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I was talking recently with a high school student, a girl I’ll call Keisha, who lives in a single parent home with siblings and a wonderful, caring mother who has done a praiseworthy job of loving her children and raising them “in the way they should go” — a task, she would tell you, that takes strength and wisdom which she does not possess on her own. Keisha and I were sharing thoughts about the Christmas holiday when our conversation turned to her dad, a man whom she rarely sees and whom she only talks to a time or two a year, despite the fact that he lives less than a couple of hours away.
I asked her if she misses not having a father in her life.
She does. Enough to tear up at the question. She said that she misses having someone to help her make decisions. She misses having someone come to her special events at school and celebrate holidays and birthdays with her and her siblings. She misses knowing that someone is helping her mom with all that goes into keeping a household, providing for and raising children. She misses a lot.
And then she added, almost as an afterthought, that she wished she had a dad to give her a “special nickname.”
I’ve never thought of nicknaming as a parental duty or a child’s expectation but, in Keisha’s mind, a daddy-born term of endearment is obviously some sort of treasure lost. It is symbolic perhaps of the countless small things – the shared experiences, the unique language, the inside jokes, the quirks and habits — that make each family different from all the others, and every child seem one-of-a-kind in the eyes of their parents. I couldn’t help but wonder as I listened to Keisha how a dad could ever walk away from a daughter and essentially disown three children. And I wondered what their nicknames might be if their father had chosen to be part of their lives.
Last night, I had dinner with an old friend and his wife. We’ve not visited, at any length, in a couple of decades and had lots of questions about where the years have taken us. He’s a well-known and respected surgeon who is the proud, and very involved, father of three children, two sons and a daughter. She’s a full-time mother and does the work necessary to run a busy household. I asked them about their children.
When the dad started talking about his daughter, an eighth grader who is the youngest of the three, he simply could not find words to describe her. “It’s as if she belongs to another world.” I think he might have used the word “angel” a time or two, might have said that her feet don’t touch the ground. His praise of the girl made me want to write her a letter just to remind her how blessed she is to be the object of such a deep affection. Maybe I will. I would imagine he has a nickname for her. And while I am sure that my old friend would be quick to recognize her imperfections, they obviously do not dominate his perception of her or overshadow the good things that he believes to be true about her.
The contrast between the two girls, their dads, the realities in which they live and move, could not be more stark. I wish Keisha had a dad who believed in nicknames and who was committed to the hard work of parenthood. For now, I pray and trust that God can and will be the father she needs. And he calls her, and us, by names that only a doting father would choose for his children: beloved, little one, saint, bride, friend.
A few nights ago I was tossing and turning about something, something not worthy of sleeplessness but bothersome just the same, when I began to think of how God loves me. I brought to mind some passages that remind me of how, as a loving father, he wants good for me, always good. And as I thought of those nicknames and titles he gives to his children, so help me, the knot in my stomach eased up and sleep returned. I belong to a father who might well tell inquirers that, despite the spots and blemishes, his children “belong to another world.”
I pray that you can hear the God of all creation, the one who showed himself to us fully in Jesus, “rejoicing over you with singing” and calling you by name.