I drew back my fist and tried to defend my mother after my dad had struck her numerous times. I don’t remember my exact age, but I was around 4 years of age. It is etched forever in my mind and fuels my abhorrence of injustice and deep respect of women. Sometimes I close my eyes and it is as if I am there again.
In high school, it was endless cycle of verbal battles – and I could give much better than I would take. My dad, Francis Bowman, was a tough man. He was the 11th of 12 children of a moderately successful, yet well-respected father, who himself died way too early. It was hard for me to love him, yet other people told me stories of his constant charity and gregarious nature. He had a determined work ethic, often working two jobs, and he taught me to never expect to be handed anything in life. Certainly nothing would be handed to me under his roof. When I was 17 it escalated and he finally slapped me. I wanted to hit back at him, but somehow, I knew better. I yelled the words that I thought would hurt him the most: “I hate you.” And at that moment in my life, I did.
Hate is a motivating emotion. Fear, anger, and hatred are all painstakingly linked together. Much like love, all of them can serve to influence our behavior. My father had served his country during the Korean War in the United States Navy. So, after high school, I needed to show him that I was much tougher than him and I joined the United States Marines. I didn’t even bother to tell him until just a few days before I left for boot camp. It was the only time I ever recall seeing him cry.
It is an ancient ritual of fathers and their children. The child yearning to grow into adulthood, and a father’s tough love. Mothers can be demanding, but they have that nurturing and caring side that escapes most men. Fathers try to instill discipline in order to help their children succeed in a heartless, often uncaring, world.
When you become a father, you are reminded by memory and experience or from others and those lessons you pass along to your own children. The ritual of fatherhood continues. You will hear the words of hate spewed back at you, and it hurts. The emotional pain hurts more than any physical pain. At that moment you realize the hurt you caused your own father. It is then you start the healing process.
The Christmas before he passed away, my dad asked me to come see him. He handed me a wad of cash, and a newspaper with the price of hams circled. He then handed me a list of names and some addresses. He wanted me to deliver, in secret, hams to all those addresses, including many people I had never met. I had discovered he had been doing this much of his life for the underprivileged. I also learned from my Uncle that he had played Santa Claus at orphanages in South Korea while he was in the Navy. He said he would never play that role again, and he didn’t, because one little girl had asked him for a father. I started to understand him better.
My mother called me on that October day in 1991. You need to come home, your father is dying. I had heard that before. More to please her than to satisfy him, I went home. He was dying. But it would be a magnificent death. For once all was clear, pain seemingly gone. For just a few days he was able to apologize for all the wrongs he had committed or felt he had committed. Words were said that needed to be spoken, and a message was given that needed to be heard. He held nothing back, sharing a lifetime full of words in a few hours. His remorse was heartfelt and restorative.
Sitting there watching my father pass into his eternal reward, based on his Christian faith, I reflected on the broken man who raised me. It was years later when I was truly able to forgive. I don’t condone many of his actions, but I was able to move past them. I learned that I am much like my father in many ways. A strength, a toughness that is entrenched into my being that I inherited. I remember among his last words: “Life really is simple, we just complicate it. If I had to do it over again I would focus more on those things that are important, like faith and family.” I am my father’s son.
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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. You can follow him on Twitter at @jcbowman or visit his personal blog at www.jcbowman.com