When I was three, I lost part of my dad that I never got back￼. He had a nervous breakdown when the two children from his first marriage died in a small plane crash. My mom told me that after that it was like Dad didn’t want to live anymore.
For 13 years I watched Dad free-fall through mental and emotional instability that’s best summed up by a play on the words from an old nursery rhyme: “When he was good, he was very, very good; and when he was bad, he was horrid.”
On the one hand, Dad would make breathtaking declarations of love for our mother and cause us to blush by kissing her in front of us. There were the times when he would roll on the floor with us and make us laugh with his jokes until we could hardly breathe. He could also make Scripture come alive to us with vivid descriptions that rivaled any Hollywood reenactment.
The confusing part was how, at the same time, his presence was so emotionally disorienting. Dad moved in and out of our home four different times — not for another woman, but in search of peace for his troubled mind. It didn’t make any difference to me why he was gone though. I just wanted him back, even though he was sometimes an angry, overweight version of himself that was known to wield his authority, invoking the analogy of being the “king” off our home.
Even after Dad stopped officially leaving us, he took a job as a truck driver and was gone for weeks at a time. Essentially, he left like he always had, but now he had a legitimate reason for it. His absence was no less impactful though — what changed was the consequences for him. While my heart had been broken by his absence as a child, my pre-teen heart began to harden.
One night when I was 13, my parents had an argument that took a turn for the worse when Dad threatened to leave. Mom accepted the offer, told him to get out, and that was that. I went to school the next day and laughed about it when I announced it to my English class.
Dad moved into an attic apartment in town after that and I had limited contact with him. That’s how I wanted it — at least I thought I did. A few weeks later, Dad left town without telling us. I said I was grateful for his departure, and I believed it; but my true feelings rushed to the surface one day when I was alone in my bedroom.
I was listening to public radio one afternoon and heard Chuck Mangione’s song Lullaby, a first-person lament about a boy whose father has left him. I broke down sobbing, ashamed and in anguish, convinced that it was my fault that Dad left town. If I’d only been more respectful to him or at least shown gratitude when he took me to see Jurassic Park, he might have stuck around.
Reunited with Mr. Rogers
When I was in my late teens, my dad re-entered my life after a three-year absence. We started talking on the phone here and there, but I still avoided contact with him by not returning his calls and only occasionally calling him. The advent of mobile phones eventually made it easier for us to connect and over the years, I slowly grew to love talking with him, which wasn’t hard actually. He was a charming man and our conversations brought a childlike part of me back to life.
Despite reconciling with Dad, who passed away two years ago, one thing that has continued to vex me over the years is feeling handicapped by the emotional injuries I sustained as a boy. I know in my head that I’ve been healed through the cross of Christ, but sometimes my mental muscle memory awakens and under the wrong circumstances, the fears of a seven-year-old abandoned kid reawaken. It’s embarrassing. I feel like that part of me should’ve grown up by now.
The New Mr. Rogers
When I was a boy, one of the advantages of having my last name was being able to convince kids that my uncle was Fred Rogers, the longtime host of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. I wonder if I actually wanted him to be my dad.
I could rely on Mr. Rogers to be there every day. Even if I didn’t see his program, I knew he was there and he’d always be there — consistent, calm, and comforting. My seven-year-old self wanted to visit his neighborhood, take my shoes off while sitting next to him, make peanut butter and jelly popcorn sandwiches with him, peer into his fish tank, and shrink to the size of the red trolley so that I could visit the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. I wanted the chance that ten-year-old Jeff Erlanger got.
On February 18, 1981, Jeff, who was quadriplegic, appeared on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. In the segment, he eased his electric wheelchair up to Mr. Rogers’ porch where the two engaged in an honest conversation about Jeff’s disability, how his chair operated, and the way he processed his feelings every day.
In the middle of the conversation with Jeff, Mr. Rogers invited him to join him in singing “It’s You I Like,” a classic Mr. Rogers song that includes these lyrics:
It’s you I like, it’s not the things you wear
It’s not the way you do your hair, but it’s you I like
The way you are right now, way down deep inside you
Not the things that hide you
Not your toys, they’re just beside you
I’ve watched Jeff’s Mr. Rogers segment countless times on YouTube and I get choked up every time I see it. It recently occurred to me that the reason I love watching that clip is that I see myself and Jesus in it. Like Jeff, I’m doing the best I can to move forward in life, despite my brokenness. And like Mr. Rogers, Jesus offers unconditional love and safety in a world where feelings and facts don’t always match up.
Jesus shows curiosity about what caused my brokenness as a child and how it affects me today, but He’s more interested in celebrating who I really am behind all of that. He truly “rejoices over [me] with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17) and one day I will walk.
In those moments in which I draw near to Christ, I lose sight of my brokenness and discover that all of the wounds that life has brought are converted to glory when I look into Jesus’ face. In that place, I’m no longer defined by my brokenness — I’m defined by the grace of my heavenly Father, the one who loves me (and likes me) for who I am.
Here’s a clip from the 2018 documentary “Won’t you be my Neighbor?” featuring clips from the episode in which Jeff appeared.￼
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