Category Archives: Fatherhood

Lessons In Courage from an Absent Father

I’m doing a Bible Study called “Stepping Up: Becoming Men of Courage” from Dennis Rainey at Family Life. The first lesson was defining and exemplifying courage. And sure enough in the discussion phase the questions to the group were things like “What is the most courageous thing you’ve done” and “Who is the most courageous person you know in your life?”

I’ve never been asked either question before. I’ve never really given either question much thought. But.. Here is my answer to the second question – My Father.

Now if you were to tell 12 or 13 year old Mike Walsh that I’d be saying that now. I’d probably laugh at you. I’d probably antagonize you and give you a healthy dose of angry sarcasm. You see, 12 or 13 year old Mike was a “Survivor” of Child Abuse. He was an angry kid who had an excuse for anything not right in his life “Oh.. I was abused.. I can’t help it”.. In the summer of my 12th  year of life I received this award called the “For Courage to Tell” award – I was a hero for not letting my abuser intimidate me into silence. For speaking up for all the kids who don’t. I received this award at a fancy banquet and had a bunch of Boston area media elite patting me on the back… I remember the trophy. This big pewter eagle deal that had the words “The Honor and the Glory” written on it. We called it “Thag” growing up. I don’t know what happened to it. I received it for bold courage. I was a courageous young boy who at 7 or 8 started talking to therapists, police and a court system about my story. About my family. My brother and sister talked to but they were young. I was the courageous one…

Except.. That I wasn’t courageous.. If you see my father’s day posts, you’ll see that the history isn’t what the history appears to be. You see.. I wasn’t abused. Not by my father anyway. By a system, by some therapists, by others who were supposed to protect and care for me. But not by my father..

I can’t get into how it happened and that doesn’t matter but it happened.

I’m a dad now. I have three kids who I love and care so much about. I am in the 3rd week of hosting an orphan from Ukraine who I love like a father and have to “let go” of in less than 2 weeks. Being a dad to these 3 (+1) kids gives me a different lens to look at my father in and some of the decisions he made in his life and why he made them. And some of the decisions he made for our benefit break my heart for him. But…. As a dad.. I understand them.

And that’s why my father is perhaps the most courageous person I personally know and care about. He taught me a few things through his courage and these are lessons I hope to be able to teach my kids as I grow older (and, sadly, balder – just like him)

Integrity Matters. The Truth Matters

I’ve pored through court documents, talked to other people involved or on the shoulders of the case. One of the things I learned is that my father, partially due to the weak case the prosecution had, had the opportunity to accept a really easy plea deal.. No more court, no more court appointed therapy visits for him, no jail time, just a little probation (and in the days before he’d have to register as any offender), no felony.. Really easy deal to accept.. Except that he wouldn’t. Really, he couldn’t. He didn’t want us to see that. He didn’t want to admit he did something he didn’t do. His family pleaded with him to take that deal. They saw his outlook on life and his life being torn apart. He wouldn’t. He had the courage to stand firm in what he knew was true.

Sometimes Crappy (for you) Decisions are Best (for your kids)

This is the one that crushes me more. Not a guilt. He and I are good and we have a fun time laughing at our past and the system. But it crushes me as a father. I am finding myself moved to tears thinking about our host daughter going back to her orphanage. I find myself homesick and missing my own kids after just a few days when I travel, like a physical pain in the stomach. I have that same feeling knowing that “our” girl is going back to her orphanage and hoping and praying that we can see her again and influence her life in some way. I have a taste of what it would be like to not see my kids and to miss them. Just a taste.

