I was 13 the first time someone asked me to be a godfather, I was thrilled and awed. One might consider it foreshadowing that this baby was a girl, my cousin Bernadette Mahon. February 16 is her birthday.
Bernadette and her family lived southwest of Pittsburgh and we lived east of Philadelphia, so we only saw each other a few times a year. Still, she never failed to bring me a huge smile and elicit big hugs. She grew into a smart, caring kid—and a precocious one, too; one of my favorite memories is Bernadette staring down in concentration while trying to beat our grandfather in a game of cards. We saw each other less often as I grew up and started a family; we crossed paths at weddings, funerals and a short visit to her at Penn State, while I was driving across the country.
She married Jim Hale when my daughters were 12. Their wedding was the first time that Nia and Mavis spent time with my entire, large, noisy, opinionated, affectionate side of the family. I love my clan immensely; they were a major influence growing up. Bernadette and Jim gave my daughters the gift of first connecting with that clan, and I am still incredibly grateful for that.
Over the next 15 years, Bernadette and Jim had five children, each of them a memorable character. A couple of years ago, Bernadette developed cancer; against which she struggled defiantly and faithfully under her death last August at 40.
Since today is her birthday, many people are reflecting on her life and family.
I saw Bernadette only a few times during her years of illness. But those times revealed another great gift—the chance to observe the remarkable fathering of Jim Hale. A fireplug-shaped, crew-cut former Marine, Jim strikes some folks as reserved or even shy. I don’t know Jim well, but I’ve never seen a man who, amidst such stress and chaos, seemed so animated by and tuned into his children.
I visited the Hale’s house in York, PA a couple of weekends before Bernadette died. On the hospital bed in their converted dining room, she drifted in and out of consciousness while neighbors, relatives, doctors, and hospice personnel streamed in and out. Still, Jim created time and space to be alone with his wife, and with each of his children. He responded to their needs; even driving his young son to a mall in Harrisburg for the midnight release party for a new Star Wars Lego set Trevor coveted for weeks.
Jim seemed to be sacrificing a great deal to be attentive and present to his children—but he also seemed to draw nourishment and strength from those children, too.
At its essence, fathering is about both sacrifice and nourishment. That’s not always so apparent to us unless or until we encounter a crisis in our lives, or watch another dad or stepdad deal in crisis. It is in those moments—moments like watching Jim Hale father from the heart—that secondary, peripheral concerns fall away. Things like annoyance with the behavior of a child (or her mother), social reputation, salary, or marital status seem irrelevant—if not downright petty.
As fathers and stepfathers, our challenge is to stay as close to that awareness as we can every day—knowing and believing that fathering is a total, lifelong commitment from which nothing ought to deter us. The rewards of good fathering are innumerable—for our children and ourselves.
I suspect Bernadette is getting the most valuable birthday present today from Jim: relentless, faithful fathering of their children.