Father Figures

A meditation on fatherhood.
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The author’s father (left), and the author as a young child

I’m sitting on a sunny rooftop, preparing to meditate, with the intention of having a conversation with the childhood me. Certain aspects of my upbringing were difficult. That child from long ago could use some empathy.

I take deep breaths as my thoughts go to my father. I was born in South Baltimore in a rough area called Cherry Hill. My mother had me at 17—a child raising a child. My mom left my father when I was 2 years old. Being raised by a single mother, I often wondered what I was missing, not having my father around.

I thought my dad was a superhero. All of my relatives raved about his athletic feats. A top-ranked wrestler in the state, he went on to wrestle for the Army, making the team as the only athlete who did not wrestle in college. At 19, he was drafted to serve in the Vietnam War. As for so many men of color, the experience left a lasting, negative impact.

I remember, as a little boy, watching my dad walk on his hands. He was so good at it that he could walk up steps. I wanted to be like him and spent hours practicing, doing headstands against the living room closet. By the time I was 4, I had achieved my goal. I wanted so badly to show him and see the pride in his face. I just wasn’t sure when I’d see him again.

There were long periods of time in which my dad was not around. No visits or phone calls. I missed him very much. So much time was lost over the years, when I needed him to be there to guide me. As it turns out, I didn’t need a superhero. I just needed a dad.

I continue to meditate, telling my younger self what his life is like now. I tell young Robert that he is the father of two wonderful, smart, athletic and kind sons, Jackson and Sawyer. I tell him these two boys are living very different childhoods than the one he had to endure. They are growing up in a stable, loving environment, with a dad who is present in their lives. They have a father who cooks, takes them to practices, helps with homework and is happy to watch a movie or talk over a game of chess. Their dad tells them he’s proud of them and gives them kisses, just because. He and their mom, Whytni, take them to museums, plays and foreign countries, where they can experience different cultures. They have been exposed to a world far beyond the one young Robert knew as a child. Their dad tries his very best to be a good dad.

My younger self’s eyes light up—he smiles with joy.

I confide to young Robert that it’s difficult being a father. I feel like I’m learning as I go, with no person to model myself after. I wonder, at times, if I’m doing the right things for my boys. Am I loving them enough? Showing them enough affection? Am I too permissive or too strict?

I hope I am showing them what a good father does for his children. It would bring me so much happiness to one day see them with families of their own, building upon what I have given them so that they can become even better fathers to their kids.

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Robert Frederick with his wife, Whytni Kernodle, and their sons, Jackson and Sawyer

Before we married, Whytni once asked what I wanted most out of life. My response was simple: I told her I wanted to be a good dad. She says that was the moment she knew she was going to marry me and have our children.

I contemplate that memory as I sit, legs crossed, continuing to meditate in the warm air. I tell my younger self: “You didn’t deserve to not have a stable father figure growing up. I’m so sorry.”

Tears stream down my face as my mind’s gaze focuses on that little boy, wishing things had been different for him. Wishing he could play violin in the orchestra and see his dad smiling and clapping in the audience. Wishing his dad could give him pointers to improve as an athlete. Wishing his dad could give him advice on how to treat women. Wishing his dad could teach him how to love and honor himself.

In my mind’s eye, I tightly embrace this young man one last time.

Then my father appears—not the one I knew as a child, but the one I can now call anytime I need to talk. I’ve been blessed to witness the wonderful person he’s become. Today he is one of my best friends. He exemplifies a father in every sense of the word.

I take another deep breath, look at him and say, “I forgive you, I love you and I’m proud to be your son. Although you are not perfect, you are still my superhero in so many ways, Pop.”

Feeling the weight lifted from my shoulders, I open my eyes, wipe away the tears and rejoin my family to enjoy the rest of our vacation. I am appreciative of what I have experienced, and committed to fighting for my family, day in and day out. That’s what fathers do.

Robert Frederick is the owner of H. Christopher Harrison Consulting, an independent management and IT consulting firm. He holds a BS from the University of Virginia and an MBA from Dartmouth College. He has a second-degree black belt in the art of kung fu.

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