Earthly Fathers

By Scott Sawyer

Copyright © 1997 Mars Hill Review 8 (Summer 1997): 94-105.

He wasn't our real father. He was Daddy Robert. The one who had a name different from ours. Our real father was Daddy Ronnie. The one who had died before we knew him. The one who had swept Momma off her feet in college by walking up behind her and saying, "Hi, Patty Pigtails." Who, as a high school coach in a small Texas town, had set his sights on becoming head track coach at Rice. Who had tossed Tommy, a year old, high into the air and made him laugh. Who had looked at me as an infant and said to Momma, "He's our special one, isn't he?"

That was Daddy Ronnie. The one who had gotten polio because he never got vaccinated. Who thought about us as he lay in an iron lung, knowing he was going to die. Whose gravestone we saw whenever we visited our grandparents in Brady.

That was Daddy Ronnie. Not Daddy Robert.

And that was why we weren't perfect, we thought. Because Daddy Ronnie had died.

It was why we were sad sometimes when people talked about him. And tense sometimes when people talked about him in front of Daddy Robert. It was why there were constant fights between Tommy, my older brother, and Buzzy, our younger half brother. It was why I was caught between them, wishing for peace half the time, mean to Buzzy the other half. It was why we heard yelling matches behind closed doors. It was why things weren't perfect.

*      *      *

But Daddy Robert was perfect, we thought. Because he was our father.

I used to look at his picture next to Momma's on the wall in their bedroom and see a perfect man-handsome, strong, youthful. How was he any less perfect than Daddy Ronnie? Both had dark hair, like men-not like Momma, whose hair was blonde. Both were tall and strong, in contrast to Momma's softness and tenderness. Both were larger than life to us, larger even than our imaginations allowed. All fathers are, when you're a child.

*      *      *

I learned in recent years of our first meeting with Daddy Robert. He described it to me.

It was at the local park-a "first date" with Momma a few years after Daddy Ronnie had died, and we were along. Within minutes Tommy, three, had fallen into some mud and begun crying. I, a year younger, had filled my diapers and was, in Daddy Robert's words, screaming like a banshee.

They cut everything short to take us home. What an introduction, he told me, shaking his head.

What an introduction, I thought. I wondered how many other things got cut short for him.

*      *      *

Daddy Robert was the insurance man, not the coach. The dove hunter, not the fisherman. The Deke, not the Sig Ep. The powerful running back, not the lanky split end. The one who'd twisted his knee on a high school football field and was never the same. Not the one who went to college on a track scholarship.

He was Daddy Robert. Not the other one.

Daddy Robert wasn't the one who might have raised us on a farm in keeping with family tradition. Who might have taught us to fish in a cow pond, grow vegetables, milk cows, kill snakes. Who might have disciplined us with stern authority. Who might have.

Instead, he was the one who came home at night from his job in Dallas. He brought home Sonic burgers or Pizza Hut boxes on weeknights when Momma had to stay late at the high school for play practice with her drama students. He mowed the lawn and washed the car on weekends. He had to spank Tommy for getting bad grades in conduct. He got irritated at us, threw footballs to us, smoked, fried an occasional dinner, laughed with Momma, got in arguments with her, stayed up on Christmas Eve setting up our toys. He scared us in the scare game, when we turned off all the lights in the house and had to find him, and he'd pop up out of nowhere shining a flashlight underneath his face, which he'd covered with Momma's pantyhose. He scared us for real at times.

He didn't divulge much of his own youth. But he took us to the elementary school field to hit pop flies to us, so we could break in our baseball gloves before Little League started. He punted high ones to us at the old high school football field-the one where his knee had been hurt-so we could practice catching. He seemed to love us, but at times he seemed apart from us and alone.

At times he pounded his fist on the kitchen table when one of us spilled something. At times he let out a string of curse words whenever something went awry. He couldn't hide his frustration whenever we did something wrong that we didn't know was wrong. And he couldn't hide his disgust whenever we did something wrong and we knew it.

