“In Search of My Father”. by Henry Regehr
My father was ninety-three when he died, alone, in the dark of night, in a dreary nursing home room. We, his seven children, knew little of his inner life. To me he was a great, threatening mystery. His touch had always been rough, often cruel. I do not recall a kind, supportive or nurturing word from him. He was a disciplinarian and harsh critic. Before his death he and I had a letter exchange in which he declared that the principle he followed in child-raising was to teach his children obedience. Of course, religious teaching was part of the process. He was a teacher of religion at a Bible School and in denominational high schools. He preached everywhere and was a recognized authority on Biblical interpretation. His discipline was heavily underscored with Biblical teaching.
In addition to being my father, he was my high school teacher and, at various times, the pastor of our local church. He was an overbearing and constant presence.
Often, he came home from preaching or teaching and would tell stories of wonderful experiences he had had with people who confided their deepest secrets, or who he had “led to the Lord”. I wondered why he could have these close relationships with strangers but be so distant with his family. He was an enigma. Who was my father? Many of his students adored him and told me, over the years, what a special person he had been in their experience. Why did I not have that kind of relationship with him? Who was he really? Why could he not hug his children or touch us with gentleness? I am in search of an answer.
He told stories of his childhood, of his youth, of his determined efforts to get out of communist Russia. They were intriguing fragments of his life: his escape from a train filled with White Army prisoners of war and how he bribed a guard with tobacco to open the door for a second to let him out, and how he ran behind a bush to prevent guards from seeing him, until the train started moving again. He talked about becoming a teacher in a village school when he was sixteen years old. Bits and fragments.
Visits to my parents, flying from Toronto to Vancouver twice a year, in order to establish a closer connection with him, did not break the wall between us. An exception came on my last visit, just before he died. Tearfully and with great anxiety, he said, “Is there really a God?” After a lifetime of preaching and teaching about God and His great works, that must have been a frightening realization.
It was a distressing question that has troubled me ever since. It became clear, in discussions with my brothers and sisters over the following years that, behind the stern wall he presented to his children, was a deeply wounded, uncertain, questioning man. He needed to be understood, forgiven and loved in a way he was unable to demonstrate to us and so we were unable to respond to his desperate hunger.
That was it, he needed to be understood and loved. I could catch a glimpse of my father’s inner life, in his old age, only when he prayed. “Herr Jesus” he would begin, and then he would pour out his soul, with deep emotion, tears in his eyes. I knew he was struggling with something and I looked forward to our visits partly to hear him pray. I could, in those minutes understand a bit of my father’s inner life. As soon as he said “Amen” he would revert to his curt, sharp self. I wish now that I would have asked him to pray more often and longer. Possibly, just maybe, it would been a larger window into his real being and I could have said, “Dad, I understand”.