This one is for you, Pops…
With the election behind us… (Congratulations, Sheriff-Elect Don Barnes, and keep up the fight in November, Congressman Rohrabacher!)… I seriously thought about doing an election analysis for this week’s blog. Being a political junky, Tuesday night elections are the equivalent of the Super Bowl for me. That said, one of the things that is spectacularly irritating is the various analyses of elections that don’t offer any great insight, other than to rehash the actual election. As I assume all of you share the same dislikes I do, I will spare you that annoyance.
Instead, I want to focus on another upcoming “day”… Father’s Day.
Specifically, I want to focus on the relationship that I have with my own father, and the reflections I have in light of being a father myself.
Father’s Day, like Mother’s Day, has become an exercise in Hallmark cards, brunches and gift-giving. While we do well to honor those who are fathers, we frankly spend little time in retrospect as to whom these men actually are, primarily a result of having lived our lives with them. We know these people, we understand their complexities and, having suffered through numerous disputes with them over the years, understand their own fallibility.
There comes a point, though, as adults when a unique realization occurs.
Each of us has suffered, or watched others suffer through extreme times of emotional distress. As children, we look to our mothers and fathers as guides to help us understand how to navigate these dark times. We remember these instances, for oftentimes they are the defining points which have led us to who we are as adults today. We also remember the guidance our parents gave us… for good or ill, for like the event itself, the response to the event is often revealing.
This reflection often happens when we realize we have transcended the age that our parents were when our “childhood event” occurred. When we have the enlightenment of experience to realize our parents were mere children themselves when they were suddenly thrust into this situation, we are often humbled by the sheer intellect of their actions so many years ago, or warmed by the compassionate knowledge they did “the best they could with what they had.”
(If you have arrived here from our newsletter, continue reading here…)
When I was six years old, our family suffered a catastrophic event. My younger brother, who was only three at the time, succumbed to an acute infection of meningitis. My young parents were utterly devastated. I was massively affected by the loss as well, but on a different level. I was suddenly forced to learn the underlying realities of mortality, as well as the sudden knowledge that my dear brother was no longer to be a part of my life.
My parents, on the other hand, two people who were in their early thirties, suddenly had their lives, as they knew them, terminated.
Back then psychological counseling for grief was nonexistent. Really the only support system that existed at all was clergy, and our relationship with the synagogue became stressed.
I distinctly remember a few weeks after Craig’s death, my father, who was desperately trying to keep me from sinking into depression myself, sat with me to watch a cartoon version of the novel, Charlotte's Web, which was showing on TV.
There is a point where Charlotte, the spider, dies.
I looked back at my father who was sitting in his chair and saw a single tear streaking down his face as he sat stoically with me. When he realized I was watching him, he smiled and asked me how I was doing. The juxtaposition of him trying to be “cheerful” with the wet streak of a tear on his face, taught me more about dignity and compassion than anything I have ever read then or since.
A few months later, my parents noticed I was struggling coming to terms with the loss of my brother. I had, for one reason or another, attached myself to a stuffed Winnie the Pooh doll.
As an eight-year-old boy there was absolutely no justifiable reason I should be so needy of this doll to be in bed with me when I went to sleep. It gave me a measure of comfort, though, and my parents felt little need to wean me from it.
In an effort to get on with the business of life, my two grief-stricken parents decided the three of us should take a trip to the East Coast. I remember little of that trip, except for the fact that we went to Washington, Philadelphia and New York. It was in New York that a secondary tragedy occurred.
Evidently, when I was packing up my stuff at the hotel in Philadelphia, I neglected to secure my coveted Winnie the Pooh doll. When we reached New York and I was getting ready to go to bed on the rollaway cot in my parents’ hotel room, I suddenly realized Winnie was not there.
I was completely devastated.
My father wanted to protect me, to ease my pain. There was little he could do, though. As I sat there bawling, he turned to my mother and said, “I’ll be right back.”
A few minutes later he returned to the room with a paper gift bag from the lobby gift store. He handed me the bag and took a step back with a nervous and hopeful look.
I opened the bag and pulled out two tiny stuffed animals…. a walrus and a lion.
I held each in my hand and looked at my dad and said, “What am I supposed to do with these?”
Instantly, I started crying again.
I look back on that event and realize how much pain I must have caused my father at that time. He was desperately looking for something… anything… that could mollify my pain, and I completely missed that at the time. I was so psychologically damaged that selfishness and lack of empathy dictated my emotional responses.
I’ve thought about that day many times over the years. Each time, I well up with pride that the man who raised me had the capacity to push through his own grief to do what he thought would be best for me all the time. What still gets me, is that he had the presence of mind to do this when he was almost 15 years younger than I am right now.
I’ve told this story to Sandy and my kids over the years.
This year we knew that I was going to be alone on Father’s Day. Carolyn is living in Sydney, Australia, and Chaney won coveted spots at West Point and Annapolis Summer Seminars. Sandy took Chaney to the East Coast last week, and they won’t be back until after Father’s Day has passed.
Before they left, Carolyn “FaceTimed” us, and with all of us in the same room, Chaney gave me their gift to me.
I opened the 5.11 bag (Nice touch girls!).
Inside was a brand new Winnie the Pooh doll.
The pride that I felt at that moment in my girls, and my own father, was incalculable.
To all of you who are fathers, to all of you who have fathers… we are men…which means, as my wife tells me, we are deeply flawed.
But, we do the best we can with what we have.
Be secure with the knowledge that it is never the grand things that will be remembered. It is the little things… like running down to a gift shop at nine o’clock at night to get a struggling child a walrus and a lion. Those are the things that will define you not only as a man… but as a father.