He was Joseph, the father of Christ-the imperfect man for the thankless job. The one thrown into the river at midstream and asked to keep everyone else afloat. The one handed the responsibility with no vote of confidence. The one who labored under the constant gaze of the perfect father we knew had existed but had never really known.

*      *      *

Daddy Ronnie was our real father. Tommy and I were reminded of this every day at school, as we sang "My Country 'Tis of Thee." Whenever we came to the part that says "Land where our fathers died," we each started crying in our respective classrooms. And every day we were taken to the principal's office separately, and our mother was phoned at the high school.

We never talked about our sadness to each other, much less offered an explanation to anyone else. But we each knew why the other cried. We cried because he had died. And even though we'd never known him, we knew his dying was sad.

*      *      *

Tommy was a year old, I eight weeks, when Daddy Ronnie got polio, caught pneumonia from the complications, and died. It all happened within two weeks. My mother moved in with her parents and started college again. Our Aunt Dianne, still a teenager, strolled us around the block and helped take care of us. At home, Tommy would see a certain celebrity on TV, point to the screen, and say, "Daddy."

*      *      *

When Daddy Robert became our father, we began to learn what fathers do.

He dressed with class, and he was conscientious about our grooming. On Sunday mornings, he raked a steel comb across our tender heads and tried not to puff smoke in our faces from his Winston. I stood as still as possible, in my khaki pants, shiny loafers, white shirt, and bow tie. When we were finished and I came walking out of the bathroom, he would whistle the Texaco tune, "You can trust your car to the man who wears the star . . . ," and Momma would laugh.

Then he would drive us to Sunday school in his T-shirt, hand us each a nickel or a dime for the collection plate, and drop us off.

*      *      *

One day he took Tommy and me along when he went dove hunting. He let us bring an old BB gun, so we could shoot at cans while he held the gun in our arms and helped us aim. After we finished target practice, he decided to go shoot at some doves. He instructed us to stay in a specific spot, near the cow pond, so we'd be safe.

He'd been walking for fifteen minutes or so when he turned around and saw us following him.

"I thought I told you to stay back there."

"We thought you were gonna leave us."

"Leave you? Why would I leave you?"

"We don't know."

*      *      *

We all were in grade school at the time-Tommy in fifth, I in fourth, Buzzy in kindergarten-when we got Princess, our border-collie mix. Princess became friends with the other dogs in the neighborhood, and before long Momma said she was going to have puppies. Princess had to carry her brood through a typically ugly, brown-and-gray north Texas winter. So Daddy Robert and Momma built a nest in the garage where she could give birth, with blankets and a strong, bright light nearby to keep the litter warm.

Momma checked out a stack of books about dogs from the library so we could be prepared for the delivery when it came. We sat in on some of the learning sessions that she and Daddy Robert did in preparation for the births. A lot of it had to do with taking precautions, what to expect when the puppies came, how many would survive, and so forth.

But what stirred us most was the danger involved. We understood that some of the puppies would be born dead. And we learned that some who would appear dead would actually still be alive, but that Princess would ignore them. We had to be careful to look out for those who would appear dead but who might still be living.

I don't remember who came in with the news that cold, early morning. But we all ran out to the garage, where we saw the mother lying wearily in her nest. She was surrounded by tiny, crawling creatures, exploring their new world.

Princess had borne the pups some hours before, and now they were feeding on her teats. Buzzy laughed, pointing in glee, as one pup squatted on the blanket and left a mustard dollop behind, only for Princess to follow in tow and lick it up. "She's just keeping her house clean," Momma said maternally. The rest of us burst into laughter.

"Look," Tommy said. He pointed to a dead pup lying beside a garbage can. Its skull had caved in. Tommy and I inspected it briefly before discovering another dead pup nearby. Both had been abandoned by Princess, who was concerned with feeding the live ones.

We followed the tiny pups around on the garage floor as they slowly crawled about like slugs. Daddy Robert took a closer look at both of the dead pups. He picked up the one whose head was intact.

"Is he alive, Robert?" Momma asked.

