ROLAND WARREN: Father’s neglect left son with a hole in his soul

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I had never been so embarrassed in my life.

It was about seven years ago, and I was to give my first speech as the newly minted president of the National Fatherhood Initiative. For some reason, I ignored my prepared remarks and decided to start by telling the audience of about 300 people a story I had never told to anyone before — not even my wife.

“My father died about three years ago and I had a difficult time at his funeral. You see, although my father and I had a good relationship at the time of his death, the painful fact is that for much of my life, he was absent.

“Now, I certainly knew where my father was. He lived in my town. And, on special occasions like my birthday or Christmas, he would be sure to visit, gifts in hand. But in terms of ‘being there’ for me during the chaos that at times was my life, he just wasn’t.

“So, there I was at his funeral, seated in the second row next to my wife and two sons. People all around me were crying - some even wailing - but I couldn’t cry, not a tear. I wanted to cry. I felt obligated to cry, but for some reason I just couldn’t. In fact, as speaker after speaker came to the pulpit to testify and say wonderful things about my father, an anger - no better yet, a rage - began growing inside of me.

“At one point, a man came to the pulpit and said that not too long ago, he was in prison and that my father had come to him, helped him and supported him, and now he was delighted to report that he was on the ‘right path in life.’ He was even married and had kids.

“Well, by the time this gentleman finished his story, I was in a full rage. I could have punched somebody. A single thought flooded my mind: I had gone to Princeton and I had gotten an MBA from Penn, but did I need to go to prison in order to get my father’s full love and attention?”

Well, when I uttered that last line before this audience of 300, I burst into tears. I was sobbing uncontrollably. I tried for several long minutes to pull myself together, but I just could not. It was so bad that one of my college football buddies came to the podium to console me, but to no avail. Now, that’s embarrassing.

Over the years, I have reflected often about what happened to me that day. Those who know me well certainly would testify that I am not one to play the “crying game.” Before that day, as an adult, I had not cried much and when I did, it was never in public. But on that day, I made up for it. Because when I cried that day, I was not an adult. I was a little boy with a hole in my soul in the shape of my dad with unhealed wounds from years of feeling neglected and less than worthy.

As I have traveled the country to speak, I have met other wounded souls - adults and children - who long (or longed) for the special love and affirmation that only good fathers can give. Now, I cry for them and I cry with them. Indeed, I am blessed with their burden. It is what motivates me to reach as many fathers as I can as fast as I can, even when the money is short and the days are long. After all, the easiest wound to heal is the one that is never received.

Roland C. Warren is the married father of two sons and president of the National Fatherhood Initiative (www.fatherhood.org). Beginning in July, his column will appear on the first Sunday of the month in The Times. He can be reached at rwarren@fatherhood.org.

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