This is us

This is us
David R. Weiss – June 6, 2022

The image—evocatively rendered in batik: burnt orange, deep maroon, white, and black—shows two persons, arms wrapped around one another, on a path in front of a house: the prodigal son and the father. Their wordless embrace is the only evidence offered (or needed) of reconciliation hoped for—and extended.

I know it’s a static picture, resting on the top shelf of the bookcase at the end of the hallway in my childhood home, but it still somehow elicits wonder: that they have held each other in this mutual sustained hug for close to forty years, ever since I gave the fabric piece to my dad as a gift in the mid-eighties.

No less the wonder: it is an image of us.

As a child, Dad and I had a fraught relationship. Mostly quite good—I don’t mean to imply otherwise—but the fierceness of our love, the uniqueness of our gifts and temperaments, and the stubbornness of our characters moved across our lives like tectonic plates, screeching at times. Outright quaking at others. Alongside the laughter and tenderness, which was abundant, there were more childhood fireworks between Dad and me than with my other three sibling combined.

The worst of these conflicts reached “Mom-level,” when, late in the evening Dad and I found ourselves brought to the kitchen table, often both drenched in anger and at the edge of tears, while Mom played peacemaker between us. Most days Mom was the cheery wallpaper in our home, the behind-the-scenes busyness that kept us fed and clothed and bathed and bedded. So fully present in the rhythm of our days you might mistake her for the rhythm, itself. But on these nights, Mom stepped off the wall, out from behind the scenes, and implored-cajoled us from arch enemies back into father-son again.

By high school and college our conflicts were more subtle but no less pitched. Fewer all out display of fireworks, but my burgeoning social idealism interwoven with my increasingly radical Christian faith regularly considered Dad’s middle class Christian values—and found them wanting.

This was still, I believe, the measure of my love: that what I knew to be ideal and faithful in my mind must surely be found in my dad as well. Except it wasn’t. By now my words were a force to be reckoned with. Dad was thoughtful and deeply principled, but he lived in a world bounded by tradition and reality. Our differences—now manifest in charged debates—were grounded only partially in differing principles and much more so in the chasm between our learning, our lived experiences, and our owned responsibilities (that is, his many and my few). But I routinely narrowed the differences down to “right” OR “wrong” and left little doubt about which of us paired with each descriptor. Although I always hoped he would join me in being “right.”

For his part, one innocent well-intended reply from my dad instead became an unrelenting echo of self-doubt that chased me for decades. One night at the supper table, Dad asked both Don (then a senior) and me (a sophomore) if we had thoughts on possible careers. Don voiced interest in pharmacy, which Dad affirmed as a worthy goal, requiring good math and science, both of which Don had. He eventually made numbers his first love, becoming an accountant. Until numbers were displaced by bourbon, and he became an alcoholic instead. (But that’s another tale.)

After Don’s response, Dad inquired of me. With genuine excitement—even a dawning sense of purpose—I declared my aspiration to be a writer. Dad “gently” redirected his question: “Well, that’s a fine hobby to have, but I was asking about what you might like to do for a living.” The words were spoken in love (as were my far less gentle words of debate!), but they crushed me. Not so much in casting doubt on my love of words or my skill as a writer—those were unquestioned by me—but that Dad could not himself see my writing as vocation, could not affirm the joy-in-my-gut that writing brought me, this was a yawning absence that took up residence in my soul, a phantom taunting me at every vocational turn for decades.

We each wanted the best for the other. We so seldom delivered. [Aside: Today Dad is among the most enthusiastic and generous supporters of my writing.] The terrain of our love was fraught. I don’t think either of us could see it whole at the time. We were each so wholly invested in our half of that shared world. Mom saw it, whole and broken. (But that also is another tale.)

During my seminary years we reached a truce of sorts. The distance between Dad’s more conventional views and my far more progressive (albeit mostly armchair) values was as great as ever. But Dad had come to a place of grudging respect for my driven thoughtfulness, even if he wasn’t going to own my values as his own. And I had learned (inwardly at least) a measure of humility, as I found myself surrounded by seminary professors and peers whose values proved actually closer to my dad’s than to mine. Even more than this, I found myself cross-examined by my own adulthood: challenged to do the very calculus I asked of my dad just a few years earlier—to make the leap from professed commitments to profoundly risky life choices.

I blinked. Repeatedly. And while I never moderated my values, I stopped wielding them as the measure of my dad as I wrestled with whether even I could measure up to them.

