For Father’s Day

June 13, 2018

“When a father gives to his son, both laugh; when a son gives to his father, both cry.”
William Shakespeare

We always had a dog when I was a kid, usually mutts dropped off at the fire station where our dad worked. When my younger brother Dave and I were both in junior high, he got to pick out the next family dog from a litter at another firefighter’s house. This was our first pure bred dog, a beagle that Dave named Duke. He was a sweet and feisty little dog, a perfect companion for a sweet and feisty little boy.

One warm night in September 1963, I was at home practicing the saxophone as a dutiful member of the 7th grade band. My older sister was a ballet class. Mom was cleaning up after dinner. Dad was on duty at the fire department. My two brothers were enjoying a romp through the neighborhood with their friends, and our beloved dog Duke. He was a typical Beagle, frisky and friendly to a fault, and clearly belonged to Dave.

As I tooted on the sax, I recall hearing the back door fly open and Dave screaming, “Mom, Duke got hit by a car!” I dropped the sax while mom dropped the dish towel, and together we ran outside. My older brother had Duke’s limp body in his arms. The dog looked like he was asleep, except for a tiny trickle of blood at the corner of his mouth.

“Mom,” Dave cried,” we’ve got to take him to Daddy.” Mom reminded Dave that Dad was on duty at the fire station and shouldn’t be interrupted unless it was an emergency.

Dave looked at Mom, with this own puppy eyes, now wide with terror, and begged, “Please, can’t we take him to see Daddy?” Mom agreed that this was a true emergency.

Dave got an old plastic dish pan into which our older brother, Mike, gently placed Duke’s body. We were all shedding silent tears, except for Dave. He kept talking to Duke in a soothing and supporting voice, while stroking his still warm body. “We’re going to go see Daddy. He’ll know what to do. Everything’s going to be all right. You’ll see. Daddy can fix it.”

Mike drove into the alley behind the fire station where only families were allowed. One of Dad’s fellow firefighters came bouncing out, wearing a grin that quickly faded into a grimace. He disappeared into the station while we got out of the car. Dave was carrying the turquoise dishpan that held Duke’s lifeless but still warm body. Soon my Dad came out to meet us. The other three on-duty firefighters, all family friends, stood behind him. No one said a word. It was like time stood still.

Dave broke the silence when he held the dishpan up to Dad. “Daddy, can you fix him?” Silence. Complete silence.

“Daddy, isn’t there something you can do? Anything?” More silence. The wind even stopped. No one dared speak.

Arthur “Bud” McKern, second row left

“Please, Daddy, please. Can’t you do anything?” Silence ruled again, until a small bubble welled up in Dave’s throat, unleashing a wave of sobs. That’s when I saw the first tear fall from my father’s eyes.

He stood in stillness; one hand on Dave’s heaving shoulder, the other touching Duke’s lifeless body. Dad’s tear-filled eyes were on Dave’s face, now contorted by the ravages of grief. There was nothing my father could do but stand as Silent Witness to the harsh reality of life. His little boy’s heart was breaking, and he simply allowed it. No fixing. No rescuing. No miracles. Just witnessing—in silence, in gratitude, in love. We all belonged to the moment.

My older brother gently took the dishpan out of Dave’s hands, as Dad welcomed the sad little boy into his strong arms. There they stood, that warm September night, father and son, weeping together in recognition of the joys and sorrows that come with life. I saw the other three firefighters wipe a few tears, a supportive back-up team for everyone present. Dad was there for Dave, and would always be there for him, and for all of us. We belonged as a family that night, sharing a common loss. Mom was silent as well and knew that she had to be strong for all of us, especially Dave.

As Father’s Day approaches, I again reflect on the bittersweet story from my childhood. For me, it reflects the essence of why the church fathers called the supreme being Father God. They imbued in Him the highest qualities of all fathers. God doesn’t fix things. God simply witnesses and reminds us that we are loved, cherished and supported, and that we are never alone. Thank you, Dad, Dave and Duke for reminding me.

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