusion of mastery is complete. The only flaw in this seemingly perfect method is that your life must then be preoccupied with padding, buffering, and distracting. Most of us do it to some degree. We can’t help it, really. Pain just isn’t fun; helplessness is scary. But at some point every soul who wishes to grow in faith must go through the “narrow gate” of the Cross. Suffering finds us all, sooner or later. There is no hiding place, and in family life you are especially exposed to the dangers of human existence. St. Francis de Sales says that “the state of marriage is one that requires more virtue and constancy than any other: it is a perpetual exercise in mortification.”
The cost of a happy family is the death of selfishness. The father must die if he is to give life to his spouse and children. An entire lifetime can be spent avoiding this truth. It is simply not enough to provide and protect. In themselves, of course, providing and protecting are good and necessary things. That is our responsibility. But a father can provide a mountain of material goods for his family, and defend it against all kinds of inconveniences, thinking he can rest easy, having done his part, and still have missed the essential thing: he is called to be an image of the Father’s love and truth. The house which he provides, be it a straw hut or a mansion, must have at its core a heart that prays, a heart that is willing to look at its own poverty, a heart that is humble enough to cry out for help. God fills the vessel that recognizes its emptiness and opens itself to receive real strength. As long as we are convinced of our own strengths, our clever ability to endure, we will still think that we are in charge. We will behave like fatherless children. We will construct a lifestyle of eliminating difficulties at any cost. It takes a lot of padding if you are to avoid the unexplainable, unjust blows of suffering. There will come a time, however, when God permits this elaborate defense system to crumble.
I remember well the winter’s night when my barricades began to fall. That night I had been unable to sleep from back pain and the steady tending of sick children. Worry had begun to eat away at my soul. There were little skirmishes with discouragement from which I was still emerging the victor, but they were becoming harder to win, and they were becoming more frequent. Not only had I stopped laughing, I had stopped praying. In the notorious wee-small-hours of the morning, around three a.m., the baby resumed a desperate cry from her bedroom. Her mother’s body and will had resigned after four nursings since midnight. She simply could no longer answer the baby’s cry, being herself very sick and exhausted. She had only enough energy to groan, “Please, will you get the baby?”
So I heaved a weary sigh and maneuvered my back out of bed and made it across the hall to the hurricane of noise. Outside, the snow was falling in heavy, wet flakes, as it had for three straight weeks. I was beginning to resent it a little.
“When will it stop?” I murmured to myself. “This isn’t fair!”
She was all of one and a half years old, the apple of our eye, shining, crisp and sweet. A baby who emerged from the womb actually cooing, and now possessed a wonderful gift of smiling and laughter. But on the night in question she stood there loudly protesting her predicament, a very tiny being gripping the rungs of her crib with all the outrage of a prisoner unjustly condemned. There was a note of terror in her voice too, because she was having trouble breathing. The soft glow of the night-light revealed eyes and nose completely clogged.
I gathered her up, murmuring our little code-words for consolation, silly sounds that I would not care for anyone other than her mother to hear. But these old favorites were just not working that night. She refused to be consoled. I slumped into the broken rocking chair beside the crib and began to wipe her nose and crusted eyes. Her limbs were tense, hands clutching my robe, her body shuddering and wailing in my arms. I reached down to see if safety pins had come unsprung or if her diaper was loaded, and sure enough she was badly in need of a change. She didn’t want to be put down, and her anguish turned to hysteria as I lifted her onto the change-table. First things first, for her pants were leaking as badly as the roof. But she struggled against my help. One frantic leg lashed out and pushed a pin into my thumb. Another bit of gymnastics and she had tangled the diaper and its contents all over my hands, herself, and the table. Then, for one shattering moment, her mouth found my ear and bellowed into it with full intensity. I gritted my teeth. A flash of anger ran through me and was quickly gone. I had never seen her like this, though mother had told me that it does happen. In the semi-darkness I could not quite see what I was doing. I flicked the switch and suddenly we were flooded with blinding painful light.
Truth is sometimes like this. It is a searching light that reveals the dark areas of our beings, the shadowy rooms where we hide and refuse to trust. I examined my little flash of anger now and was ashamed. Anger, I knew, has its roots in fear, lack of trust. A father at night may be afraid of any number of things: sickness, poverty, chaos, isolation, the collapse of the roof, the car breaking down again, his own mortality . . . or, even more to the point, a father at night may fear that he will be unable to meet his family’s needs; that he will fail in his responsibilities and thus his beloveds will suffer because of him.
My wife mumbled from the other room, asking if I needed to be rescued. But I, in a voice of supreme calm (despite the fact that I would indeed have liked to be rescued), called out that all was well, all under control, and she should sleep. It was true, for a measure of physical order had been restored. I turned off the light and carried the baby back to the rocking chair, the one with the cracked leg that squealed (When was the last time I had put off fixing it?). I rocked and rocked, holding her against my chest. Between squeal and wail it was quite a symphony. She would not stop crying, though the hysterical note was subsiding.