You see.. My dad had the opportunity to push for visitation rights after our case winded down and fell apart. The state ended up dropping the charges/giving him a deal that had no admission of guilt, no convictions, just an agreement that he wouldn’t fight for visitation. He couldn’t keep that end of the deal, though. He had already lost so many years of our lives, he already was letting this grief eat him up – his own kids – he couldn’t agree to that. So he fought. And what he saw back was a 12 or 13 year old boy angry at the world. Heart clenched in a big curse to the world  and even more so to him. I was confused and was in one part thinking it was all made up but in another part saying “it must be true” and I believed that my dad was an evil and manipulative man intent on ruining our lives. So I fought. Letters to him, arguments with any guardian ad litem who suggested it would be good to see him. Reached out to the news and press because I was told and felt that my rights were being violated and if I said “no visitation” I shouldn’t have it forced on me – and certainly not my poor brother and sister.. So I fought. I fought for me. I fought for my family.

He saw me fight. He saw the hurt I had, the anger I had. He knew he did nothing, but he saw my reaction. And he felt that pushing further would drag us back into court. He knew that it would hurt us further and confuse us more. He wanted so badly to see us. So while I fought… He withdrew.

He gave up the fight. He stood down. He put his hook (he has one arm.. he has a prosthetic hook for the other one he uses sometimes) and shield down. He left the battlefield. That’s Courage. If I wasn’t a father, I would say “what a wimp!! He gave up! He stopped fighting! He isn’t courageous!” – But.. I would be so wrong. He put our needs and his love for us ahead of his needs and his heart’s desire – to know his own kids!! – I can’t describe the unbelievable amount of courage and love that took. He basically said “It’s time to stop fighting. I’m killing my kids. The truth is the truth and they may someday be back in my life, but if I love them, I have to stop this fight. They’ll get to know me when older, I hope”.. He decided to live a life that meant tears when he saw a father giving a daughter away at a wedding on TV. He decided a life of pain every graduation season, a life of hearing other people brag about their kids and just talk about the fun times they had together. He chose a life of missing us so much. But he did it for us.

That’s Courage.


Lessons From my Father

I have to apologize about the partially borrowed title… Thankfully my father’s politics haven’t rubbed off on me… He’ll enjoy the title of this post and get the joke if he can figure out how to use his computer… I’m not going to describe eating any weird foods or anything in this post…

You were probably one of the 2 people who read the first post about my childhood and why these lessons maybe mean a bit more to me and why they ring in my head lately as I see me easily able to turn into a true workaholic and even see me not spending the time I could be with my own kids. Our situation isn’t dire. I spend time with them and I’m not separated but the lessons remind me that time is short and I need to get on this now. My oldest is around the age I was when I last really saw my dad as a kid in a healthy father-child relationship. That’s sobering.

Anyway, on to the lessons…

Dads Make a Difference

I can easily sit here and tell you my life would have been different with my father in it. Not just because the negatives I described in the first post would be missing – but because I’m confident he would have actively made a difference in my life. From the simple things like discipline in finishing school, the importance of integrity, to self confidence and enjoying life’s bumps – I missed out on not having him and his personality in my life. Us dads play a role in shaping our children. If we are absent by choice or by circumstances – there will be a difference in our kids.

Time with Dads Make a Difference

I have memories of my dad even from back then. All small things but all memories that tell me he had an impact on my life. All memories that tell me even just the little things made me feel special. Fishing. Going on a family camping trip in the woods (details are sketchy but I remember tents and having fun). Waking up early to play blocks or catch a glimpse of dad on his way to the train station. Playing in the new pool with him.

Insignificant Moments Aren’t Always Insignificant…

“Helping” him with yard work and enjoying that sip of Pepsi (in his absence I realized Pepsi is horrible and am a proud Coke drinker now…) after working hard outside – always and still tastes better.. I think he had a beer while I had my pepsi but to this day – and I’ve never told anyone this – every.single.time I have a sip of coke after working outside it reminds me of dad. It always did, it always does and probably always will. Growing up and as an adult I’d instantly have my mind back on our house and him when I have a sip of coke after working outside on a hot day. Came to mind yesterday after stacking wood for awhile, in fact. It’s a good great feeling. I remember being happy, at peace, laughing, feeling unburdened and just having fun and knowing my daddy loved me. It was a moment. Looking back – it was something stupid. Something silly. I’m sure to my dad it was just something to do after yard work. For some reason it stuck for me and was a memory that I’ve cherished. So… As dads, we don’t need to focus on big events, on looking for significance or trying to force meaning… We just have to be there and enjoy each day… The kids? They’ll drive significance from extremely ordinary events – if we share them with ’em.

