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Find Your Way Back

Find Your Way Back

The black and white image has an iconic quality to it. The father leans in, embracing his adult son with both arms, turning slightly away from the camera to plant a kiss on his son’s cheek. The son looks directly into the camera, weary eyes full of vulnerability, as a hint of a smile touches the corner of his mouth, a suggestion of the comfort he’s receiving.

Because of who the father and son are—Hunter Biden and his father Joe—one apparently desperate Republican operative recently tweeted the photo, asking “Does this look like an appropriate father/son interaction to you?” I struggled for hours afterwards to process the emotions this image and tweet brought to the surface.

One of the many reasons my relationship with my father was complicated was the fact that he was brought up in an era and a family where physical affection between fathers and sons wasn’t a routine part of daily life, the way it always has been in my household. He and my mother moved across the country to California in 1953 in part to escape that repressed environment and have their children grow up differently. My older brothers were able to experience Dad as a loving father into their early teens, but as the by-far youngest sibling, born just two years before my parents’ divorce, I never had the chance to know him in that context. 

Instead, for the better part of two decades, my father was a friendly, awkward stranger who would spend the day with me a couple of times a year. I have little memory of those childhood visits, of how we greeted each other or whether we hugged when saying goodbye. What I do remember is the stunned feeling I had years later watching my own young children instinctively embrace the man they were just starting to know as Grandpa Pete. That moment, that image burned into memory, helped to unlock a door inside my heart.

As the years went by, I began to follow our kids’ example. Dad would always greet me with right hand outstretched for a shake—whereupon I would take his right hand, lean in, and hug him with my left, like baseball teammates. The first few times I did this he was visibly surprised. As time passed, he continued to hold out his hand—perhaps never wanting to take for granted what was about to happen—but after those first few times we hugged, when I would step back, instead of looking surprised, he would always be smiling.

We were both somewhat shy and it was never easy for either of us to open up to the other, but over the years we gradually did better. One of the highlights of the current century for me came one day after we visited Dad and then drove home to find our answering machine light blinking. He would almost always call to check in briefly after we visited and thank us for making the two-hour drive. This time, in the midst of the usual random bits about baseball and music and family, Dad added “I’m so proud of you.”

There are no words to describe what that meant to me.

In June of last year, we went up to visit Dad with a group that included our grandson and granddaughter. When we told the kids it was almost time to go, Nathan did what we always do when saying goodbye to family—he rushed over to give Grandpa Pete a hug. I love everything about the image of that moment captured below, but my favorite part is Dad’s expression—a mixture of surprise and delight.

Two months later, on the last day of Dad’s life, we spent the morning at his bedside, telling stories as he slept. When the time came for us to leave, I leaned over, embraced him, told him I loved him, and kissed him on the cheek.

In the last picture I have of us before my parents divorced, Dad is holding me in our swimming pool. The innocence and purity of the image still takes my breath away. It took us half a lifetime to find our way back to that place. The Bidens never left it. We should all be so lucky.

[Thanks and kudos to John Pavlovitz for his post regarding the Biden photo, which helped to inspire this one.]

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