What a Father Is

The skies opened up and wept with the young girl. The day, long, grey, drizzling, matched her mood. She stared at the tiny cardboard box-turned-casket in the freshly spaded earth.

She had lost her most precious pet the night before. A whiskery hamster, so well-trained he ran into her hand when she placed it in his cage. His loss was a blow to her tiny heart—the greatest yet suffered in her young life. She had known something was wrong the night before when she found him lying on his bed of cedar, and she quickly scooped him up when he didn’t run to her hand.

She tore through the house frantically to the one soul who would most understand her terror: her father. He took one look at the lifeless hamster and at his panicked daughter, and his blue eyes softened as he gently explained an awful truth of life to her.

He told her she could take the next day off from school. The pastor then devoted his day to his grieving girl, even going so far as to hold a graveside service in the cold rain, eulogizing a mouse’s cousin.

(Years later, the girl—long since become a grown woman—would think of Ecclesiastes 3 as “The Dead Hamster” verses.)

That funereal day stands etched on her soul as a tender example of what fatherhood should be. Father and daughter still speak of it now as it fades almost four decades into the past. To her it is a memory of comfort amidst sorrow; to him, it is a moment where he succeeded at being useful as a father.

That day watching rivulets of water pass a tiny grave set the tone for a lifetime. There would be other dead pets. Funerals for human friends. Lost jobs. Bruised hearts. Strained finances. Threats to health and happiness. At each of those dark points in life’s story, her father stood constant, a ready phone call or door knock away, never too busy to listen, console, offer help, or share life’s earned wisdom.

For him, and for many, every day was Father’s Day—a day not of celebration, but of sacrifice.


You fathers have a tough row to hoe, in this girl’s opinion. Your broad shoulders carry so many loads: to turn off the lights at night and lock the doors, to glare at young boys whose eyes twinkle when they look at your daughters, to lecture for the umpteenth time why it helps the family budget to turn off the lights when leaving a room and not stand forever in the Arctic chill of an open refrigerator in endless perusal of the contents, and to strain that budget further by doling out a few more dollars to satisfy endless teenage requests.

But, after all, fathers are not mothers. What a simple thing to say, beautiful in its clarity and truth, and yet one that must be reiterated today. Fathers are not mothers.

Fathers were created in all their specialness by God, to exacting standards and tight tolerances. Imagine the scene as the Almighty, overlooking his Creation, drafted the great blueprints for Father, Model 1.0. No doubt His angels heard Him muttering to Himself as He worked out the kinks in the divinely-inspired design:

“A father must have a strong back, for it is on his that the support of the family rests. He will have to hoist toddlers to his shoulders, he will show bravery in the face of fear, he will stand sentry over his family.

“This father must have strong hands. With these he will squash spiders that threaten the sanity of his wife, he will build things useful to his family, he will show a young son how to change a tire on a car—and yet he will use them to tenderly embrace a child!

“A father must have sure legs. He will use those to carry himself to and from a job he may hate in order to care for those given to his charge. He will run next to a daughter learning to ride a two-wheeler for the first time, he will climb ladders to clean out gutters, he will rush to the side of any of his brood so he might protect, encourage, love.

“His mind must be a thing of wonder. It cannot be as easily swayed by emotion as a mother; it must be rational and reasonable. It must be able to focus and concentrate, to be creative in order to solve problems. And yet, at times it must be the source of wicked humor.

“His eyes must be all-seeing. They must be able to look into the eyes of his son and understand. To crinkle at the corners in delight at his daughter. To shed tears at griefs so great they squeeze his soul. To look far enough into the future to discern threats, and yet they must be forgetful about what they’ve seen in the past.

“His heart—a father’s heart—must be the most magnificent machine in all Creation. It should be tuned to hear My frequency. It must be courageous: he will have to both protect his family and stand fast against the withering shrillness of a teenage daughter being told ‘No.’

“A father’s heart must be tender enough to be hurt and yet strong enough to volunteer for more. It must beat for his family, and it should be large enough to hold compassion, love, and fortitude for each of them.”


Fathers, you are some of the most criticized people on the face of the planet, and yet it is on your shoulders that so much responsibility rests. You bring forth the next generation and you instill them with values and morals to propel them forward as good people and good citizens. You are the mainstay of your family, the bedrock on which your children and grandchildren will depend. You are constant, you are strong, you are dependable. Civilization itself depends on you.

But so do tiny hearts. That heartbroken little girl? That grey day full of such loss? It ended as she left the pet store that night with a new furry friend after being told by her father, “Let’s just stop by and take a look.” Those blue eyes that had swelled with emotion the night before now sparkled with joy at comfort given.

That is a father.

Photo credit: PeopleImages/Getty Images

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About Jennifer Polk

Jennifer Polk is a writer and a mother of four living in South Carolina.

Photo: Shot of a daughter being carried by her father