In the night a father’s raw nerve ends may begin to show, his hidden neuroses begin to push up through the darkness like mushrooms. The innumerable little trials and strains of raising a family can add themselves up to a considerable weight, especially if in coping with the storm of a thousand daily demands a father begins to forget bit by bit where his strength comes from. A father, he knows, must be strong.
Yes. But a father must also know how to be weak. For weakness comes to us all and is a blessing or a curse according to how we respond to it. In the night it may be hard for a father to grasp this, for the dangers of life can thrust themselves like specters before his eyes: the corruption of morals in the surrounding society, the speed with which nations can rush to the edge of total war, the economy teetering on the brink of disaster . . . he can go on and on, if he allows himself. Without realizing it, he could reach for the weapons that those without faith use to protect themselves. In the night, alone and afraid, he can feel overwhelmed and the temptation can be intense.
“Where is God,” my heart cried. “Has he abandoned us here in the darkness, in the dead, cold depths of winter?”
As if in answer, a memory came to me: The day after this baby was born, her mother was attacked verbally by a stranger in the halls of the hospital. My wife had at first found him to be an intelligent and “grandfatherly” man, successful, vigorous in his 70s, and concerned about many social issues. In the course of their conversation he had asked if the baby was her first. When she said proudly that this was our fourth, his face had dropped and he began to bitterly and sarcastically criticize her for “polluting” his world with too many children. She handled him with her special gift of patience and mercy, but he stormed away after hurling some final insults. This was certainly not a common incident, but it was a sign of the times nonetheless. She suffered over it all that day until one of the nurses told her that the Pope John Paul II had been shot that very morning. Our own small blow was absorbed in this larger wound to the Church, and we saw for an instant the mysterious unity of all suffering in the Body of Christ.
Now, here we were, a year and a half later. Here we were, still suffering. But why did it not seem spiritual and meaningful? Why was it just raw, ugly, miserable suffering with no mystical overtones and no inner consolations? I tried to pray but God seemed absent and the words were as dry as Adam’s dust. I was empty. A sterile heart with nothing left to give. No gush of affection for this poor squalling creature whom I had helped to make, no pious feelings of union with Christ on the Cross. No nothing! But at least, I reminded myself, at least I have my will. I can choose to give the last dregs of whatever is down there in the bottom of this empty barrel of myself. And then I will scrape the barrel’s bottom and then keep scraping if necessary. For the rest of my life if I have to!
I began by croaking out the broken words of an old poem. Then I tried to sing it, and the sheer oddity of this caught the baby’s attention.
I looked at my daughter and she looked at me. The melancholy verse suited us both. I gave her a reassuring smile, though our moods were identical. The rhythm of the song melted into the cycle of the broken rocker, as the man and his daughter were swept gently into the sea, the great waters of God’s silence. Her cries sputtered and failed. She was quiet under the weight and warmth of my hand. “Well,” I thought, “when everything’s taken away from you, maybe they leave you a few little things like this: the only kind of power that means something. A warm hand and a song.” Her bird hands fluttered and she gave me little pats on the shoulder, a small mother consoling the consoler. We were both feeling somewhat better.
As we continued to rock and listen to the wind and snow blowing outside the rattling windows, I now found himself with a great deal of time to think. “It is winter; it is night,” I thought. “And Christmas is very much over.” I remembered that this would be about the time of year when St. Joseph and Mother Mary were heading into big trouble. The angel told Joseph to take Mary and the child and flee to Egypt, and so the father of that family took them and set off into the unknown. Did Joseph know what was happening behind him in Bethlehem—the city of the Messiah now bathed in the blood of children? Did it seem strange to him, the angelic instruction to flee back to Egypt, into the ancient site of Israel’s bondage? What thoughts and feelings went back and forth in Joseph’s heart as he camped somewhere at night in the desert? Did he fear, did he have a moment’s doubt? Did he remember the warning of the angels and wonder if it was “just a dream” and he a fool, a dreamer?
Did he tremble at the seeming madness of this act, to flee one’s own people, one’s nation, to go willingly over into exile? Did he remember that Abraham before him was called to leave his country, and obeyed, though he did not understand? Was Joseph given a glimpse of the offspring, “more countless than the stars of the sky,” who would be given to him through his act of obedience, though he did not understand?
As I sat rocking in the dark, I wondered if Joseph on a night much like this had sat by a fire in the darkness and cold, thinking about life as his wife and child slept beside him. Did he search the sky for the great star, and ask if it would ever come again? Perhaps he was blessed with perfect peace and absolute confidence in the providence of God. Or possibly, like the rest of mankind, he was left to feel burning in his bones the insecurity of being human. Powerful signs had been given to him, angels in dreams, a star, magi . . . yet man cannot live on signs, for he would soon become dependent on them. Man lives by faith, and if from time to time the veil is parted briefly, it is to encourage us for a specific task or to sustain us through an especially difficult period that we could not otherwise endure. But it is the gift of faith that we stand most in need of. It is faith that is the great teacher and molder of our hearts.
