The Boat In The Backyard
A father’s depression and a boy who finally understands
by Michael Spencer
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
• David, The Psalms
When I was twelve years old, my father bought a small aluminum boat, just enough for two people to use for fishing in the local lakes. He put it in our backyard. It had a tiny motor that sat in our shed. He bought the boat so we could go fishing together, father and son. It was his dream, a father’s dream that I can now relate to as I share ball games and movies with my own son.
The boat never took us fishing. In fact, it never got in the water. It remains there in the back yard, photographed by my memory, waiting for a fishing trip that would never happen. In my tendency to personify objects in my world, I picture that boat as eager and expectant, then confused, and eventually depressed. Its purpose- its joy?- was not to be fulfilled.
At age twelve, I was about as interested in my father’s dream of fishing together as the fish were in getting hooked, cleaned and fried. I resisted my father’s overtures with a quiet, but persistent force. I was always busy. There was always something else to do. I wasn’t interested in being outside. My friends wanted me to play. Mostly, I wasn’t interested because my dad was interested, and I was at war with my dad. Not a physical battle, but a back and forth emotional war that had been going on as long as I could remember, and now that my dad wanted something from me, I was in a position to frustrate him. I felt the power, and I used it to disappoint his dream.
My father had never been like other fathers I knew. By the time I was a teenager, he was unable to work, but before that he’d done all sorts of things: worked as a flunky at car lots, made tools at a tool and die company, made change at a car wash, ran errands at local automobile race tracks, worked in the oil fields, rented boats at a lake, janitored. While he was unable to work, he was able to get out and do things he liked to do: fish, hunt squirrels, pick up pecans, hunt arrowheads, go to ball games and races.
My father was a collection of contradictions and mysteries. He was deeply and genuinely religious, but the entire time I knew my dad, I can never remember him in church more than a handful of times. He was divorced (I never knew why), and his chosen church- the Southern Baptists- ranked divorce just above treason and murder on the sin scale, so it was easy to not be present. He loved the Bible, and despised most church people as hypocrites.
He was from the woods and mountains of eastern Kentucky, but all my life we lived in cities, and he hated the city. We lived in Kentucky, and he wanted to live in Wisconsin. He was sociable and funny, the life of any gathering of family or friends, but he feared and loathed almost any other kind of gathering. He loved baseball, but wouldn’t let me join Little League. He had an eighth grade education, and was determined I would graduate from college. He wanted me to be a dentist, and never once took me to one.
He was afraid of everything. The weather terrified him to the point of hysteria. Government paperwork terrorized him. Travel was so frightening to him that I never went on a school trip if he had any say in it. Fear dominated my father’s life like no one I’ve ever met, then or now. As real as it was in my childhood experiences with dad, I couldn’t help but sense it hadn’t always been this way. I knew enough about his life to know he’d once been as wild and fearless as other boys, but somewhere along the way, something else entered the picture, changing my father from a man like other men into someone assualted, subdued and captured.
I would always compare my dad to other fathers or to my uncles, and something wasn’t right. He was older than anyone else’s dad. They ran businesses, took their boys to Little League, built tree houses and worked at factories. I understood my friend’s dads. I understood the men at church. I didn’t understand my father. He was unlike them all, different, unpredictable, like he was broken far under the surface.
It made me angry that my father was like this. Sometimes I was embarrassed. Sometimes I was humiliated. Mostly, I was just ticked off, and thought about running away, or at least spending all my time hiding somewhere he couldn’t find me. Over the years, I know I was ashamed that dad was my father, and I acted it out to him and to others. Being asked about my father by anyone else was an excuse to lie or change the subject.
Dad wasn’t without good qualities. He was very funny, warm and sociable to his friends and neighbors. He loved those who were close to him. He loved his grown children, and their children. He was broken-hearted he saw them so seldom. He had a generous and encouraging side, but it seemed to never appear for long before vanishing under the other, darker side. My father knew trees like a botanist. He was sober and dependable as a friend and a helper. He was a great partner for watching classic tv shows. He could make people feel at ease, and he was very smart. I’m convinced he knew a million dirty jokes. Though he wasn’t much of a reader, he could sing, calculate and “cypher.” He could teach squirrels to climb up his pants and eat out of his pocket.