Divorce Does Affect Kids

I remember standing at the top of the stairs screaming and crying with my sibligns at 5 or 6 as he was packing his bags and leaving. I remember how great it was on the weekends he would come over as they were separated, but before allegations came out.. I remember us kids running after his car laughing when he’d leave, but so torn and sad on the inside. I remember being confused and having no way to express that confusion. All I knew is that dad wasn’t here always anymore and it felt weird.

Time is a Precious Gift

Dad had 6 or 7 good years with me.. The first 2 were spent with me as a strong willed brat then a strong willed motor-mouth (I know what you all are thinking…) He enjoyed himself, I don’t remember a single bad memory of my time with him from the few I have of those days. I remember him being patient and laughing… He had only 4 or 5 good years with my brother and not even that many with my sister. As a busy dad who sometimes gets stuck in that “I’m providing, that’s important, once we get ahead there will be time” trap this lesson stings the hardest… It’s a Biblical lesson, too… Our days are numbered – make the most of them. It is so easy to get caught up in this project or that thing – but for 12 more years I have a daughter that lives at home.. For 14 and 16 more years I have sons that live at home. I see the pain my dad is still stuck with. I see the pain that was in my life for so long and even still there in pockets because I didn’t have him. I couldn’t know him as a kid and have to get to know him as an adult…

This lesson is probably most important… The time you have today – the time I have today – could be the last day. TODAY is the most important day and your kids – my kids – are going to remember what we did with them on this day.. They are going to remember what we didn’t do with them on it, too. Lately if I were to watch a video playback from their eyes, I think I’d see a lot of the cats in the cradle song playing back at me. I think I’d see an ambitious dad who thinks he is doing right to serve his family financially by trying to be the best he can be in his career field when…

Kids Don’t Want Perfection – They Want Dad.

My dad at the time was a disability processing clerk for the state, I believe. He’s a supervisor now and he’s risen up the ranks but he didn’t live, eat and breathe work – He wasn’t his job. He wasn’t his career. He was Dad who had a job but then was Dad at nights and on weekends. That’s what our kids want. US… Being awarded twice as a Microsoft MVP is a cool honor, but having my daughter draw me something just because she loves me should be what electrifies me – it does, but sometimes I get so busy I miss enjoying that moment. Hearing my middle boy talk about his love of “sea creatures” beats talking at a conference and being on the receiving end of the youngest’s remorseful kisses and hugs after a frustrating moment beats any compliments on a session evaluation. I don’t know what my dad would be willing to give up to get those moments back, but I bet it’s a lot. So those of us dads who have those moments in front of us and ahead of are the lucky ones. We need to enjoy them, even on a day we may not feel like enjoying it.. Even when a customer’s world is falling apart.

My dad would literally have friends of his get pictures and updates of us for him. He even told me he sat in our woods a couple times just to watch us play… Sounds creepy? Not really, he lived for those moments and risked a lot to just witness them. Those of us who still have access to our young kids? We risk missing the blessing we have right in front of us… One of my dad’s biggest pet peeves is deadbeat dads.. Dads who have the ability and legal right to enjoy their kids but choose not to. He has hindsight. He knows they are going to hate what they missed out on and it frustrates him. I don’t want to be beaten up by hindsight on the things I could have done better with my kids someday, neither do you.

Dads Make Sacrifices for their Kids

In his case he agreed to bottle up his desire to see us as I mentioned yesterday. He gave up on his desire to enjoy us because he didn’t want to hurt us. Just hearing my dad talk about fatherhood, I can tell that was something he was looking forward to his whole life.. Looking back at his family, I don’t blame him. Family is everything to them. His sacrifice is one I understand but one I can’t begin to imagine having to make. He allowed himself to be crushed and have his heart torn out just so we wouldn’t be crushed or wounded further by a screwed up judicial and family court system.