They disappeared into the house, while we picked up Princess's puppies, smelled them, stroked them. After a while we got cold and went inside to put on our jackets. As we turned down the hall, we could see into our parents' bedroom.

Daddy Robert was sitting on the edge of the bed, hunched over intently. He had the dead puppy on his lap, pressing his stomach. The puppy's chest and belly moved up and down grotesquely, like a balloon inflating and deflating. Its tiny limbs flailed like a doll's each time Daddy Robert applied his thumb. The dog's mouth was open, its tongue hanging out. It looked dead.

It was too harsh to watch. I turned away. How could Daddy Robert do that? I thought. What if the puppy was alive? Daddy Robert was too strong to press on its stomach that hard. He could be hurting the dog. He might even kill it.

We put on our jackets, and Tommy picked up an old blanket. We went back to the garage and spread out the blanket next to Princess's nest. Then we rounded up all the pups and put them on it. That way they could keep warm as we played with them, and we could keep them all in one place.

A while later, Momma came outside carrying one of the puppies. It was the one we'd thought was dead. Momma was smiling. The pup looked up from her arms, its brown eyes huge and round. It began sniffing around.

"Daddy Robert brought him alive," Tommy said.

I had thought he would kill the pup without meaning to. But he hadn't. He had brought him back to life. It was a miracle.

Momma placed the pup near Princess, who sniffed him and began licking him. Then he started to feed.

*      *      *

We called him King. We gave the other puppies unimaginative regal names too, after Princess: Queen, Duke, Prince. But there was something poignant to me about King's name. He'd been dead-I'd seen him with my own eyes, lying there lifeless. And then he was alive.

*      *      *

On October 22, 1971, Tommy and I wore our dress clothes and nice shoes to school. We were in eighth and seventh grades. The class I had just before lunch was Miss Kraft's earth science class. I don't remember who I sat next to in that class. But he was the one who, on the first day of school that year, had noticed I'd written my name differently on the top of an assignment: "Scotty Sawyer." Not "Scotty Burk," as I'd always been known.

"'Sawyer'?" he'd asked.

I'd nodded.

His eyes had searched mine for signs, trying to determine whether it was appropriate to ask anything more. Or, he might have been trying to see whether there was anything truly different about me because of a name change.

It had never occurred to me that anyone would see me differently. I'd always thought my friends never gave a second thought to the fact my name was Burk and my parents' was Sawyer.

But Daddy Robert and Momma had. So Tommy and I had begun signing our names differently when school started that year. And that day in October, dressed in our nice clothes, we were going to get out of school early, just before lunchtime, to go to the courthouse. Daddy Robert was adopting us.

He hadn't prepped us much for the ceremony. I was surprised when the judge sounded serious about most of the things that came up, asking us questions with a gravity that didn't mean much to us. Daddy Robert seemed calm, so we were calm too.

At the end, the judge told us, "Boys, you can change your last name from Burk to Sawyer. Or, you can keep Burk and just add Sawyer to the end, making it your last name."

We looked at Daddy Robert. We didn't know how to answer.

He just patted us.

*      *      *

Afterward, he took us to Brookside Inn, the best place in town to eat. We had one of those nice Sunday meals.

"I want you to do something for me," he said.

He never asked much of us, and when he did we were glad to oblige.

"Don't tell Buzzy we did this. This is just for us."

*      *      *

Daddy Robert's old friend, Grant Matthews, joked about Tommy's lack of speed at tight end. "I look down there," Grant said after one of Tommy's eighth-grade games, "and there he is, loping across the end zone. Wilson throws him that pass, and he's so slow he has to dive for it. He even comes down slow." Tommy laughed.

Grant joked with him again the next year, as Tommy started the season with a leg brace because of a knot near his knee. The doctor said it probably was an inflamed muscle. "Haven't picked up a whole lot of speed, have you, Sawyer?" Grant said. Tommy laughed again.

*      *      *

I was the weaker brother. The skinny one. The split end, not the tight end.

Daddy Robert was driving me to one of my football games when he patted my leg. He said, "You know, you're really strong."


The words took me by surprise. I looked up at him.

