ON A sultry summer afternoon in a small Hampshire village, two people were sitting on the bench outside the shop. To a passer-by, nothing would have seemed out of the ordinary — although, if you looked closely, you might have noticed that the couple appeared anxious, and weren’t talking. You might have noticed that they looked a little too closely at every car that drove past. You might have noticed that they seemed slightly emotional.
That was me with my wife, Swee; and that was the day that we met Mac, and the day that I became a father.
A blue car pulled up. Out came a small, wan, skinny eight-year-old. He was dressed in his school uniform of red jumper and charcoal trousers, beneath a thin, slightly worn cagoule. He went to the boot of the car and took out his scooter.
“Do you want to see my skills?” he asked.
“Of course,” I replied.
And with that, he scooted on to the recreation ground and started to do some tricks — trying hard to perform, as if he was in some juvenile talent contest, doing everything to impress us and win the competition. There was an intensity and concentration in his trying to show how good he was with his scooter, which was at once endearing and heartbreaking. Here was a little boy, desperate for his own new family, trying to make sure that, finally, he was the one that would be chosen.
What Mac didn’t know was that I was already in love — as soon as I saw his face, I knew he was ours. That feeling of unconditional love was instant. There was a hormonal surge to care for this quirky, loving, sad, damaged, and charming boy. I had found Mac, and it was if some primeval urge had kicked in to look after and protect this small, vulnerable child. I felt an immediate need to keep him safe, and to give him all of the things that he had never had; to right all of the wrongs that had been done to him in his life so far. At that moment, before he moved in and before any judge had proclaimed us a new family, I knew I had become a father.
WHEN Swee and I were going through the adoption process, I remember thinking a great deal about what I would be called: would an older adopted child call me “Dad”? After all, they would probably have, and remember, someone else called Dad in their life. Their experience of fathers might not be a positive one. I kidded myself that I wouldn’t mind what I was called, but that was a lie. I was desperate to be a father, and to have someone bless me with that name.
In the event, it was Mac’s own choice to begin calling us Mum and Dad as soon as he moved in with us — no more Swee and Richard. I can still remember the feeling of joy, that first time that someone called me Dad. It was something that I had ached for, and something I have never taken for granted.
As I grew into my role as a father, I learned more about my relationship with God as Father. All of the many aspects of being a father — setting boundaries, discipline, and teaching, but also playing together, laughing, and singing — are grounded in love. I began to see God as a much less authoritarian figure, and to recognise the many facets of his love. I began to see how much more there could be to my relationship with him as I understood more deeply my relationship with my son.
AS THE years passed, Mac grew into a thoughtful, sensitive, and handsome young man. We had overcome so much together, and had grown close as a family.
Then, just after his 16th birthday, Mac died. He was knocked off his motorbike on the way to school. So much changed in that moment. That day, 14 October 2016, was the last time that anyone would call me Dad. On that day, Mac hugged me and said, “Goodbye, Dad. See you later” — and I will never again hear that name applied to me.
Have you noticed that there is no word for a bereaved parent? When you lose your spouse, you are a widow; when you lose your parents, you are an orphan. But, if you lose your child, you are “a bereaved parent”. With the loss of Mac, there was the danger that I was also losing a key part of my identity.
But, when Mac died, I began to understand God as an example of fatherhood in a way that I never had before. I found myself shouting and screaming at him about why this had happened — in the same way as I remember Mac shouting and screaming at me, as he dealt with anger from his past. But I didn’t doubt that God was there; I didn’t doubt that he heard me; and I knew that he understood the pain of losing a son.
THE word “Father”, and the concept of “fatherhood”, are a very intimate description of a relationship that is fundamental in Christianity. I know that there are many people who have had toxic and destructive examples of fathers, but true fatherhood is not like that. At its heart is the unconditional love that is central to all parental relationships.
When I was younger, I might have felt it easier to relate to God as Son — as human, and walking alongside us; now, my experience of fatherhood has given me a better understanding of God as Father. I understand better the intimacy of being one of God’s adopted children; and his desire to protect us and love us.
But, I think, I also understand better his need to let us go, and to allow us to make our own decisions. I understand not just his desire, but his need, to give us freedom of choice. When Mac died, I could have regretted buying him that motorbike; but — remembering the joy that the bike brought Mac, and the freedom it gave him — I cannot regret it. I am heartbroken that he died; but I also know that God was with him, and held him, when I couldn’t be there.
I WAS not able to protect Mac, and I wasn’t able to keep him safe as I had promised when he first walked into my life. But, whereas once I thought that it was an omission that there is no word for a bereaved parent, I am now beginning to take some comfort from it. The description is one that still contains the word “parent”. I have often asked myself whether I am still a father now that my son has died — but being Mac’s dad is still a core part of my identity; and his spirit, his memories, our relationship, and so much of what he was, lives on, in us and in others.
So, on Sunday, although my son is not here to wish me a Happy Father’s Day, I will still celebrate, and be thankful for all that he taught me, and for all the ways in which being a father has made me an infinitely better person.
The Revd Richard Sutcliffe is a self-supporting minister in Winchester diocese. He blogs about his life with Mac at findingmac.co.uk.