The room hung heavy with the smell of death. I held his hand, maybe for the last time. It felt cool, like a layer of worn leather stretched loosely over fragile bones. Shadows in the room lengthened as night swallowed day through the hospital window. Tears blurred the black line spiking with each bleep across the gray screen. I removed the salty stream from my cheek with the back of my hand and whispered, “I love you Dad.”

The scene, always the same, just a different number on a calendar to mark the days. Was it obligation or love that compelled me to spend my nights in that hospital room? Regret and disdain had long since been replaced with pity and a sort of obligatory love for a man who was more of a sperm donor than a father; but he was my father. His name was Victor . . . and he was dying.

Thirty nine years seems a lifetime ago but in my quiet moments of reflection I sometimes ponder that question. Maybe the answer can be found by answering a different question: What is a father?

I would suspect that there are as many answers as there are people who ponder that question; each conclusion reached by a view through the window of their own experience. My own conclusion would be skewed by misconception if not for one most important interruption. I became a Christian, and in so doing I found the perfect Father—God—the one who created me.

Let me digress to an explanation of my own childhood. I, the youngest of four children, spent the early years of my life living in a four room shack on a barren piece of dirt in the middle of nowhere with no running water and an outhouse serving as the family bathroom. I longed for the love of a father who had none to give, either to his children or his wife.

The discipline of a razor strap strategically placed, the slap of a hand at the back of my head, words spoken in anger without explanation, these became my memory and understanding of a man who took up residence in my life with no credentials of love to prove his title: Father. Would it have been better if he were missing in action—not there at all? Maybe. But his lack of desire for physical and emotional connection to his family deepened the black hole in my heart with each passing year until my disdain for him reached a point of permanent status.

I smile as I look back on those early years of my childhood and marvel at a God who can take a stony heart like mine and fill it with love for a man named Victor—my Father. I held him tight the day he died in that hospital room so many years ago and I cried, not for me but for him, and all the regrets he could not replace. His time was up.

Time would not let me forget the lesson taught that day—no regrets—two words to define a life, my life. And as I love my wife, my children and my grandchildren, the answer to that question from so long ago can only be love. It was my love for a Father who didn’t deserve it because of a God who loved me when I didn’t deserve it.

If on this Father’s Day you find yourself where I was so many years ago, take heart, there is hope beyond the moment. God is the Father to the Fatherless—He wants to be your Father.

In the middle of your pain let this scripture be your comfort: Psalm 68:5 “A Father to the Fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in His holy dwelling.”