Suddenly I felt alone with this man. Daddy Robert. Up to then, he had been one large component of our family-yet a virtual stranger to me. Now, for the first time, I saw us as a combination of two. Not he and Mom, or he and Buzzy, or he and Tommy. He and I. It scared me-and thrilled me.

"You really are strong, Scotty," he said. "You're wiry."

His hand felt huge and warm on my leg.

Something surged in my veins. He believed.

With my oversize helmet sitting atop my birdlike frame, I must have looked like a Tootsie Pop on the football field. But given those few simple words, I was set loose with a fury. On the Lancaster Tigers, in particular.

There was terror across the line of scrimmage. I could see it in the eyes of the Lancaster player who lined up in front of me. Little did he know I'd had hands laid on me, anointing me for battle. I had a license to kill. Because Daddy Robert had said so.

For four quarters, my opponent felt the full force of ageless patriarchal blessing smashing against his head and shoulders-raging, punishing, delivering-living. I was a different man.

Or maybe just a man.

On the sidelines, my coaches were pointing at me and grinning.

*      *      *

Sometimes I imagined what I might be doing on any particular day had Daddy Ronnie lived. Maybe pushups or wind sprints. Maybe more chores. Although he was described as having had a sense of humor, I mostly thought of him as quiet, earnest, disciplined, serious.

I knew this: I wouldn't have got my butt sprayed with air freshener, as Daddy Robert did to me whenever he walked by while spraying the house.

*      *      *

My parents had begun attending home Bible studies, and I went with them occasionally. One night the group read a passage from Matthew, where Jesus addresses fathers:

Which of you earthly fathers, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!

The people at the Bible study began talking about how good our heavenly father was.

But I was indignant. How could Jesus call good men evil? How could he say all fathers were evil?

How could he say my father was evil?

*      *      *

When the time came to tell Tommy what was wrong with his knee, Daddy Robert couldn't do it. He couldn't tell him that the leg brace hadn't done any good. That the knot on his knee was cancer. That they were going to have to cut off his leg.

Instead, Daddy Robert broke down crying in the hospital room with Momma and Tommy. And he couldn't stop. Momma had to tell Tommy.

When I told this story to a woman years later, she said, "Yes, it's usually the man who shuts down in an emotional crisis."

I told her that wasn't the way I'd felt about it.

*      *      *

A few years ago, Dad and I talked about everything that had happened. I had blanked out almost everything. He gave me some sketchy details from the final five months, and as we talked, I remembered.

Tommy's thinning hair and body. The stump where his leg had been. His bloating ankle on his remaining leg. His yellow skin. The horseshoe-shaped scar that began on his chest and ended on his back. The gargling moans that came from his room whenever the pain surged through him. His vacant look as he seemed to recede from me, and I from him. His friends at school always asking me how he was doing. And my invariable answer to them: "Fine."

Three days before he died, Mom and Dad had asked God to take him. I remember that when it finally happened-a thought none of us could bear up to then-we were flooded with tears of relief.

I mentioned this to Dad. He reflected on it for a minute. "I couldn't act relieved, Scotty," he said. "Everybody would have thought I didn't care."

Because he was only our stepfather.

*      *      *

I remember that he gathered us in a circle-Mom, Buzzy, himself, and me-before we walked into the church sanctuary where the body lay and where all our friends sat. He put one arm around my shoulder and the other around Mom's, with Buzzy in the midst of us.

"I don't want you to be sad when we walk in there," he said. "That won't be Tommy up there. It's just an old shell."

He did what fathers do-he was being strong. When we walked in and saw all our friends crying, and heard the music, and saw Tommy's body lying in front of us, we all cried. All except Dad. He kept his arms around us and led us to the front pew.

It all happened very fast. Too fast.

I can't remember the ride to the burial site. But I remember being there. I looked at Dad as they prepared to lower the casket into the ground. He was staring ahead-staring at the casket. Trying to see inside it. Trying to see Tommy one last time.

His chin quivered. It was sending a silent message. Good-bye.

