Thursday, June 18, 2015

Fathers and Sons (adapted) from Stamford Advocate, April 1991

I’d known all along that my father would never abandon me, but never did I realize it more than on the day my first child was born.

What I’m going to write here will sound sexist to some, but I beg my female friends to indulge me on this one.  My training in religious traditions makes me take special note of the unique complexity of the father-son relationship.  For Jews, the primary command of the Passover Seder is to tell the story to your son (which in many modern translations has been expanded to include daughters too).  In Islam, the Quran is to be memorized and recited, with special care given toward its transmission to sons.  And for Christians, the story of Jesus revolves around the most theologically complex father-son relationship imaginable – complex yet so very simple.

For it all comes down to one thing. Every son needs a father, a close father to love and teach him, one who is present and caring, whether the father be the simplest of men – or God.

For twelve years, I had been searching for my father and, in one magical instant, I found him.

For twelve years I had been continually driving around that block, refusing to allow myself to be drawn into the light of my home, to the finality of my father’s death.  For twelve years I had been orbiting.

When Mara went into labor, I felt myself turning the corner of that street once again.  And then, when my son Ethan was pulled from his mother’s womb and his face turned toward me, I know 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 – even though the lungs were crying like crazy – and too focused on one object in the room: me.  “Your journey is over,” the face seemed to be saying.  “You can leave the car and come back in the house.  It’s OK now.  I’m back. 

The hair, the lips, the nose, the all belonged to Ethan.  But the eyes were my father’s eyes.  And in a single moment the distant past became the present, out of death came new life, and the clock that had stopped on that New Year’s Day twelve years before started ticking again. Halftime was finally over.

I’d known it all along; my dad would never abandon me.  He was a rarity for his era, demonstratively affectionate and involved with his children, day and night.  Unlike all those TV dads of the Ward Cleaver era, mine actually took me to his office – often. (How often did Fred Flintstone and Barney bring Pebbles and Bam Bam to the quarry?)  While he worked, I filled coloring books and traded corny riddles and knock-knock jokes with the secretaries. 

In his early ‘90s best seller “Iron John,” Robert Bly writes of the phenomenon of the resolute and absent father, the dad who, on those rare occasions when he is home, has no idea which cold remedy to take or where the diapers are hidden.  Citing the work of a German psychologist, Bly argues that if a child does not actually see what his father does during the day, a hole will appear in his psyche, “and that 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 of 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.

As I looked at Ethan, I thought of how present my father was – and how I wanted to be a present father too.  When the boy cries, I thought, I want to hold him every time until the cry becomes a coo.  And I want to hear every cry and coo, be there with him every waking moment, 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 for 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.

In the book of Genesis, Abraham’s words to Isaac were never recorded, but between the lines of the text one can guess what must have been said by one about to die at the hands of his father.  Isaac’s silent scream was a cry filled with the horror of the ultimate parental abandonment, one equaled in intensity only on rare occasions throughout history – perhaps only in Egypt, or at Golgotha.  Or Auschwitz.  “My God, my God,” echoed the pleas of the enslaved Israelite, the suffering Jesus and the brutalized European Jew.  “Why have you forsaken me?”

These cries to a common Father were often heard – and often not.  Many of us are still waiting.

Meanwhile, I discovered something quite astounding in February 1991.  My father was back, all right, but he could no longer be detected in the face of my son, though those eyes did continue to look strangely familiar. 

Instead, my father chose a most curious yet appropriate place to make his presence known – in my own presence.  Inasmuch as Ethan’s dad has been able to be the kind of present father every child deserves, a child of any age, Ethan’s grandfather will never be very far away.

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