That’s when this picture dates from. It was a gift to my dad during this interlude of restless peace. We were both (from our differing perspectives) impatient with me. I went to seminary three years. At the end of each year, I quit. Wracked by uncertainty about vocation, driven by demanding ideals, but at a loss for how to embody them. In that moment I gave this picture as a gift to my dad in the sincere and innocent (read: foolish) belief that our differences were behind us and that this imaged embrace could be us from now on.

Less than two years later our lives heaved and fractured and the only embrace between us was the bare suggestion of one in batik on the wall of his apartment in Cleveland. Every life is a tale comprised of so many influences left and right, above and below, outward and within, that indeed every paragraph should admit “but that’s another tale” again and again. (And so, Cleveland is one among of trove of tales right here.)

Suffice to say that in a period of less than a year I quit seminary for a third and final time. My dad’s job was relocated from Michigan City to Cleveland, Ohio (300 miles and 5 hours away from home for the final several years of his career). Then, in rapid succession, I got married, moved from Denver to Oklahoma and then to Madison, and announced both a pregnancy and the intent to file for divorce (this last was announced before the child was even born). It was more upheaval (in real life and in values) than he could endure.

For five months I was “dis-owned”: told not to write or call; unwelcome at home if Dad was there; not even to be named in conversation within his earshot. It was a breach brought about by that same fraught love that framed our lives from early on. It reflected as much (likely more) the anguish he felt at everything, as any anger he might have spoken. But after a lifetime of laughter and fireworks and debates (and even truce), five months of absolute silence between us was absolute terror.

Ben’s baptism at six weeks old was the last marital deed his mom and I did (other than signing the document to dissolve the marriage altogether a few months later). Within 48 hours of the water splashing his tiny forehead with grace, his mother and I bid bittersweet farewells and she left for Denver with Ben strapped in a car seat behind her.

My parents were both at the baptism. It was the first time Dad and I were within 250 miles of each other in five months. I learned later from Mom that it was the tears Dad saw me weep at the baptism that day that finally softened his heart; he sensed the immensity of my hurt even though he could not fathom the resolve of my decision. A second, unannounced, moment of wet grace. If the picture was given to my dad about two years earlier, the truth of the image dates in fact, from August 8, 1987, the date of Ben’s baptism. We barely spoke to one another that day, navigating the hurt that moved mutually between us with infinite care, as though any wrong move might undo everything.

Countless tales lie untold between then and now. But for thirty-five years that batik embrace has held our lives. Tentatively at first, to be sure. With an awkward occasion now and then. But the terror of those five months of absolute apartness chastened both of us, and without ever vocalizing it aloud, we both vowed never to let our ideals or our comprises with reality or our stubbornness or our remaining differences to put us beyond the reach of the other’s outstretched arms.

Indeed, that picture is the image of us: decades long into a mutual, sustained, mostly silent hug.

It is perhaps no wonder that I reflect mostly on my mom these days. My relationship with her was never fraught. She seemed to intuitively understand me in those moments over the years when my words failed me. And, more than my dad, she was eager to honor my gift of words. Indeed, until Alzheimer’s began to steal her words and her focus, Mom and I regularly talked the night away.

Alas, now it is Mom’s relationship with everyone—including Dad—that is fraught. Complicated in unforeseen ways and without hope of resolution. Each of us three surviving kids (Don died in 2004, another tale) has our own journey alongside Mom. Dad’s journey, as husband-caregiver, best friend-near stranger, is most complicated of all.

When I’m in Michigan City, Mom is mostly silent (except for asking what day it is, or announcing her intent to play solitaire, or asking for another car ride …) so Dad and I carry the conversation. We cover politics and sports, even church with relative ease these days. But the terrain of the heart, in which Mom and I were fluent, when we reach there, Dad and I are mostly content to hug.

Whether parting in person or ending a phone call, we struggle to say, “I love you.” We don’t struggle with the feeling, but perhaps in deference to the tumult in our past, the words remain strangers to us despite what’s in our hearts. Hence, the simple embrace speaks volumes of a tenderness hard-won across years of fraught love. The image on batik is of the “prodigal” son, but today that word has been erased. This is us: father and son—simply glad for the presence of the other in a life where precarious increasingly carries the day.

We purchased this hug dearly. And even after several decades, neither of us is about to let go.

* * *

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at Read more at where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at

2 thoughts on “This is us

  1. This is a thoughtful and touching story, David. Some similarities to my own life, just enough to stir some reflections. Thank you for telling this story and being honest about the hurt.

    • Thanks, Doug! I always appreciate your comments. You’ve seen several posts about my mother, who is now sadly oblivious to my writing. It is an extra bit of courage to write about my dad, who reads everything I write. So I trade in honesty and grace side-by-side.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s