When I was five years old, my birth mother abandoned my sister and me. She left us with some neighbors, drove to the airport and flew hundreds of miles away. She returned some nine months later -- this time, to kidnap us.
My birth mother did nothing right as a parent.
But that’s only the beginning of the story, the first chapter of a lifelong parenting book that my dad -- and subsequently my stepmother, who I’ve called Mom for almost 40 years -- have been writing beautifully for four decades now.
The greatest “right” thing my dad did was to stay. Staying is taken for granted until you become intimately tied to being left. Subtly, without ever talking about his decision to stay in my life and the life of my sister, he modeled a trait for me that now is my most cherished quality as a father.
In the weeks and months following our abduction, Dad could have caved. It was 1971. Dads didn’t get custody over moms, even ones prone to leave and then steal from their children what little sense of security they’d found since being abandoned. For Dad to stay in this particular arena, to not settle for anything less than total and complete custody of his children, cost him in every way. He was bled dry financially and was even bleeding on the inside from an ulcer that had take root in his gut.
He fought for three days to get me back. He fought for 18 months to get my sister back.
A few years later, he met a women who eventually became the mother I never had. She, too, stayed.
What else did they do right?
They modeled a love for each other that I learned from and now have with my wife. They told me they loved me every day, particularly my dad, but my stepmom, too. I never wondered if their love for me was based on my performance. Eventually, that led me to believe that God’s love for me was not performance-based, either. Not too many of us get to that place, where we really believe that, as author Brennan Manning said so often, God loves us just as we are, not as we should be.
They taught me manners, how to look an adult in the eye and shake his or her hand. They took me to church every Sunday, something that I didn’t do for my children. Looking back on both decisions, I can’t definitively opine as to which method was better. But I’m glad I went to church growing up. It established a foundation of truth. Sure, it took years to learn that man-additions and restriction on the gospel were not really the gospel. That sin-management was no way to live, that really and truly, the world will know we are Christians by our love, not by whether we sin less than others. But I did learn those things.
My dad was an all-state athlete in baseball and football. I was never brave enough to take up football and wasn’t good enough to make the high school team in baseball or basketball.
I never once sensed the least bit of disappointment from him that I had failed to be a chip off the old block. I’m not sure how he pulled that off, either. It’s one thing for him not to verbally belittle me because I wasn’t the athlete he was. It’s a whole other thing to have a kid, then a teenager, never once wonder if his dad was let down because of it.
The laundry list of things my parents did right, though, all come back to this. They stayed. In every since of the word, they stayed. Never underestimate the power of staying.