*      *      *

I continue to dream about my brother. In the years after he died, the dreams came frequently. Now they come once a year.

He's always looking or walking away from me, talking to someone else. We never have a direct conversation. "Where have you been?" I ask. "How could you be alive? I saw you lying there in the coffin."

He doesn't pay much attention, and he never answers me directly. And my reaction is one of bittersweetness: he's alive, just as I knew he always was, and that's what counts. But another part of me has to know: What have you been doing? And what do you think about? Do you think about me the way I always think about you?

*      *      *

In high school, as I developed physically into Daddy Ronnie's frame, I became more interested in his athletic history. I took to wearing his old coaching jacket. One day I wore it to a spring baseball game. The principal, Mr. Dorsey, took notice.

"West Station," he said wistfully, seeing the red "W" on the front. "Ah, yes."

I wondered if he'd known Daddy Ronnie, or at least about him. I didn't ask. The jacket-the man-held that much more mystery for me.

*      *      *

I also began wearing his graduation rings, from Brady High School and from North Texas State College. I took the rings with me when I went away to college. The North Texas ring had the Greek letters Sigma Phi Epsilon on it.

A Sig Ep noticed it during rush week. "Oh, a legacy," he said.

"Yes," I said.

*      *      *

A few years ago, my Aunt Louise, Daddy Ronnie's sister, sent me a box of pictures, letters, and other mementos of her brother, my father. I waited two years before opening it. When I finally did open it, I waited until my wife, Joy, was out of the house.

The first photo was of my father as an infant. Aunt Louise sat nearby, the adolescent sister smiling with pride at her baby brother. She had written a caption at the time of the photo, in a schoolgirl's handwriting and language.

I thumbed through the photos. There was one of him as a young boy, holding his pet deer. One of him kneeling and holding his pet rabbit. One of him as an adolescent, standing in front of an old gymnasium, wearing an ill-fitting football uniform. One as a crew-cut, teenage athlete. One as a ten year old, standing next to my Uncle Pinky. There was also a letter Uncle Pinky had written to him from the Pacific during World War II. It was jovial, brotherly, patriotic.

I saw an entire lifetime unfold in the photos. I saw Daddy Ronnie as being other people's brother, son, nephew, friend. It made him all the more my father. No longer a stranger, no longer a ghost.

I lost my composure at every new revelation of him. I felt something for this man, something unexplainable. He had finally become real to me.

I wondered how he must have felt at each stage of life. There were so many simple pleasures in the photos. So many things ahead of him. What would he have been like had he lived? What would we all have been like?

*      *      *

Dad knew about it. He knew that I'd become interested. My wife, Joy, had been curious all along, and her interest of course had given rise to a jealousy in me for my father's memory. If anyone was going to know more about him, the most about him, it would be me.

I tried not to think about how it must have made Dad feel.

*      *      *

At times I think of the puppy, King-surely twice dead now, but alive to me back then more than any other living thing. His sibling had died, its body damaged irreversibly. And though King had seemed dead at the time, he had lived. He was brought to life as if by magic-by a stranger, no less, someone who hadn't had to care, but who had.

He was Daddy Robert. My second father, my earthly father. He brought things to life with his hands. He brought me to life. And he laid my brother, his adopted son, in the ground with a father's care and love.

*      *      *

He and I have this in common: We were left behind.

To carry on. To limp. To face family problems, confidence struggles, arguments with spouses, worries over bills, maybe more cancer. Famines, pestilences, Roman oppression. To go to church, pray, and wonder when or if we're being heard. To smile and thank God whenever we know we are. To live.

*      *      *

A couple of years ago Joy and I were at my parents' home. Dad and I were standing in the small dressing room that sits between their bedroom and bathroom. We were talking as he rifled through some jewelry drawers, looking for a tie tack or something. We were feeling friendly and easy.

He ran across the rings. Ronnie's rings. We both saw them at the same time. I could tell he didn't know what they were doing there. I didn't either.

He looked up at me.

"Do you want to take these with you?" he asked.

I looked at the rings. "No," I said. "You keep them for me."