The rooster crowed. The smell of Haitian coffee wafted through the kitchen. I opened the door to the mission house and there they were – 13 kids-turned-teenagers-overnight buzzing with energy and excitement for the day’s adventure. I smiled at their hiking footwear – some wore gym shoes, others wore Sunday heels, sandals or flip flops, and the smallest boy proudly donned his cowboy boots. I rallied my three girls and my friend Cori, and we all piled in the pickup truck.
Destination: Mount Pignon.
It was my first trip back to Haiti since my husband’s death in September. After 12 years of traveling to Haiti together and directing a non-profit there, it was a journey we all needed to take. This country, this town, these people were our home away from home. My three girls were longing for time with their friends. My heart longed for healing.
That morning we embarked on a hike with the kids from the Bridge Christian Children’s Home orphanage to the top of Mount Pignon. A few of the young church leaders joined us. The path was dusty, switching back and forth. At times, we had to scale boulders and traipse through sticker bushes. The sun beat down on us. We had to ask for directions more than once. I wondered if I’d made a mistake trekking with all these kids and limited water. I had never taken a trip like this in Haiti without my husband. This was just the kind of challenge he would have loved.
The hike grew especially hard for my 6-year-old and her cowboy-boot-wearing friend James. Yet, they had a surprising determination. Some of the oldest boys helped them along. Their teamwork inspired me to carry on.
I started singing – something my mama would do when my brother and I grew tired hiking through the U.S. national parks. My Haitian friend started echoing the songs I sang in Haitian Kreyol. Some kids joined in. The journey somehow grew easier.
After a few hours, we made it to the top. I kept looking for that perfect lookout or grand vista but there was really none to be found. Our best views of the mountains and the valley below had come along the journey.
In all things there is both something broken and something beautiful, a sliver of lightness on even the darkest of nights.
As we rested, sharing snacks at the top, I was prompted in my spirit to take this chance to reflect with the kids. I asked, “What were the hardest and easiest parts of the hike? Did it remind you of anything you’ve experienced in life?” Perhaps loaded questions to ask these orphans who had endured much suffering and loss in their lifetimes.
My daughter was the first to boldly raise her hand and draw a life connection. She shared how our family had gone through a really hard time this year when her daddy died. Tears pooled in our eyes. As a group we talked about how much Ericlee would have loved this hike. We imagined what he might be doing in Heaven. One of the boys said he thought he would be singing really loudly because Ericlee always sang loud in church. Another boy said he was probably running races on heaven’s golden streets or teaching angels how to work out.
This time was sacred. We cried, we laughed, we remembered. It dawned on me then that my husband had not only been a father to our three girls but a father to these fatherless children. His faith and selfless love for them through the years had affected each of them deeply, and they mourned with us.
We have experienced a lot of “firsts” this year without Daddy. We have waded through Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, birthdays, anniversaries, soccer games, school performances and more without him. Some of those firsts were excruciating, others were filled with new memories and surprising joy.
Today we celebrate our first Father’s Day without him. Last Father’s Day the cancer had already begun to course its way through his body. I remember making him a special smoothie and pancake breakfast while he took what turned out to be his last walk around our neighborhood with our girls.
This Father’s Day promises to be bittersweet. We will feel the weight of his absence, but also find strength in his legacy. Author Shauna Niequist writes, “Bittersweet is the idea that in all things there is both something broken and something beautiful, that there is a sliver of lightness on even the darkest of nights, a shadow of hope in every heartbreak, and that rejoicing is no less rich when it contains a splinter of sadness… Bittersweet is courageous, gutsy, earthy.”
I write today for the children and mothers and wives and others who will find Father’s Day bittersweet. Some have lost their fathers to cancer or war or divorce. Some have fathers who live miles or continents away. Some have fathers who are present physically but absent emotionally. Some have been abused or abandoned by their fathers. It’s all hard. It may not feel happy. I urge you to press in to the memories, to dig deep in the bitter soil to uncover the sweetness, the surprising courage that can be found there.
I write today for the children and mothers and wives and others who will find Father’s Day bittersweet.
I also write to encourage dads and men in general: We need you. I challenge you to think about how you can be a father to the fatherless— Is there a friend or cousin or student or neighbor you could reach out to in this season?
I’m deeply grateful for the godly men who stand in the gap now to collectively help father my girls. They are the ones who give out extra hugs and play with them in the swimming pool. They are the ones who ask them about school and admire their artwork. They are the ones who pray over them and have generously helped with our financial needs. They are the brave men willing to tell the girls stories about their daddy. I am humbled by their willingness to enter into the awkward parts of our grief journey. I know my girls are not just surviving today, but thriving because of these acts of love that build their self-esteem and faith. We need you now and we will need you in the future.
I’m also so grateful for the godly men who stepped up to the plate to father my husband through the years. His single mother prayed for men to mentor him, to model respect for him and to mold him into a man of integrity. Ericlee defied the odds and proved to be an amazing husband and father figure to many during his time here on Earth.
Over and over again the Bible exhorts us to defend the fatherless. Isaiah 1:17 says, “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”
This isn’t a suggestion for do-gooders of the faith. This is a mandate throughout God’s Word. It is our privilege and call to take up the cause of the fatherless. Frankly, I never imagined that one day these verses would apply so personally to me and my own children.
On that Good Friday, I stood at the top of Mount Pignon in Northern Haiti with all of my children – some biological, some unofficially adopted by our family years ago. I looked out across the azure skies and dry rugged mountains and thought about the harrowing journey Jesus Christ took to the cross. The views along the way to the top. The sacrifice of a Heavenly Father who allowed His one and only Son to die for us, the fatherless. The bitter and the sweet. The broken and the beautiful.
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Image Credit: US Air Force, Creative Commons