Childless Fathers

Nobody talks much about the childless fathers of the world. I guess that's why I was so surprised today when Pastor Terry asked them to stand as he prayed for the grief they've endured, for their longing to hold the child, dead and gone.

The women in the lives of these fathers remained seated, quietly wiping away their own tears. I heard the fellow behind me choke back his tears. A father down front cried openly.

For the bulk of my life, I didn't give much thought to childless fathers. Maybe because I didn't really know any. Far as I knew, all the kids in the trailer courts where I grew up in Georgia had fathers. It's just that very few of us had fathers who were present.

Sara had two parents. Her daddy made doughnuts for a living. He's in his 80s now and still making doughnuts. If you stop by the K&S Diner in Kosciusko, Mississippi you can get yourself some.

Pasty Brown's father was home every night for dinner but if he ever spoke a single solitary word, I never heard him. I think he may have been a mute.

I don't know what happened to Joe Kirkland's daddy. Somebody said his mama run his daddy off.

Once Mama heard me tell a girlfriend that I didn't have a daddy. Mama had a conniption fit over it. I guess she thought it made her sound like a slut, having three kids and no man around. That's not at all what I meant by that remark. I only meant that I didn't have a daddy present. Not that I didn't have one at all.

I was tempted to argue the technicalities with Mama. What good, pray tell, is a dead father? At least the absent one could send a check to help out from time to time, show up on birthdays and Christmases and the like. A dead father couldn't do any of that.

I pointed out to my distraught mother that for all practical purposes, I didn't have a father. She instructed me that from that moment forward I was not to tell my friends that I didn't have a father. I was to tell them my father was deceased. I had to ask Mama what deceased meant.

David Sheehan doesn't tell people his daughter is deceased. He tells them that Karly was murdered.

He won't speak the name of the man who did the killing. He only refers to him as "that monster."

I don't blame David one bit. If somebody came along and killed my child the way Karly Sheehan was slain, I'd call them worse names. I'd have to pray every single moment of every single day for God to help me keep from killing somebody myself, had Karly been my child.

My only child.

Fathers Day is hard for David. People don't know what to say to childless fathers. They aren't sure if they should say anything at all. They worry that saying something might bring up a painful subject for David. As if he could ever forget his joyously delightful imp of a girl in a million light years.

Karly loved her daddy with her whole heart. She told him that when she grew up and became a daddy, she wanted to work in an office, too, just like he did.

David tried to correct her. Tried to tell Karly that when she grew up she wouldn't be a daddy, she'd be a mommy.

But Karly burst into tears and cried out that she didn't want to be a mommy. She wanted to be a daddy, like him.

It was the moment, David would later testify, when he knew something was horribly wrong with Karly's relationship with her mother.

David tried to tell that to the state welfare folks, the ones conducting the investigation into child abuse. They suspected him of abusing his daughter. He tried to tell them that there was no way in hell he was abusing his daughter. He loved her more than life itself.

He didn't have the evidence needed to stop the guy, but David knew his ex-wife's boyfriend was responsible. Law enforcement folks should have guessed that from statistics alone. The bulk of child abuse is perpetuated by a mother's boyfriend or live-in.

Far as we know Karly was never sexually abused. Instead she was subjected to ten months of sporadic physical abuse. That day she died -- June 3, 2005 -- doctors found over 60 marks on the three-year old's body. One eye was swollen completely shut. It was ruptured.

If there was an Amber Alert issued for every time a child dies in this country from child abuse, we'd have to issue four alerts a day. Ninety percent of those dead children are ages 3 and under, just like Karly. Some of them come from Christian homes, the way Karly did.

The monster was found guilty of torture but not for first-degree murder. The jury said they weren't sure he meant to kill Karly. Maybe he just intended to rough her up a bit. The way he had been doing since Karly's mother began shacking up with the fellow only weeks after meeting him.

Nobody talks about that either. How some women are just bad mothers. We especially don't talk about these sort of things in the church. It's so damn unpleasant.

The man who killed Karly grew up in Corvallis, Oregon, where 75 percent of the population has a college education. His parents owned a big fine house near the golf course. For a time, he attended Santiam Christian School. He identified himself as a Conservative Christian. He put up lawn signs urging people to vote for George W. Bush. He listened to Rush Limbaugh, religiously. He knew all about how to raise a child up in the way he or she should go, like it talks about in Proverbs.

He also had an addiction to porn, which Karly's mother discovered in the weeks leading into her daughter's brutal death. But that didn't dissuade her from leaving her child in the care of the monster. Not even when doing so caused Karly to break down in hysterics.

Karly's mother was raised in the church, too. Her parents were just as well off as her boyfriend's family. Neither one ever lacked for anything, materially, emotionally or spiritually. They were loved and nutured and taught in the ways of the Lord. I know this because Karly's mom lived with us, too, for awhile.

There was a time when Karly's mama was like a daughter to me. A daughter with a propensity toward living the reckless life. Karly's mama liked to hang at the bars. She liked to play video poker. She liked to smoke and drink and flirt. The night before Karly died, she had oral sex in the alleyway with a man who wasn't her boyfriend. But she's a pretty woman, very pretty. She's gotten away with a lot of things in this life that would have sent an ugly woman to jail.

