Sunday, March 30, 2008

A Father’s Presence

(Adapted from an article published in the Stamford Advocate, March 24 1991)

Today marks the beginning of a holy week for three religions. For Moslems, the week-long observance of Ramadan continues with daylight fasting and nightly prayers. For Christians, the drama of the Passion unfolds. And for Jews, the annual reenactment of the Exodus from Egypt takes place at the Passover Seders. These three sacred moments coincide only once in a blue moon – which, by the way, we also experienced this year.

What I am about to write is going to sound sexist, but I beg al my female friends to indulge me on this one; because there is a common thread that joins the three celebrations together, and that is the relationship of father to son.

During Ramadan, the entire Koran is supposed to be memorized and recited, with special care given toward its transmission to sons. The primary command of the Passover Seder is “And you shall teach this to your son,” and the Seder is considered incomplete without the presence and active participation of children. And the story of Jesus revolves around the most theologically complex father-son relationship imaginable – complex and yet so very simple.

For it all comes down to one thing. Every son needs a father, one who is present and caring.

This season of fathers and sons comes at a most opportune moment for me. For 12 years, I had been searching for my father, and in one magical instant just six weeks ago, I found him. Allow me to explain.

My father collapsed from a heart attack on New Years Day of 1979, during halftime of the Rose Bowl. That’s when my mother called me from Boston and I began the longest and most difficult journey of my life. I was a student living in New York at the time, four hours from home, four hours from the finality that in my heart I suspected was coming. Although my mother’s words told me that he was still alive, her voice hinted at a more devastating truth. But that truth remained as elusive as the road beyond the reach of my headlights on that rainy night, and time stopped for me while I made that non-stop drive.

I turned onto my street and could see from half a block away that all the lights were on in my house and at least a dozen cars were parked outside. Not a good sign. A darkened house would have meant everyone was still at the hospital, where there might be some hope; but no such luck. So the choice was mine: whether to go inside and face the irreversible void that was about to enter my life, or drive on in the hopes of keeping time frozen indefinitely – as if once or twice around the block would change everything back to normal.

Fast forward to six weeks ago. With my wife about to deliver my first child, I felt myself turning the corner of that street once again. And then, when Ethan was pulled from his mother’s womb and his face turned toward me, I knew that my eons of roaming aimlessly around the block had ended. My father had returned.

The face was too serious and calm to belong to an infant, and too focused on one object in the room: me. It was as if those eyes were imploring me that it was now OK to leave the car and come into the house. The hair, the lips, the nose, they belonged to Ethan, but the eyes were my father’s eyes. And in a single moment, the distant past became the present, from death came new life, and the clock that had stopped so aburptly that New Years day began ticking again. Halftime was finally over.

My dad was a rarity for his era, demonstratively affectionate and involved with his children, day and night. Unlike all those TV daddies of the Ward Cleaver era, mine actually took me to his office – often. (And how often did Fred and Barney take Pebbles and Bam Bam to the quarry?). While he worked, I filled coloring books and traded knock-knock jokes and corny riddles with the secretaries.

In “Iron John,” Robert Bly writes of the phenomenon of the remote and absent father, so pervasive during the past three decades. This is the dad so often mocked in our popular culture, the one who ahs no idea which cold remedy to take and where the diapers are hidden. Even the success of the “sensitive dad” films like “Kramer Versus Kramer” and “Mr. Mom” only served to reinforce the notion that authentic, All-American dads aren’t supposed to be involved with their kids unless they get fired, and the only way to be a good, caring dad is to be a mom in disguise.

Citing the work of a German psychologist, Bly argues that if the father does not actually see what the father does during the day, a hole will appear in his psyche, “and the hole will fill with demons who tell him that his father’s work is evil and that the father is evil.” It was the absent father fo the Ward Cleaver era that led directly to the student protests of the ‘60s, Bly suggests, as the students’ fears regarding their own fathers were transferred to all male figures in authority.

I don’t want to be a Mr. Mom. I want to be a Mr. Dad, but one whose son will never feel that his father has abandoned him. I want to be a present father. When the boy cries, I want to hold him every time until the cry becomes a coo. And if that is impossible, which it is, I want him to have such vivid memories of me that he’ll feel me there even when I’m not. The father who is present to his child is never remote, I’ve discovered, and the father who is remote is never present, even when he is in the same room.

Which brings me back to Passover and Easter. What they share, I believe, is the idea that even when a present father appears to be off on an endless business trip, he can still hear and be heard. What Passover and Easter teach us is that the loving parent never really dies and the loving God always returns. We wait. But the Israelites waited too, through centuries of toil in a faraway land; and I waited, for 12 years before an answer finally came.

Over the past few weeks I have discovered something else, something astonishing. My father is back all right, but he can no longer be detected in the face of my son, although those eyes do still look strangely familiar. Instead, my father has chosen a most yet appropriate place to make his presence known – in my own presence. In my own soothing words and caresses, I hear his. Inasmuch as Ethan’s dad is able to be the kind of father every child deserves, Ethan’s grandfather will never be far away.

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