Once dad told me about all the books he read as a young man. Zane Grey. Tarzan. There wasn’t a book in the house now. He helped start a church in Wisconsin. He worked in factories and on airplane engines. At one time, he was a skilled tool maker making great money. What had happened? How did that normal man disappear, and this person take his place?
When I was thirteen, I came home from school and was sitting on the front porch, waiting for dad to return home and let me in. He drove an old, green, 1954 Chevrolet on his daily outings. Before much time had passed, I saw the old car come up the road. But then a funny thing happened. The car drove right past the house, and dad never looked at me. Not a wave, not a glance. He drove on to the end of the block, and turned right. Heading toward the hospital.
The boat in the backyard didn’t know it at the time, but its fate was sealed.
Health problems were always part of dad’s life. He complained of dizziness and chest pains to the point I wearied of what I thought, stupidly, was just whining for attention. I, of course, was never privy to just what was going on, and I wonder how much he understood his own problems. Now our family was going to become dominated by health concerns, hospitalizations, medical bills and medications. Dad was having the first of two heart attacks that would render him helpless against the onslaught of depression.
I’ve often wondered how dad’s heart problems would have been treated today. It was the late sixties, and dad stayed in the hospital for a couple of weeks. There was no surgery, as one might expect today. No miracle drugs. I would visit him in ICU, and he was glad to see me, of course. I was afraid he might die, and felt guilty that I’d wished that many, many times. He came home, and soon was sitting in a chair in the front room. He had survived a major heart attack. We were all happy. Right?
Dad grew stronger, but something bigger than the heart attack took over. Something worse than all his previous helath problems. He wouldn’t leave the house. He wouldn’t leave the chair. He sat in the chair with his hand over his face. He wept. Mom would plead with him, but to no avail. It didn’t stop. It wasn’t a bad day. It was like a living grief, a stuck record, an endless punishment. It lasted for weeks, months and then, years. Depression overwhelmed my father.
I didn’t understand. And no one could explain what was happening in a way a teenage boy could understand, though they tried, I’m sure.
Soon my dad’s oldest son, a doctor, came down to try and help. It was the first time I heard the word “depression.” I’d heard my parents always talk about “nervous breakdowns,” which I couldn’t find in any science book. But I had no idea what “depression” meant, other than the fact that dad was depressed, and it was clearly awful. I’d never seen or heard of depression. No one else had a depressed parent. Why did I?
At some point, dad went to the hospital. The psych ward in Louisville General. (He may have gone several times. I’m unsure.) Dad’s absence was always a good thing. Mom would take me out to restaurants, something dad wouldn’t ever do. We would be happy, and feel guilty about it. There was no dark, mysterious “depression” controlling our family. I didn’t have to keep my friends out of the house. Still, I didn’t understand. I did hope my dad would come back better. Doctors and hospitals made people better. I didn’t understand how elusive an opponent depression can be, resisting and defeating every effort to cure it.
I would see the boat in the backyard every day, and I began to feel badly about how I had responded to my dad’s attempts to be a regular father and son. I mowed around it, and wished it could go in the water, and that dad could teach me to use the motor. A day at the lake with my father really would be a nice way to spend some time after all.
Dad returned from the hospital, and while things may have gotten better, it wasn’t for long. Dad was still depressed. His thoughts, feelings and behaviors were the same. He talked about his stay in the hospital in hellish terms. He looked terrorized by his stay. I still remember his descriptions of the other patients. Apparently, in the days before today’s cushy psychiatric facilities, my father was part of a ward of people we would call “insane.” He received electric shock treatments. I’ve learned far too much about those. I hope they helped, because I’m afraid to think what they did if they didn’t.
Now we entered into years that were almost unbearably bad most of the time. Dad would be depressed, or he would be angry or just lost. He projected his anger out at everyone: his doctor, his children, his family, God, city people, Republicans, the neighbors. There was never any predicting what direction my father’s depression would go, only that we would certainly be the recepients of his anger.
