Passing Along Faith, Father to Son

06/19/2011 01:16 am ET | Updated Aug 18, 2011

On the morning I flew home to be at my father's bedside for the last time, I took a jog in the park. Running along the cold asphalt beneath the bare trees, I remembered walking there years before with my very pregnant wife in the same dank season. Somehow the walking was supposed to ease the birthing process. "Now I am a father with two sons," I thought, "and soon to lose my own father." Birth and death were marked by the same urge: to slow time down as it raced it along.

When my son was born after midnight on that day we walked in the park, my first call was to home, Mom and Dad getting on the line. As always they were the ones I wanted to talk to when anything important happened: the boys' first steps, baseball victories, class plays. The last time Dad visited, the last plane trip he ever took, we ate lunch in this park on a sunny day to celebrate our younger son's high school graduation, Dad getting around by walker. Now I had a weird thought, "Who will I call when Dad dies?" I wouldn't be able to share this milestone with him.

Fathers and sons pass along their heritage from generation to generation. From my dad I inherited blue eyes, decent teeth, a bad heart, fondness for irony, readiness to cry and respect for spiritual yearnings. We went to church because it was Dad's notion that we should learn something about the mystery of worship and have some vocabulary for
exploring faith. We acquired his vocabulary every night when we listened to his rambling graces at dinner.

My wife and I took our kids to church every Sunday, and both boys had to put up with me at some point as their highly flawed Sunday school teacher. "We'll pay for this someday," I used to tell my wife. Not many of their peers had to spend Sunday mornings in a pew. Sure enough, at age 16, the oldest leaned over after one sermon and whispered, "Mom, Dad, I don't believe in God anymore. We can talk about it later." The younger made his doubts known well into college.

We have talked about faith many times since then. One of the emails I most treasure came from a more-or-less atheist son who was reading the Bible as literature in a college class. "I finally get it why smart people like you and Mom believe in God," he wrote. "It's an act of faith. You believe on faith. Not that I believe any of it myself," he added.

At their grandfather's funeral service , both boys proved that the family heritage has been passed along with the ease of their tears and the willingness to find a few ironic details amidst the sentiment. They seemed ready to absorb this milestone. The only way I can seem to get at it is by gazing at them.

"Every boy needs a father," said a psychologist friend to me. How inadequate I have often felt to the task and how grateful I am that I've had a chance to take on the role. This is the first Father's Day that I don't have a father to call or to send a silly card to, but I'll do what he did on Sunday, bellow hymns from a pew. Then my mind will wander in a prayer urging time to slow to a crawl in a life that has sped by.