Because she's a pretty woman who was raised in the church and knows all the right things to say and the soft ways to say them, people are prone to give her a break. But the truth is, she was a selfish woman and a lousy mother.

We had a bad fight when she told me she was leaving Karly's daddy. She said she wasn't happy anymore. I told her I didn't give a care about her happiness. What I cared about is that David loved Karly and he loved her. I told her that she had to put Karly's needs first. But she didn't listen to me. She never listened to people who said things she didn't want to hear.

I didn't blame Karly for wanting to be like her daddy when she grew up. David was the one consistent in her life. The one person Karly knew would never, ever hurt her. He was out-of-town the week Karly was killed. Even so, when the detectives asked Karly's mama who had brutalized her daughter so, she said it had to be David, who else?

It's a sad tale. The horrors inflicted upon Karly Sheehan continue to haunt the jurors who found Shawn W. Field guilty. They had a difficult time understanding how a man who had been by most accounts a decent father to his own daughter could be so abusive toward David's daughter.

Last year on Fathers Day, David called and told me that no one had mentioned Karly to him at all.

I understand that. How should one go about wishing Happy Fathers Day to the father whose child is dead?

Besides we often fail to recognize the good dads among us. The dads who grieve the children they've lost, whether by divorce or by death, and care dilligently for the ones they still have.

David Sheehan no longer has a daughter to raise but I still consider him one of the finest fathers I've ever met.

I asked him once how he managed to get out of bed each day. What kept him from despair?

"Karly was such a bright and beautiful and joyous girl," David said. "I just want to be the kind of man she would be proud of."

On behalf of those who know you best, David, I just want to say Happy Fathers Day to one of the best fathers I've ever known.

You are exactly the kind of person that Karly wanted to be when she grew up. A good and gracious and nurturing man. The very kind of dad fatherless children like me dream of having.

The above commentary by Karen Spears Zacharias comes from a true crime memoir titled The Other Side of Wrong: A Lament for Karly Sheehan. Her agent is shopping the book around.


  1. Thank you so much for sharing this. I often think about the people that are skipped over or ignored in the traditional Mother's and Father's Day celebrations, but even I hadn't thought about those who had lost their children in this manner. Your post made me cry- and I am glad that you haven't forgotten or skipped over them.

  2. At our church, every Mother's Day and Father's Day, before our pastor asks all the fathers or mothers to stand, he asks anyone to stand who, for any reason, finds that day to be a particularly painful one. Then others who are seated around them take time to pray for them.

    Nobody has to say why this day is painful. I know some of the stories. Some lost their dad in a war. For some, this is the first Mother's Day since their mom died. Some have tried to have babies but are unable, or have had several miscarriages. Some have kids in prison. And a couple of them, sadly, have lost children. It's a hard thing to imagine, and as a father, it pulls my heart in a way I cannot describe.
    Thanks for sharing this story. It helps me (a) be thankful for the good health my kids enjoy; and (b) reminds me to be sensitive to those for whom this day is full of hurts, and to call them and offer myself to them.

  3. Thanks, Karen. Our daughter is still with us, but our son is not. I cried during worship at church yesterday. Though i'm not totally bereft, i appreciate knowing there are people out there that recognize yesterday was not all happy for all dads. And for the record, i would have felt loved if someone mentioned my son, even if it made me cry.

  4. Hi Karen -

    I'm a foster mom in Washington state. I used to foster in Colorado; between the two states I have about fifteen years in caring for all kinds of kids.

    Just last week, I had to send a four year old boy who asked me why I couldn't be his "real" mom back to his mom. The one who hadn't mothered him for three of his four years; the one who left him in the "care" of relatives who abused and neglected him resulting in his being placed in seven homes before coming to mine.

    I am heartbroken by this, because I am completely convinced that this woman cannot care for this little guy, yet a judge who knows nothing about her or my little man except what he briefly read in massive court papers, decided he should go home. Not in the usual ninety day period, but in thirty.

    After all these years, it is still impossibly hard sometimes to deal with the systems that are supposed to protect children from evil, neglectful, selfish, neglectful parents.

    Randy Stonehill had a song out years ago that asked, "Can hell burn hot enough to pay for all the suffering, the murder of the innocents?"

    Sometimes, I am not sure that it will.

  5. Those Mother's and Father's Day services can be so painful to so many people for so many reasons! What about the infertile couples? What about the parents whose adult children are estranged? What about the grieiving people who have recently lost parents? I don't know why churches persist in these sort of services. Hurrah for your pastor for noticing some of the hurting.

  6. Sophy, are you suggesting that churches should ignore Mother's and Father's Day?

    In an earlier comment, I described how one church does it. I believe it's most in line with the biblical principle of "rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep."

  7. Just FYI: David sued the state of Oregon & that suit was recently settled, details kept private, of course. Shawn W. Field continues to maintain that he did not kill Karly Sheehan. His attorneys have filed an appeal. Oregon's Court of Appeals has that under consideration, currently.
    RE: Pastors/church leaders.
    I think a church ought to reflect the community around it. In this country, that means participating in some long-standing traditions, such as Mothers Day and Fathers Day.
    I think Pastor Terry provided a good example of how best to respect our culture's traditions while aknowledging the pain that such traditions can create for some.