Because I was naively analytic and stupidly verbal as a young man, I tried to convince my father everything was his fault, and could be easily fixed. It didn’t help that I became a professing Christian at age 15, and became even more aware that my father was not in church, but was sitting home cursing out the world. We argued constantly, over everything that teens and parents argue about, and then about a hundred things that were uniquely issues dad and I cooked up to fight over. Poor mom. I cannot describe the vehemence of these arguments. Surely I pushed dad to the brink of more heart problems many times, but I couldn’t see it at the time. Mom would beg us to stop. We would just get tired and quit.
I was bitterly angry that my father had ruined his part in my life and had turned our home into a horror story. First, by just being old and contrary. Then by refusing to let me be a normal kid. Then by falling apart and becoming a depressed invalid.
And then, there was one break in the darkness. I began preaching at age sixteen. Even as a young man, I remember coming home and telling dad I was “called” to be a preacher. He was moved. I couldn’t appreciate then how much he had prayed for me, and how he lived hoping my life would be useful to God in ways his had never been. All I knew was there was finally some tenderness between us. Some definable love and forgiveness.
The fighting did not stop. My understanding of depression did not increase. But Dad, slowly, began to go out again, drinking coffee with other men. On a few occasions, dad even came to hear me preach. In all my life, I believe my father heard me preach five times. Once he drove me to a small church where I was supplying, and on the way back, gently tried to tell me my sermon wasn’t very good, which I suspected, but didn’t want to acknowledge. He began to show me kindness, and by God’s grace alone, I started to receive it.
A gentleness began to enter our lives as I started to realize my father was a sick person. He’d said this many, many times, and I didn’t accept it, because it was too complicated and I was too afraid of something that couldn’t be fixed as easily as a flat tire. But as I got older, it made more and more sense. I started to notice my father in new ways, and to listen to him more closely. I could see that my father didn’t want to be this way. He was covered in a darkness that clung to him like a wet blanket. He fought against it, but couldn’t toss it away. It had, inexplicably, become part of him. He would have to live with it.
I had to live with it as well. I had to accept who my father was, and how depression had made him, and me, what we were. In my Christian journey, I was frequently confronted with my duty and need to forgive others as God had forgiven me. I never contemplated this truth without thinking of my father, and how I had denied him forgiveness for this thing that had taken so much of our family’s joy away. I needed to forgive him, because he wasn’t responsible for depression. I needed to forgive the depression more than my father. I needed to forgive myself for how I had reacted to this unwelcome visitor.
It’s funny how God works. I took a job at a local grocery store, and how I spent the money I earned became a major war zone with dad. My first paycheck turned into new clothes, and dad- who had lived through the Great Depression- was outraged that I hadn’t put all the money in the bank or paid for the family groceries. But later, I spent a good bit of my paycheck on a citizen’s band radio for my 65 Chevy. I cannot describe my father’s reaction, but it was explosive.
So it is divinely ironic that within a few weeks, my father began buying CB radios. He was fascinated by the hobby. Soon we had a base station in the house, radios in all the cars and were joining CB clubs in the area. My father loved the ability of radio users to make small talk with one another anonymously. What medications, hospitals and therapy couldn’t do, CB radio did. My father came out of his depression by talking on the CB radio. My father became “Two Bits,” and Two Bits wasn’t depressed.
Dad and I loved this hobby. I could talk to him from wherever I was, and it was actually an honor to be the son of the now famous “Two Bits.” As my interest in the hobby waned, dad’s interest increased. In the years to come, he would buy bigger and bigger radios, making friends with people all over the area, the nation and even the world. Radio brought him a magnificent amount of joy.
Dad sold the boat. We didn’t speak of the lost dreams of years ago or the bitterness that had passed. I tried to never think of those days, but I cannot help but think of them more and more as the years go on. I want my children to know about that boat. I cannot touch it, but I can feel its presence and its loss. It is real, because the love my father had for me in that boat is real.
After I married, and became a man, dad and I became friends again. We stopped fighting and enjoyed one another. He was proud of me. He helped me, and listened to me. He loved my wife and our kids. Depression never vanished, and dad’s basic personality never changed. We accepted that this was the life we had shared. Depression had taken away more than I could ever calculate, but I was determined to not spend any more time staring into the void.
Depression is now a reality I face every day in my ministry with students. I know all about it. I have my own thoughts and theories about its origins and power. I believe in the mystery of its genetic and biochemical origins. I also believe we contribute to it by our own thoughts, choices and actions. It is complex, resisting simple treatments in some cases, surrendering to the mildest of medications in others.
