Fatherhood…the Whole World in their Hands

Even a dozen of the world’s strongest wild horses could not have prevented me from writing about fatherhood this year. No, not this year, just six months after the death of my own amazing father, and the deluge of memories his death has brought forth – so many wonderful, funny, sad and bittersweet memories that remind me of his indelible mark on my life.

The only bad thing about having someone like TJ Kearney as a father is that I find myself – unfairly, yes -  measuring all others by his life, his sacrifices, his commitments to his family, children, church and community.  The good thing is that I know without a doubt that good fatherhood has nothing in the world to do with ‘haves,’ in one’s life. One of TJ’s Sunday morning mantras was: “It’s what is inside of us that counts.” He believed that any man with the right stuff inside could be that phenomenal father that guides, shapes and prepares a child for a life of purpose, joy and a sense of giving back.

While there are endless memories I could share in honor of this Father’s Day, there is one particular story that best defines fatherhood, for me.  My father shared this new story with me on a day so much like many others I’d spent with him after returning to Arkansas in 2007. That day, I sat with him on his front porch, talking, laughing, enjoying the summer warmth he loved so much. The trains that passed like clockwork through the small town of Gould each day always brought forth new stories, old memories of his young love affair with trains.

We watched the cars and trucks lumber by, Dad waving back in response to the drivers who sometimes yelled greetings, sometimes softly blowing their horns.   We both enjoyed quiet as much as conversation, and both listened to the birds as they sang. I was always amazed when Dad could actually name the birds by their songs.  TJ Kearney was 105 years old, then. And, it was a wonderful and normal day in most respects, except that it would be seared into my memory – only to resurface now.

I can’t begin to imagine what it was that moved my father to enter a new story into the already large repertoire of stories I’d collected over the years.  But as I recall those many other stories; I know for certain that none of the others symbolize fatherhood like the story he shared that day. It remained in my subconscious, I believe, for a number of reasons. But, most specifically, was the fact that this was yet one more thing I’d not known, though I thought I knew so much.

I had learned the stories of TJ’s own `Papa’, and how as a child young TJ had followed him around like a pup, vowing he would grow up to be that special kind of father. I also knew of his parents’ constant moves through southeast Arkansas – from Lake Village, to Plum Bayou; the painful loss of his father at 11, and the trajectory of his own journeys – jumping trains, hiring out on ships, learning from a stolid Greek restaurateur how to cook Greek food in Chicago; and how to speak Spanish from a pretty Mexican girl out west.

As his children became adults with children of our own, Dad would share his stories with his grandchildren of his and my mother’s early struggles to raise a houseful of children on sharecropper’s earnings that never came until the end of the year- and were always pitifully inadequate for a family as large as ours. Those struggles, I am sure, were the impetuses for my parents’ shared frugality, their habit of creating something out of nothing – patching long-worn out shoes and jeans; creating home-made patterns for the girls’ dresses; making a meal out of bread, molasses and fatback – and working into the late evenings to ensure their spring and summer gardens would take the family through Arkansas’ often-times harsh winters. More importantly, I know it was the motivation for their instilling in us the importance of dreams, hopes, hard work and educational excellence.

I am mildly amused, now, when I read and watch Christmas stories. It is always the mother portrayed as she hurries and worries to ensure Christmas time is special for her children. Not so in the Kearney household. My parents were true partners in most things, including ensuring that Christmases were memorable for their children.  How they scrimped and saved and baked and decorated, all in anticipation of glimpsing the happiness and hope in our small faces on Christmas mornings. And, oh how our faces shone – from little sleep, and anticipation – as we claimed our tin foil pans of fruit, candy and firecrackers…and, when we were lucky, toys.

It wasn’t Christmas, and I was no longer a child when Dad gave me the gift of this new story from his life. He told it in a way that made me know the memory still seared his emotions. In his eyes, I saw, a remaining wonderment about the miracles of life.

TJ Kearney, the poor sharecropper, was in his early 40’s when he’d learned that his baby son was deathly ill, and neither TJ, nor Ethel had any idea of how to make him better. It was on a cold winter day that a young Ethel awoke, looked closely at her whimpering child and hurriedly awakened her husband to share her fear for their child’s life.

As fate would have it, TJ’s 1953 Chevy truck refused to offer even a sound that morning, no matter how hard he prayed – or cursed; and there was no neighbor with a car to come to his aide.

My father vividly described the eight mile walk that seemed like nothing less than 50, on that cold winter morning.  Though he’d more than once walked those miles from Varner Road to Highway 114, and into the small town of Gould; never with the weight of a dying child in his arms, and, that weight was multiplied by my father’s fear.

On that bright summer morning as we sat side by side; Dad remembered that both he and his child had shivered the full eight miles. By the time he arrived at his destination, he couldn’t feel his feet. No one stopped to offer them a ride on that unusually cold Arkansas morning.  Toward the end of his story, my father paused, his handsome face beaming, still, with gratitude for the young white doctor who attended his son and miraculously returned health and life to his small body…and, out of kindness, or wisdom, or both; charged the sharecropper `only what he could afford.’

My brother would have surely died had it not been for the good doctor, and most certainly had TJ Kearney’s commitment to being the best father had not been what it was.  Did he happily make the sacrifices demanded of him that morning? I believe not. But the depth of his investment in being a good father had been, maybe unknowingly, written into his blood.  He had witnessed amazing fatherhood in his own beloved `Papa,’ throughout his childhood.

I can only speak from the memories of a daughter, but my father’s story convinces me that fatherhood is not for the faint of heart, but something that tests men’s ability to transcend beyond their everyday selves. It is a commitment that calls on a larger person than they likely believe they are, and it demands sacrifices they may have never signed on for.

More than ever, our children are in need of those fathers who see beyond today and understand that what they sacrifice today, is an investment in theirs, and their children’s tomorrows. Fatherhood is both an honor, and a responsibility. No child asks to be brought into the world, but it is only fair and honorable that those who play a part in their births, provide them with the nurturing required to survive and, yes… to soar in this world.

Yes, in some very real sense, fathers do hold the world in their hands. I can only hope that, as TJ did on that cold winter day; today’s fathers will regard their precious cargo with that same sense of responsibility, same commitment. The joy, TJ believed, was in knowing you’ve lent a hand to God, helped him create something good, something purposeful… a better world for those who come tomorrow.

Janis F. Kearney