In the lives of my step-children, children and grandchildren I’ve been called daddy, dad, Stephen, papou and occasionally a few other names by loved ones in times of great tribulation! Claudia and I began our family with her two daughters from a previous marriage. Ami, our oldest was run over by a car in 1982, a month and a half after our first son was born. Her sister Kelly was three and half years old at the time and witnessed the accident.
Our youngest daughter was born a year and half after our son. She is now 31 and married with a daughter 7, a son 2 and son 3 months old. My youngest daughter called me daddy into her twenties and when she spoke it, I felt it like some kind of vital nutrient refreshing parts of the frozen tundra of overworked places in myself, as if it were a gentle flame. When she was born the mid-wife put her in my hands and I cut her umbilical chord and suctioned the phlegm from her throat that was obstructing her breathing. She “pinked up” and then turned gray again. I slapped her feet and suctioned again. It took three times – and my wish was granted. The miracle of her life and adolescent adventures growing up are some of the hidden tattoos in my heart that tell of many moments of struggle, repentance, gratefulness, and JOY! (I’ll tell you a secret. Joy and gratefulness are all the greater because past sorrows and tests have revealed the existence of deeply rooted faith, courage, love and hard-won discernment in her as she has matured.) You really can’t be sure what kind of parent you have been until you see what kind of parents your children turn out to be. Even then it is very clear that there is a whole lot more involved than just you.
Our first-born son Gregory entered the world from a hospital instead of a natural birth at home like his sister, because he was having fetal distress, being turned the wrong way in the womb. He managed to enter the world face up, bruised and with blue eyes open. With the first sight of him—he looked like my father as an old man— came a Niagara of gratitude that still cascades quietly in my heart beneath the tumble of the most immediate things. I cut his umbilical chord. Why does that seem different for a boy? We men are attached and yet we are separated from our mothers in a certain ways that daughters aren’t. We named him after St. Gregory Palamas from the Greek word which means to keep awake and watch—something he was doing the moment he was born, already becoming familiar with the struggle needed to respond to the gift of life. One day he decided that shortening his name from Gregory to Greg was important in advancing his casual status among his peers. Curiously around that same time his name for me changed from daddy to dad as he began to work on severing another umbilical chord.
Now 33 years later as he enters his new career as a talented and promising award-winning landscape architect, he has returned to his full name, including the middle part after his great-grandfather. Gregory Trevathan Muse has a certain creative cachet that fits on the opening page of his portfolio, announcing his entry into a new stage of life after seven years in the corporate construction field. Still, the freedom and playfulness of childhood remains, burning beneath a cooler bravado and spills out in the raucous laughter of moments we have from time to time that haven’t changed since he was 14.
In our first years together, my stepdaughter Kelly called me daddy. After her sister’s death and a painful year and a half battle over custody arrangements, I became Stephen as her biological father assumed the primary role in her life. Stepping back was very painful for us, on top of having already lost one daughter. You turn to the serenity prayer to accept what you can’t change and you go to prayer more soberly and learn to look for the larger acts of God that are taking place for reasons you can’t understand. You bear what you face in hopes that, like the Holy Theotokos standing before the cross of her son’s murder, you can trust in God as she did, even while feeling the full impact of the pain and helplessness over things you wish with all your being could be otherwise.
Moving back and forth between two parental homes in separate states every other weekend in those early years involved a repeated painful lamentation. Kelly’s emotional umbilical chord was cut and stretched and cut and reattached again and again as she tried to cope with interrupted emotional bonds. The joys and heartaches of those times taught us all a great deal about love and forgiveness. One thing is that we learn more from our sorrows than we do our pleasures. The struggle to bear reality is humbling and more valuable than merely enjoying what goes easily. Elder Alexander of Gethsemane’s words encourage. “The amount of suffering the soul can accommodate is also how much it can accommodate the grace of God.”
Christians learn thanksgiving even for the suffering of our struggles, because God intends everything to help us find Him and this does not happen easily. St. Isaac the Syrian observed, “The knowledge of God does not exist in those who love comfort.” Healthy families are like monastic cells when it comes to the journey of salvation. They protect us and keep us together without letting us stay comfortable for too long. We are tested and shown the way to the Kingdom of God by how we face adversity, loss and the obstacles placed before us; repenting for our mistakes and forgiving the trespasses of others that affect us through no fault of our own. Such struggles render us more able to listen with awe to those words Jesus offered to the world from the cross as he was dying, including those who were murdering him: “Father forgive them for they know not what they are doing.” These are also words our children offer their parents as they grow up and parents offer their children as we are humbled by age.
One of the joys of being a father and papou now that my children are adults, is that I have the privilege of learning to know my children for the unique persons that they are, independent of who I thought they ought to be, or wanted or needed them to be at the beginning of the journey. The irony is that it is from the childlike part of my own heart, I keep learning a little bit more about the man I am becoming, in spite of who I thought I ought to be or wanted to be. As Christ becomes more central to our lives and orthodoxia (right glory of God at the center) replaces kenodoxia (empty glory of me at the center), we can understand and relate to our children, grandchildren, ourselves and everyone else with greater interest and compassion. There is far more enjoyment in this and more gratefulness in the face of all that we have encountered together. Come to think of it, that’s the same recipe for intimacy with my wife Claudia the degree to which Christ is in our midst shared between us!
We have all our childhood pictures framed on our bedroom dresser under the caption “All God’s Children are Loved.” We are each a family of souls arising out of nothing, who live together on this earth for a short while before disappearing again. In between, some kind of trace is made, etching a unique life on the great body of time. It is good to cling to God and place in Him the hope that when the Book of Life is opened by the Ancient One on the last day and the letters of our lives are read, by His grace and mercy we shall all be re-membered together and found around the Lord’s banquet table. Then, in a symphony of many voices conducted by the Holy Spirit, we will hear a paean of Eucharistic joy in the form of one marvelous word, Abba, Father! joining the chorus of the angels before the throne of God.