This post is about fathers, my thoughts triggered partly by another upcoming Father’s day, but mostly by stories of fathers leaping out of books I’ve recently read and stories I’ve recently heard… now haunting me.
Who were you, really?
Over the weekend, I read Joan Wickersham’s heart wrenching memoir about her father’s suicide, entitled “The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death in Order“. It’s an amazing book, moving, honest, and very well written. I laughed and I wept. As I said earlier, I’m haunted. Haunted by the pain of a family trying to survive a fathers’ suicide. Haunted by the utter despair and loneliness that one man felt.
I cry every time I imagine him. Because while I didn’t know him, he was part of my clan. He was one of us… he was a father, like me. He was put on this earth, in part, to be a father to his two daughters. And when he simply could no longer take this life… when even being a father wasn’t enough to make him hang on… he put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. He just couldn’t find a way. It’s… just… so… sad!
One of the things that struck me the most is the author’s observation that a suicide robs you not only of the one you love, but also of the certainty of having known him or her. She writes,
Suicide destroys memory.
It undercuts one of our most romantic, and most comforting, notions: that we don’t really die when we die, because we live on in the memories of those who love us.
When you kill yourself, you’re killing every memory everyone has of you. You’re taking yourself away permanently and removing all traces that you were ever here in the first place, wiping away every fingerprint you ever left on anything.
You’re saying, “I’m gone, and you can’t even be sure who it is that’s gone, because you never knew me.”
Joan walks us through her grief and through the long, painful search for answers to the “why?”, which ultimately can never really be found. One can list all the possible, even likely, reasons, but that still doesn’t place one in the head of the loved one who commits suicide. Understanding causes is not the same as knowing the experience that is unique to each human being.
Of monsters and fathers
On a related, but much more sinister and dark note, this same weekend, I caught part of an interview on TV with the infamous BTK serial killer. Dennis Rader calculatingly and brutally killed 10 people. Among his victims were a mother, father and 2 children. As with many serial killers no one suspected him. He was active in the community, he was a leader in his church congregation, he was married… and he was a father, to his own boy and girl. One can’t begin to conceive of the shock and disorientation that those children must have felt, and still feel, upon discovering their father, who ate dinner with them, read them stories, participated in their activities… was a serial murderer.
Of course, there are less dramatic stories. Yet the theme is a common one. Exactly how well does a son or daughter every really know his or her father? Questions, generally never asked, stir in the hearts of many sons and daughters. A father’s affair is found out. “How could you, dad? And who are you?” Another father always seems angry and hard to please, rarely if ever offering words of affirmation. “Why are you so angry dad? Don’t you love me?” Still another has a drinking problem that no one outside the family knows about; he’s a ‘functioning alcoholic’. “What makes you drink all the time, daddy? Why won’t you stop? Why can’t just one family event not be ruined by your drinking?” This other father spends all his time at work, traveling, working late, missing most of the kids’ lives. “What makes you work so much? Why do you need so badly to succeed? Why don’t I know you?”
Looking for daddy
Even for fathers with no big secrets or major compulsions, how congruent, how coherent is the picture our children have of us? How well do we let them know us? I’ve been thinking about that, as a father. I’ve wondered what questions my kids might want to ask me, what part of me they might want to understand better, but perhaps wouldn’t ask. I’ve asked myself in what ways I’ve led them to think more highly of me than they should.
In my work as a psychologist, I can assure you that for many teenagers, as well as for many grown men and women, their fathers remain mysteries. And they suffer for it. There simply is something foundational to our security, to our identity, to our self-understanding, to our capacity for intimacy about knowing our fathers.
To be clear, developmentally, I tend to think that an “idealized” father is not a bad thing for younger children. They need to believe dad is stronger, smarter, better than any man really could be. It seems to me that it’s only unhealthy when the child’s need to idealize his/her father can only be achieved through gross distortions of reality. Like the boy who needs to believe his dad is loving, even though dad beats him, or that dad is a protector even though he verbally berates and abuses mom, or a provider even though every penny earned goes towards his drug addiction.
But at some point, kids need to know their “real” father. And dads need to be known, too. As adults, most of us see our fathers (and mothers) more clearly, though still with affection and respect. We see their foibles, their annoying traits, their insecurities, their sins. They’re real people to us. And that’s important, because without realness, there can be no true intimacy, no extending of grace, no unconditional love, no empathy.
Fatherhood as calling
David Crosby once said that he was put on this earth to harmonize. I thought that was a beautiful thought. And if you’ve ever listened to the harmonies of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, or the Byrds, you know he is gifted at harmony. He’s the voice that always fills out what’s lacking in the harmonies and yet, at the same time, is so hard to find because he blends so perfectly. He weaves around, sometimes high, just beneath Nash’s soaring tenor or Young’s distinctive high pitched whine (… but what a lovable whine it is…), sometimes low, just below Stills’ smoky voice, always hitting just the right note. What a thing of beauty and wonder when a man finds what he was made to do, and does it well!
Well, I’ve wondered at times what I was put here to do, really. Sure, I know the Christian answers, to glorify God, to live in his love, to become like Jesus… yes, yes, but how exactly am I, David McAnulty, meant to do that? As I get older, I think it’s clearer to me. I’m a want-to-be singer-songwriter-guitarist… but a pretty mediocre one, in actuality. I’m a so-so writer… but when I read a real writer, I know that’s not who I’m meant to me. I believe I’m a decent psychologist. And I think I’m maybe better than average as a speaker. I do love teaching, but I don’t have those amazing insights that some seem to have… I’m good at borrowing others’ thoughts and passing them on to a slightly less informed audience. I’m a pretty loyal friend but you could easily find a better friend than me. I’m a committed and yet very flawed mate. To be sure those are all things I do, and things that I am, but not one of those makes me feel, “now, that’s what I was put here to do!”
I’ve come to the conclusion that I was put here to be a father. That’s what I love the most. That’s what seems most meaningful and lasting about my life. I’ve loved every single phase of each of my children’s lives; just when it seems it couldn’t really get better, it does! I’m not saying I’m as good at being a father as David Crosby is at harmony. But, to me, fatherhood simply feels right… all of it, the scary parts and the fun parts, the expensive parts and the enriching parts, the serious moments and the silly moments, the tender moments and the conflictual moments, the confident times and the inept times, the times that bring out the best in you and the times that bring out the worst, the teaching and the being taught, the forming and the being formed, the hugs and the fights, the laughter and the tears. If I accomplish nothing else in this life but to be the father I think my kids need, to the best of my abilities, then I’ll be pretty content with my life, that I did what I was made to do.
And back to Joan’s book. It sure seems like her father, even though he couldn’t see it through, even though he maybe doubted it, even though he kept a part of himself hidden, even though he was tortured by feelings of failure (inflicted upon him by his own troubled, abusive father), even though… he was on the right path, at least until that terrible end. He was being what matters most: a father. Don’t you wish he could’ve known it… felt it.. believed it?
So, the simple idea behind this post–a plea, really–is the belief that, for a man, being a father is one of life’s noble callings and one of its greatest blessings. Our children, more than ever, need fathers they not only can love and rely upon, but also they can know and understand. In my bleaker moments, I fear that fathers (not biological reproducers… but fathers) are a breed on the verge of extinction. There’s a lot of pain in a lot of therapists offices, among other places, for want of good fathers. In my clearer moments, I don’t think it’s that hopeless. I guess I want to be one little voice that says that being a father is enough! Being a real, a known father, and all that entails, can be more than enough… to keep a man challenged, content, and thrilled for a lifetime!