 If you can’t laugh at yourself, you shouldn’t laugh at all..

I’ve somehow managed to inherit my dad’s literal sense of humor. His sarcasm. His sense of being a practical jokester… Even though he wasn’t in my life as a kid I’m stuck with his genes – even balding the same way. He loves making people laugh. I mentioned in the last post he has one arm… Every winter he holds a “Left handed glove drive” at his office. Everyone who had unmatched gloves left over are encouraged to bring him their left gloves.. Sometimes he’ll have a coat on, with his left sleeve limp and quickly shove it into a closing elevator door, scream out in pain and eventually let folks in on the joke… I don’t know if I’ve gone a visit with him without a series of jokes and at least one practical joke on his younger sister (Trisha was and is tortured by her brothers, but they do it in teasing love) or his niece. We share some pretty off color jokes. Not dirty jokes, just inside jokes about our situation. Things that probably sound off to those who don’t know us but we can take 15 years of crap and get miles of laughter from them.

 My Dad had Dreams –

I’ve talked to my dad about his perspective over the past couple years in particular. Some of the things he’s revealed to me through those conversations and some of the little things I’ve heard him say have me realizing I really have a special dad and I would have felt loved, wanted and cared for my entire childhood with him in it. I have so many more lessons that involve my siblings lives but I’m not going to go there. I do want to share a few of the things I’ve noted from talks with dad, though. These are about the dreams he had and the things that struck me…

He can’t watch weddings (real or on TV) without having to stop watching at one part.. He can’t stand to watch someone walk their daughter down the aisle because he knew he’d likely never get to.

He dreamed of being a destination house for us and all our friends.. He used to imagine weekends of us and all our friends hanging out using our pool, with him cooking hotdogs and hamburgers for everyone – watching us have fun, giving us a hard time, undoubtedly.

He imagined being at our graduations, being there for the birth of our kids, etc.

Basically all the things that we can take for granted became hopeful dreams in the absence of us. He talks of living a lot of those dreams through my own kids – his grandkids – I just hope his health maintains, he’s able to retire soon enough and he’s able to allow himself to get close enough to them through the scales of pain he’s built around his heart.

I could keep going. I won’t. The biggest lesson of all – the theme here, I guess – is to just appreciate what you have… You may not have it forever.

A Father’s Day Series

I honestly couldn’t think of a title here… I’m starting a series of 3 posts on father’s day and what better way to start than with some catharsis. It’s long, sorry, It was a quick write.

An Introduction

We are a few weeks away from father’s day here in the US and I want to share some thoughts on being a father that I’ve learned from my own father and his family. Before I do that… I want to take you on a high altitude cruise over my childhood. I think it’s important to try and highlight that these lessons are even more special, since I didn’t have access to them for 15 years of my life, basically… So that’s what this first of three posts is about. The next two are about my dad and his family and the lessons I’ve learned and still need to work on applying. Before I go farther.. I want to say to you that I’m not trying to lay blame in this post. I’m not trying to create strife in either side of my family, I’m not looking for or making excuses for anything in my life and I’m certainly not looking for sympathy or validation. I’m not talking in depth about siblings or other family members here, I haven’t consulted them and I’m sharing my thoughts of the past 26 years (still can’t believe it’s been that long since I’ve been 7)

Some Background

From the age of about 7 until the age of about 22, my dad wasn’t in my life. Well he wasn’t… But his name always was. An intense anger towards him was for a lot of that time. A fear of him was there. Sure I’d see him sometimes at court hearings, I’d talk about him to countless therapists for most of my life and he seemed to be a good excuse for all that was wrong in our house growing up.

