What do you think of when you say the word “father?”
There are infinite ways to answer that question, and there are an infinite number of fathers I could write about for Father’s Day.
So I decided to ask Pastor Darrell Haley of the South Pasadena Christian Church. He thought about it and e-mailed back: “I have the perfect candidate — Jay Thomas.”
Now, the pastor is more than a foot taller than me — and a pastor — so I listened. I’m glad I did.
Dr. Jay Thomas has been through many of the experiences that you – as a father, or your father, or your forefathers – have gone through in their lives. He admits he’s not perfect, but he’s tried, and I think he’s done very well.
Thomas, a South Pasadena resident, is a physician practicing hospice and palliative medicine. He goes to the homes of patients who are seriously ill and facing death. Palliative medicine is for anyone with a serious illness and hospice is for people whose prognosis is six months of life or less.
He’s a part-time student at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, where he hopes to get a certificate in Christian studies this summer and then pursue a master’s degree starting this fall. He’s also got a doctorate in molecular biology and did research before practicing medicine.
You might be thinking: “That doesn’t sound like me.”
He has experienced some of the same trials and moments of happiness that other fathers have in raising their children.
“Having a child is like having your heart outside your body,” he said. “Joy is balanced with fear. There is a life full of joy and trouble.”
His stepson, Sean Richards, went through 10 years of fighting manic depression, Thomas said, from having a manic break in college to where he is now stable. Things got so bad that, at times, Thomas did not know where Richards was, and at another point, he was in jail.
“There were ups and downs. It was a roller coaster,” he said.
He got into a halfway house in Altadena and now lives with his fiancée, and they hope to be married.
“There is real joy after heartache,” Thomas said.
Now, Richards credits his dad with being a role model.
“I could not have a stronger influence in my life,” he said. “He leads by example. He’s as straight as you can get. He really embodies what it means to be a good Christian.”
Thomas’ wife, Sandra, and daughter, Shannon, both use the same word to describe him: “integrity.”
“He gives everything,” his daughter said. “He lives his life with integrity. If I could run the race and say I’ve left it all on the field, I’d say that because of my dad.”
His wife talked about the time she was getting divorced from her first husband and he stayed on the phone with her during a stressful night.
“He gave me the courage to go in to see the lawyers the next day.
Sandra said her husband has always been there for her and the family.
“He’s had a lot going on in his life, and maybe he’ll worrywart on something small, but on the big stuff, he’ll be calm and help you out,” she said.
Thomas admits he’s far from perfect.
“I always thought my dad was perfect and if I could be half the man he was, I’d be doing all right,” he said. “I’m not the perfect person.
“I may have been too protective sometimes,” Thomas added. “If one of the kids was learning to ride the bicycle, I’d be the one holding on to the bike to make sure they didn’t fall.”
He was a medical resident in med school when his children were small, and he admits it was difficult balancing parenting and being on call.
“I’d try to take time — at least some of the time — to eat dinner with the family.” he said. “We’re a spiritual family and we’d go to church together.”
He credits his wife of 31 years with sharing and helping in his life
“My wife and I love our kids unconditionally, but that doesn’t mean we support their choices unconditionally,” he said. “The kids are a source of joy, balanced with fear. There is a life full of joy and trouble. My greatest joys are those milestones like the first words or the first steps.”
Thomas was literally on the receiving end of the birth of his daughter. He was a third-year medical student doing his OBGYN rotation when his wife went into pre-labor and he eventually delivered the baby.
“I almost dropped her,” Thomas admitted. “I didn’t realize babies were so slippery.”
Thomas said that he has always wanted to have the kids to have to good heart.
“As a Christian father, I think my highest duty is to point the way to the Heavenly Father and I’ve been proudest of my kids when I see God’s love shining through them to take care of other,” he said.
His children recognize how he takes care of others.
“He decided to be a doctor because he wanted to help people and that’s what he did,” Sean said. “I’ve always looked up to him.”
Shannon told me the story of how her grandfather was a preacher who had to preach primarily in Black churches because he was Indian and not allowed to preach in many white churches.
“My dad grew up with a strong commitment to equality — especially the vulnerable,” she said.
Shannon noted that he could have made more money in another branch of medicine, but to him “human suffering matters.”
“My dad treats every mom and dad — even if they are on the streets — as if they were his own mom or dad,” Shannon said. “Everyone would be better and the world would be a better place if they were more like my dad.”