Faith is the refiner of our souls as gold is tested in fire. When all our other strengths fail, we can discover at the base of our empty souls a mysterious silent wealth. There at the bottom of the barrel is the real strength, not power or resources, nor worldly wisdom nor a solid defense system, but rather the will to continue to love and to live by the truth. The human will—that curious faculty which so often reaches for illusory wealth and power and weapons, and even, at its worst, the ultimate illusion of being lord over all it surveys. But when we are stripped down and know our fundamental human weakness, then faith whispers the gentle, startling, and very good news that we are not God, that we need a saviour, and that there is a Saviour.
St. Joseph was like us in all things. He must have had to learn some of this the hard way. Did he feel his weakness? Was he overwhelmed for a moment in the dark by his impossible task to shelter and shepherd this mysterious child, a child already hated and feared by the world? Did he cry out into the silent face of the desert or lift his eyes to the night sky in search of signs of hope? Did he beg for words of reassurance? Did any words come? Surely he recalled the ancient songs and cries of his people, the words that had once consoled them. Did Joseph chant the old poetry of the Psalms, singing, “Come quickly, God! My helper, my saviour, Lord, come without delay!”
Did he then look down at the sleeping child and begin to understand that this small, fragile son might indeed be God’s answer to him, a word who in his weakness would be stronger than all the accumulated fear and hatred in the world? Did he grasp the incredible message here in this sleeping baby—that God was not late, but early? Did he understand that the Father had gone ahead of all our fears and our endless doubts and questions, and had come down to be with us as a wordless child?
Strangely, my own heart was now quiet. As I thought more and more about that very good man Joseph, who stood firm in a radically insecure place so long ago, I knew that the Father’s word to me was the same as the one spoken to him. It is a word for the anxious hearts of all fathers. I had a sense of it. But I couldn’t quite hear. I was still afraid, afraid of my own weakness.
If I have to, I thought, I will rock this little girl all night long in order to hear. I was strangely content to do so. If she needed me, I could carry this little beloved all through the night.
“Yes,” I whispered, “I have nothing to give. That is what I give to you, Lord. Yes.”
Suddenly, without warning, gently and firmly, the word I had been straining to hear all my life as husband and father was there:
“It is I,” said the Word. “It is I whom you are washing when you change her diapers. It is the Christ child you bear through the night. I am with you. I am with you always. In your weakness. In your winters. Will you trust me?”
I heard these words in the deepest part of myself. And I, still a child myself, was consoled. God was not absent, but was pressing me against His breast until my own cries were stilled.
I began to listen then. Later, over the following months and years, I would often forget what I had heard. I would sometimes disbelieve it in the flurry of distractions and burdens, sufferings, celebrations and joys. But the words would return. I would recall the great peace and stillness which filled the whole world that night, even though the world appeared to be falling apart. I began to pray the psalms whenever I could not sleep or whenever I lost my bearings in the desert of the modern age. The psalms, I found, were the words of the Holy Spirit uttered in King David’s heart, and those words were the cry of humanity calling for the Father’s hand to come to them. By praying them I was united with God’s children of all times and places.
I had thought that God was silent. I discovered that I was deaf. I am still learning to hear, but on that night in the darkness I first learned to listen. I heard a music which I had not suspected was there: the song of holy poverty, a child breathing easily at last, the cry of a night bird, the poetry of wind, and the whispering of snow. And in the depths of night a train’s horn echoing across the breast of darkness. In that silent moment it seemed to me a reflection of the final trumpet, of a great and awesome beginning lying somewhere distant. Then the life of my wife and my children came before me with greater clarity than I had ever known. I had seen no star. I had heard no angels. Yet within my own arms lay a child as pure as an angel, and something more than an angel, for she is a living icon of Christ, an image of the unseen God, a strong and beautiful word made flesh, never before seen, never to be repeated.
She was very fragile and very strong. She would awake to know what she is for, to find her tongue, to sing her thousand songs. And though the cities of our time are running more than ever with the blood of children, still her word will be uttered and the darkness cannot silence it.
I lifted her and carried her to the crib. She sighed and turned, arranged her own body. I laid the quilt gently over her, then paused to pray in words that are soundless. I saw that, outside the window, snow continued to fill up the universe like God’s mercy poured out over the world.
As I closed the door she sang softly, “Night-night, Dad!” As fragile as a Bethlehem stable, as poor as Nazareth. I laid my body down in bed. Then, from the material of my little sufferings I weaved a word of thanksgiving.
This article is from Michael D. O’Brien’s book, Father at Night, published by Justin Press, Ottawa. www.justinpress.ca. The baby is now married and the mother of four of the author’s grandchildren.