We were not so fortunate. Depression invaded our lives when it was a monster of unknown origin or power. I now recognize that dad was depressed before his heart attack, but succumbed to a powerful depression in its aftermath. He did not understand depression, and the chemical miracles were not available or effective.
I believe that our world is a fallen and ruined world, not so much in nature, where the glory of God shines through, but in human beings, whose brokenness takes thousands of different forms and reveals the tragedy of the wreckage that began in Eden and continues in our lives. In this ruined world, depression is a result of sin. Sin as it wrecked our minds, chemistries and emotions. Sin as our thoughts became attracted to darkness rather than light. Sin as we cower in fear rather than trust a trustworthy God who we cannot see thorugh the darkness, and from whom we run away when we do glimpse him. I am so glad that this God doesn’t count on us to find him, but has found us all along, and never lets us go. As the scripture says, “Where shall I go from your Spirit?…even the darkness is as light to you.”
Nothing I believe about depression makes depressed persons into “sinners” on some special level. Like all of us, they are broken. Like all of us, God gives grace that we can accept or reject. Like all of us, they are loved by God and have the possibility of hope, and even healing. Like all of us, they are gathered together in the wounds of Christ, and raised in his resurrection.
I have compassion for my depressed friends. In my own struggle with depression, I’ve benefited from the lessons of my father’s life. There are moments when I have found myself in the chair, hands over my face, weeping. I’ve gotten up, and decided to live. For myself, my wife, my kids, and my father. I will not go into the same night if I can help it.
I believe that fathers are put in this world to write life, goodness and wisdom into the hearts of their children. The best fathers have written boldly, deeply and legibly; they have written lessons that last a lifetime. Other fathers write painful or erring lessons, putting into their children not a path to love and joy, but a downhill slide to emptiness and desperation.
My father left many empty places in my life where he should have written his own unique imprint and example. I am acutely aware of these empty, fatherless places, and the legacy I have inherited because of them. It was my father’s depression, and his fearful, unpredictable actions and inactions, that left me with an abiding sense that I do not belong or deserve to belong in the society of normal, happy people. It was that depression that left me doubting my masculinity, and afraid to do a hundred things that boys and men ought to do to know who they really are in the world. Today, when you see me helping to coach our school baseball team, make no mistake about it: I am out there making up for those days my dad wouldn’t take me to join Little League.
It was my father’s depression that left me with vacant places where unconditional acceptance and fatherly delight ought to be. It was his fear of death that infected my mind from the time I was small, so that every suddenly ringing phone or unexpected noise can terrify me. In the place of the imprint of the father, I have written many stupid and evil legacies of my own. In my worst moments, I see my father’s depression and darkness in myself. I was so certain that I was doomed to live in illness and depression, sin’s false promises of joy looked convincingly attractive. In my own despairing, angry and confused words, I’ve heard the echo of my father’s cries.
The imprint of an earthly father is a treasure. Thankfully, the imprint of the heavenly father is a gift of grace that comes to the fatherless and the empty. Where my father did not and could not affect my heart, because depression wouldn’t allow it, God, and his manifold gifts of love have penetrated into the empty places and brought life, love and hope. In a hundred different ways, experiences and relationships, God has been a father to me in those places that my father left vacant.
I also know what my father would have done if he had not been depressed, and what I would do if I had the opportunity to do it all again. Of course, those times are past, and realities are real. Still, it comforts me greatly to know what could been and should have been. My father was not evil, but sick. Our home was not cursed, but coping with an illness that none of us really understood. The boat may have never seen the water, but the love represented in that boat is as real as ever, and more precious with time.
I know life will hold experiences where depression will inevitably return and demand its place in my life and family. I intend to resist, but I will also be realistic. There is no outrunning our fallenness, and no ultimate healing of our brokeness until heaven. There will be depressing days and seasons, but I am determined that the lessons of my father’s life will not be wasted. I believe he is waiting for me, cheering me on in the darkest of times. He made it home, and we will as well.
In fact, I am fairly certain that heaven contains a lake, where my father is waiting for me in a small boat. And I will not miss that afternoon of fishing. I promise.