You see, I grew up as an abused child. I was a victim – well no, my mom heard someone use the word survivor once and thought that more empowering – so I was a survivor of child abuse. My father – my one armed, skinny father – had abused me. In elaborate ways – like the “electric suitcase” I described once on the witness stand… A device that would get plugged into a wall outlet (110 volts) and somehow send electricity through two handcuffs – one affixed to each wrist – and yet leave no permanent heart injury, bruise or burn somehow. There were a few attempts at sexual abuse that went nowhere. There were beatings, threats with knives, clown costumes and repeated exposures to scary behavior….

Well… That’s what I said anyway. That’s what I said in therapy sessions, apparently. It’s what I said to judges, lawyers, juries and guardians ad litem. But you know what? None of it happened. Yes.. I remember he and my mom fought a lot. I remember he lost his temper a couple times and would run at my mom and then stop, to scare her… To be a jerk, I guess. But even those situations I can look at with a slightly different lens now. Not a condoning one, but one that understands there are two sides to every story and while that behavior is not acceptable – people can screw up in tough situations…. But me? No.. I’ll talk about all the good memories I have in the next post, in fact.

I am not going to get into how I think this happened or what may have caused it all to boil up. I have my theory and the important people involved understand that theory. Right around the time our  case was getting going, a witch hunt was on in the MA court system. Child abuse was a big deal, prosecutions were up and there were likely other bad cases going through the system, some more famously documented and debated. That didn’t help things. I remember the excitement with which therapists would ask leading questions, “Show me how your dad would hit you?!” and the interest in the answers. I remember the attention from mom. I remember having a badge to wear.

So on prosecutions went until the prosecutors had to drop the charges because they knew they wouldn’t get anywhere. My father refused to take a plea bargain with an admission of guilt – even with no jail time. He refused to back down on his integrity and say he did something he didn’t. I’ve since heard stories from his close knit family of how they tried to convince him (along with his lawyer) to just do it and move on and say, “forget it”… He couldn’t. He wouldn’t. I now know that is because he was and is innocent. I can’t even begin to put myself in his shoes… Hearing those allegations from a child you loved so much. Knowing what the implications were on that relationship. I can tell you I have no clue what I would do in that situation. Tears well up just thinking of the potential… Eventually they offered him a deal that would have no admission of guilt and he’d just have to watch his step and also not force visitation rights for a period of time…

Well he quickly gave up on that end of it. He couldn’t not see his children. So he started fighting to see us shortly after the trials quieted. I can imagine the hope he must have felt… “They’re older. they probable remember now that it was all mistakes and nothing happened. I’m their dad and I love them.. They’re gonna want to see me.. They can’t keep me from them forever, I didn’t do anything… We’ll get through this and look back and laugh about it..”

Well that isn’t what happened. Instead the visitation proceedings started. By this time I was maybe 11 or 12.. I was tortured. Conflicted. On one hand I remember staying up in bed at night – not being a Christian or having an understanding of grace – literally thinking, “Oh man… We lied.. I lied… Dad is potentially going to jail (I didn’t understand the deal he agreed to) and it is my fault.. I don’t understand this but I screwed up his life.. I swore on a Bible at court.. I’m doomed to Hell – whatever that is…” So on one hand I really felt like something was wrong with our story… But somehow on the other hand I had this hatred for my dad. I had this hatred for a system that was trying to make me visit him. Again, I can’t go into how I could be tortured here without causing more hurt than worth but I understand now… I think I welled that fear of what I’d done to him, that hurt, that despair – I welled all of that into the anger and frustration I had. I let the fear and worry take over and more or less bottled up the thought that he was innocent way down inside.

