The Walk Away Dads
"Dad gave me a name...then he walked away."
Art Alexakis couldn't have known his personal darkness would turn into rock music gold. He couldn't have known telling the all-too-common tale of absentee fatherhood would net him a hit single. But in 1998, that's exactly what happened when Everclear, the band led by Alexakis, released the harrowing song "Father of Mine."
With punching guitar riffs and lyrics that are told in such a disturbingly direct manner, you're not sure if you should enjoy what you're hearing or be grieved by the reality of its narrative. "Father of Mine" is a raw autobiography of Art Alexakis' life: a childhood marred by a father who existed only in distant memories and random birthday cards.
"Sometimes you would send me a birthday card
With a five dollar bill
I never understood you then and I guess I never will"
And whether or not the idea of a rock song detailing the life of a child being abandoned by his father sits well with you, let's steer towards the cold hard facts. 1 in every 3 kids in the U.S. is living without a father having an active role in their lives. You can look at a variety of sites to find the raw data, but the truth is that children growing up without a father present are more likely to be poor, aggressive, obese, and become drug users than those with a dad active in the home.
We're not comfortable discussing those realities because we feel as if it tears down the positive impact of single moms. These facts, if anything, point to the amazing jobs that so many women in America do, working a full-time job (if not multiple part-time ones) in order to raise children alone. Alexakis lived a life proving that. With his dad basically absent his entire childhood, Alexakis had to rely on his mom to teach him how to be a dad. His mom had to tell him what a man should do and what a man should not do, polar opposites on the vivid example his dad showed, being gone except for a few birthdays and the time he did at least manage to show up for the funeral of Alexakis's brother, who had died of a drug overdose.
"Father of mine
Tell me where have you been
I just closed my eyes
And the world disappeared
Father of mine
Tell me how do you sleep
With the children you abandoned
And the wife I saw you beat
I will never be safe
I will never be sane
I will always be weird inside
I will always be lame"
Obviously, not every fatherless childhood has a happy ending to it. Too many young people grow up with little clue on how to face the world. Daughters starving for attention they never got from a dad turn to selling their flesh. Boys turn to lashing out in violent ways, unsure how to counter the awkward acknowledgment of their own masculinity intertwined with a life of having no examples of masculinity present. Young people grow up with no understanding of how to work towards anything or keep commitments. For many children that grow up fatherless, getting a high school degree alone is a miraculous achievement.
This could have been the case for my dad. Before he was born, when my grandmother was a young mother-of-one, barely in her twenties, a military man named Joe Becker left. He walked out on my grandmother, on my Aunt Judy, and on the baby that eventually became the greatest man I've ever known.
What does a dirt poor single mother-of-two do? Who would want a young woman already strapped down with two small mouths to feed?
Eventually, the man I came to know as Papa came into my Granny's life, and married her, taking on the responsibility of father to my aunt and my dad. Frances and James Hendricks had three more kids of their own, and while he built houses, she raised the kids, stretching dollars every which way to survive.
The story didn't wrap up with a neat bow then. Sometime in the early 70's, my Papa left Granny. Walked away. No warning. No letter. Just...gone. For the second time in her life, my grandmother was abandoned by a man who she thought loved her. A man she had married intending that he would never leave her. You can imagine the pain. The emotional toll.
In a story that can only be explained by God's grace and the enduring love of a strong woman, Papa came back home some five years later, and Granny forgave him, letting him back into the home and family he had abandoned years before.
As my dad told this story last week at Granny's funeral, I thought about how different everything could have been in my life. My dad could have been a victim, a baseline statistic of a fatherless child. Honestly, any of my aunts and uncles could have been a statistic. They all could have gone on to live lives of moral ineptitude and carelessness. My grandmother could have been a woman embittered by hurt and loss. Instead, she persevered through trials and the back-breaking work of raising 5 kids. She was not perfect, as my dad said, but she was a woman who loved her family and loved her God, and was a beacon (along with her 5 children) of what the grace of God can do in the toughest of times.
While "Father of Mine" stand firm as one of the top songs from Everclear's rich history, it also marks a somber tone for millions of fans who related to it in a personal way. It was like Ricky Skaggs singing "Cats in the Cradle" for a later generation. As for Art Alexakis, he told a story to an interviewer for Radio.com in 2014 that summed up the walk away dads in America.
"I don’t have a relationship with my dad. My mother raised me and was a wonderful, wonderful person. She passed away in 2006. In 2005, my dad was bugging me and my sisters to have a relationship with him. But I don’t have a relationship with you, Dad…I’m not even mad anymore, it’s just like what’s the point? I don’t know you. I’m okay with where we’re at now. I’m okay with those feelings. I didn’t used to be, but I am now.
He’s like, “What can I do in this world to make you open up to me?”
I said, “You know what? My mother’s dying of cancer. She was given six months to live a year ago.” She’s been through all the stuff, she smoked cigarettes for 47 years, you just don’t get away with that. She died of lung cancer in February and this was like, October. And I’m like, “You want to make it up to me? You want to start a relationship? You call my mom. You be a man for the first time in your life and let her say whatever she wants to say to you. You take it like a man. Listen to what she has to say. She’s an old lady, she’s dying, she’s not gonna hurt you. What are you afraid of? Call her.”
He says, “Son, I’m gonna call her as soon as I get off the phone.”
I go, “You do that, dad? She tells me that you called her and that you listened to her? I’ll pick a time and bring my daughter around for you to meet her, and we can start building a relationship.”
He said, “That would mean the world to me.”
He hung up the phone. Never called her."