When A Father Dies

May 3, 2017 by

I’ve thought about the Fifth Commandment a good deal lately. Partly because one of my best friends just buried her father. Indeed, he was my pastor and served as senior elder of our church communities for many years. But I knew him first as the father of my childhood and life-long friend, and it is always the nature of those first relationships that shapes the ones that follow. So as the parent at birthday parties and group get-togethers, he filled the role of father toward all the children in his home, his own and their friends. It was like this in the homes of all my friends, homes in which we felt secure and welcome.

Several of my life-long friends have lost their fathers, and every time this happens I reflect on the role my father played in my life. My father had five daughters before he had a son. Then I was born, the last child of my parents’ marriage. Six daughters. When I got married, the last to leave home, my father said half-jokingly, not a little proudly, and with a sense of amazement, “It takes six men to do what I used to do by myself.” How right he was.

A family photo from Carmen’s growing up years

Much has been written about the role of fathers, how it differs from that of the mother. There have been misguided attempts to obscure this difference, promoting the idea that a mother can provide everything a father can, and vice versa. And I would be remiss in not acknowledging and saluting the single parents who find themselves filling both roles, as they must.

In the fifty-five years of their marriage, my father and mother never attempted to play each other’s roles. They didn’t need to, and they complemented each other perfectly. My mother was the heart and soul of our family, the one who made social plans and hosted dinners, who taught us to write neatly and prepare a beautiful table. She cooked to shame a five-star restaurateur, and insisted that we sit straight and say yes and no clearly.

My father, on the other hand, was the moral and religious authority in our home. It was he who read to us from the Old and New Testaments, encouraged our academic and recreational activities, insisted we read the New York Times daily summary when we became teenagers, and forbade disobedience. The slightest hint of disrespect toward our mother was enough to incur Moses-like wrath, yet forgiveness was readily given when we made a contrite apology. Together they were unbreakable, and together they provided a security that was cemented when my mother stood in the circle of his arms, and he kissed the top of her head. She fit perfectly under his chin.

When my father died, a friend sent me a note of sympathy that included words she had read once, and which I have never been able to source on the internet. Nor have I forgotten them: When your father dies, there is no one between you and God. At first I was nonplussed; then something rang deeply true in my heart. I could never have said so in so many words, but I realized it was my father who was the magnetic north on the moral compass he set for each of his children. There were boundaries he set for us, and had I crossed them I would never have been able to look my father in the eye again. This was especially so when I left home after high school and went to college, living in off-campus housing. Whether my father knew my every move or not, I could not defy him.

So when he died, I discovered that he had indeed stood in God’s stead in our home, for each of his daughters. I believe this is what the Fifth Commandment is about. For it includes a corollary, one that promises wellbeing in the land given by God. It occurs to me now that this wellbeing is also in the land of our hearts and our psyches. It is this wellbeing that provides a sense of comfort when the ache of their absence is too great. And it is in these fields that honor is sown, grown, and harvested.


About the author

Carmen Hinkey

Carmen Hinkey

Carmen Hinkey and her husband Stephen live at the Mount Community in New York State.

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