And I FOUGHT. Looking back I’m proud of my fighting skills while utterly embarrassed and broken up about who I was fighting. About what I was fighting. I let myself believe that I was an abuse victim. I let myself believe this evil system was going to decide for me if I should visit my “abuser” (how we often referred to him….) So I did what any normal 12 year old would do… I wrote a letter. I wish I still had a copy but it quoted the declaration of independence, it quoted the star spangled banner and it was full of passion. It was an angry letter but it must have been convincing. I ended up photocopying the heck out of it with the help of teachers and I mailed it to everyone.. Radio, TV, State legislators, federal legislators, courts, etc. Stories were written in papers, NPR interviewed me, statehouse reps called me and a TV station interviewed mom and me… the victims… A bill was introduced (and it was poorly written and never passed – thankfully looking in the rear view mirror of my own situation) that basically said anytime there was even an allegation of abuse – a child could decide in their own mind what was in their best interests, instead of the court. I was incensed that here I was, a “mature” 12 or 13 who thought he understood the world having decisions made in the “best interests of the child” by a court system that didn’t appear to care what he or his mother said…. Well when I fought….

He retreated…  It wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t because he did anything to me. It was because he saw me fighting. He saw my venom. He has even since told me he secretly liked my letter when a copy made its way to him. He was even proud that TV news crews were trying to hunt him down at his place of work.

His retreat, though, wasn’t because he was mad or that he started getting threats and funny looks – like he was a child abuser who hurt his own kid (he did get those comments and those looks) … No… It was because he loved us… Because he saw the fighting. He saw the hurt and he remembered the first court fights.. He knew that it wouldn’t end well for us. So… this father, whose only wish all these years was just to see and hold his kids gave up… Not in desperation.. I think it was in courage. he selflessly gave up on what he wanted to make it easier on us. Because he loved us.

For the next 8-9 years he got himself by with the hope that someday he’d get to at least know us. That someday he’d get to chat with us and tell us he loves us and maybe, just maybe, hear it back.

I can’t tell you what that would do to me. I can’t tell you what that would do to most people. Knowing my dad now, and not wanting to spill too many secrets, I’ll tell you one thing about him. It’s awfully tough for him to get really close to folks. I don’t blame him… For crying out loud, his own kids were ripped from him – and they were still alive and living just 30 miles away. I don’t know what that does to a man’s heart and I hope I never have to find out.

For those next 8-9 years my life wasn’t great either.. I was living a lie. I was becoming a fighter for children’s rights from ages 12 to 16 or 17. I was starting self help groups half heartedly for abused kids, with this whisper in the back of my head that it was all lies. I received a “for courage to tell” award at a public and swanky ceremony. Publicity increased, while I still had this subconscious unease about it all. I felt like a fraud, had convinced myself that I just repressed memories and was confused and kept going. It was probably easier to keep going then to come to terms with what the truth might possibly reveal about the past. Those sleepless nights went away, replaced by anger, behaviors that I wish I could take back, excuses, etc. As an adult I can vividly remember that feeling of lying in bed at night staring at a dark ceiling worried about what was going on – worried about the lies from the age of 8 to 11 or so, with no one safe to talk to about it… I remember being so confused, and internalizing all those feelings. I imagine him having even more nights like that than I did. So alone. Even in the midst of an awesome and loving family… So terrified and feeling like he was stuck in some weird dream or a Kafka novel – waiting for everyone to yell SURPRISE! and laugh about the joke…

The story doesn’t end there.. I’m so thankful it doesn’t. My girlfriend at the time (my wife now, btw) had to put up with a lot of annoying whine fests. She had to listen to me recount things and start to come to the realization that it was quite possible that nothing happened to me. I stole some strength from her and wrote a letter.. Forget what it said but it was a hi.. An I want you back in my life letter. I think I ended it with a deal… Paraphrased, “I have no clue what happened… If you did – I forgive you… If you didn’t, I hope you can forgive me.”

That letter, that borrowed strength, was the start of a new relationship. A lot of new relationships. My aunts, my uncles, my cousins, their kids, my father. My children’s “papa”, and my own papa. I’ve heard that he was a source of strength for my dad and he was just as broken about it as my dad was. I’m so glad he got to see that reunion and get to know me a bit again before he passed on.

So here I am… In my 30s… A father myself who has a long road to go to be a better father. I’ll save the next two posts for how this situation and my own father taught me a few lessons about being a dad.