Family Matters

A Father's Influence

by Chris Beneteau

My father died when I was thirteen years old. He suffered most of his life from manic depression and his illness led to unhealthy lifestyle choices and other physical problems, which culminated in a heart attack at the age of 52. I remember being whisked, along with my brother, from a golf tournament and being brought to a local hospital where I found my mother and sister weeping in the waiting room. I instinctively knew what had happened and in stunned disbelief I asked the nurse if I could see my father. She then led me into another room and there I found my father lying dead on a cold metal table.Although it looked like my father, it was obvious that something was missing and then it came to me. His body was just a shell or a vessel that temporarily held his immortal soul. I remember thinking to myself, "that’s not my dad." Although this did allow for some closure, I regret not being able to say goodbye to him while he was alive.

People who live with those who suffer from manic depression (bi-polar disorder) will attest that things can get a little rough. My father’s mood swings were quite severe. At the worst of times he suffered from delusions of grandeur and would engage in risky behaviour. At the other extreme he would turn inwards and become catatonic. Unfortunately, these extreme behaviours often led to conflict and crisis. I can remember staying up till all hours of the morning with my mother as we tried to talk him down and prevent him from doing things he might regret. After one such episode, my mother packed us up and took us to a motel. The next morning, after the police had physically escorted my father to the psychiatric hospital, we returned home only to find that he had trashed our home, although nothing of any great value (i.e., furniture, appliances, etc…) was damaged.

The greatest pain came with never knowing what each day would bring. We spent a lot of time walking on eggshells because my father suffered from manic depression. We never knew what would set my father off. On one occasion I made the mistake of calling my father lazy after he broke a promise to put up a basketball net. He then ignored me for a week and the family blamed me for his mood. This was understandable because they were all held hostage to his moods. Keeping the peace was constantly on our minds. It wasn’t until I threatened to run away that my dad snapped out of it and things returned to normal.

After reading these stories one may be left to think that my father had little to offer our family. This could not be any further from the truth. When my father took his medication and was healthy, he was a wonderful husband and father. Unfortunately, the above incidents tend to overshadow all of the great lessons he taught me growing up.

With the passage of time my memory of my father has faded. I almost forgot just what a tremendous influence he had on my life. These memories were rekindled over the past weekend when I took three of my oldest boys on a fishing trip. After tucking the boys in for the night I had a chance to sit by the campfire and reflect on the immense beauty of the universe. It was a very humbling experience and it served to remind me just how insignificant I am in the greater scheme of things. It was during this time of reflection that everything started to come back to me.

People often ask me how I became so passionate about the many issues that I have faced in my travels as a Catholic activist. In the past I have pointed to my mother, my friends, and many great philosophers and theologians. The truth however is that the seed was sown by a letter my father had written over thirty years ago to the editor of a local newspaper. I will never forget the profundity of the headline, "making the lesser seem the greater cause." In the letter, my father took the principal of Queens University to task for deciding to remove the "Our Father" from convocation ceremonies. Although it was only one letter, I remember being so impressed that my father had the courage to write it. In the letter, I also received my first philosophy lesson. He compared the Queen's principal to the Greek philosophers known as the "sophists", who made the lesser seem the greater cause in not wanting to offend a few sensitive souls. Looking back now, this lesson was one more than I had received in my entire experience in the Catholic education system. But that’s another story. I spent many of my teen years hoping that one day I would be competent enough to write just one letter to a local paper. If only my dad knew what he would unleash in the future and one hundred letters later I think it is fair to say that he created a monster!

When my father was sick, I sometimes wondered if he had contempt for the Church. He never voiced any dissatisfaction; it was his attitude or mannerisms that led me to believe that he was battling some inner demons. My father was a Catholic brother for a number of years and was on his way to the priesthood before being derailed by his illness. I remember him standing in mass with his arms folded as he stared down our parish priest. Despite this mildly arrogant act, I never remember my father criticizing the Church in any way. In fact, after his death I had the opportunity to find some of the things that became a part of his formation as a Catholic.

People always referred to my father as a very well read man. He had an extensive library and many of his books now make a home in my bookshelves. Most of the books I kept were works of Catholic theology. Looking back now, I am really grateful that my father had such an extensive collection. Years in the Catholic school system had provided me with very little philosophy, theology or catechesis. I came out of the system primed to enter the world of Catholic dissenters and, like most of my friends, I was poised to give up the faith. Years later as I contemplated leaving the church, many of these books provided me with the answers and inspirations that I so desperately needed. My father’s books filled a void created by 12 years of Catholic education.

My father had a passion for the outdoors specifically fishing, hunting and camping. While I never took up hunting, fishing is one of my passions. I am not as skilled a fisherman as my father, yet all I learned about the sport came from him. To this day, I have many of the fishing rods and most of the tackle that he took great pride in owning. Whenever I rig a line, bait a hook, or clean a fish, I think of him. He was so patient with us. Hopefully, when I pass on to the next life, my boys will think of me when they drop a line in the water. Recently, while enjoying the trip with my boys, I was reminded of an incident which occurred when I was about nine years old and a member of the cub scouts. During a camping trip in which my father was one of the chaperones, I stayed in the tent of a boy who was known to have a poor relationship with his father. I’ll never forget the day that he said to me, "you are so lucky to have a father that does stuff with you." He was right of course. In this day of absentee fathers, my dad would be a relic from a simpler time.

The greatest gift a father can give his children is the gift of time. How else can the lessons of life and the essentials of our faith be passed on? Fathers can’t sit around and hope that the education system, TV, something or someone else do it for them. In this day and age, the risk is too great and the consequences too grave. My children will never know my father. It is sad because he would have thought the world of them. Hopefully, I will be able to pass on the many lessons my father taught me which is Love.

Chris Beneteau
The Catholic Legate
December 24, 2004