Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A father's manifesto

(This originally was published on Gather.com last week)

If you read enough of my essays, not just here but in other places where I ply my trade these days, you've probably figured out that I'm pretty much all about fathers, specifically the two I know best -- me... and my father. Though I swing mostly to the left-center politically, I'm pretty conservative when it comes to the role of fathers, mostly because I'm the son of a Greatest Generation father. Maybe you know one. They were dashing young men who we knew only as old men (fathers are always old to us, even when they're really young), who -- sometime long ago -- went willingly off to a brutal war, won it, then came home to start businesses and families, and spend the rest of their lives saying very little about what they did in the war, while teaching their sons how to be fathers. Don't get me wrong, I'm not into hero worship. They had plenty of warts, as we all do.

This week, we rented Flags of our Fathers at our house, so you'll have to forgive me a bit for what I'm about to put you through. It made an impression, especially the end when the father lay dying, wishing to his son that he'd been a better father. Funny, no matter how great the father, he always thinks he could have or should have been better at it.

Mine was a father who worked. Hard. He had five kids to feed. When I was very young, he started a grocery store in Medfield, Massachusetts, which was about 50 miles from where our house was. So he often stayed over at the store, or at least came home way after my bedtime. Occasionally, the family would help out on Sundays (when stores were still closed). My twin brother and I were too young, so my even-harder-working-mom would make a little bed for us on the checkout belt, and there we slept while the family worked.

Later, he was in the insurance business, which meant he had appointments with people in the evening. He'd come home late, usually too late for me.

His was a generation that showed their love to their families by taking care of them, and exchanging their youth and life's energy, for a chance for their children to have a better life. It fell to the kids of this generation to understand the "code" that fathers speak.

As young men, we charged into our parenting years, determined to be better parents than the ones we had. Within a few years, if not months, we caught ourselves sounding like our parents, and when we finally gave in to the obvious, we acknowledged that we are our fathers. Over more time, we warmed to the honor of that fact.

When I was home to visit my mother a few months ago, I leafed through -- again -- a diary he kept during World War II. He was a corpsman, and he took care of the flyboys who came back to England from missions over Germany. He could tell how the war was going, he wrote, by the condition of the men coming back. He wrote that a man, a boy really, from California, was doing better since the transfusion my Dad gave him the night before. My Dad never spoke of such things.

Every day I breathe as a father, I begin to understand more what my father felt toward his children, something I couldn't possibly understand in my youth and ignorance. It is a monumental tragedy of life, however, that we cannot recognize ourselves in our fathers until comparatively late in life.

We cannot begin to understand the sacrifices our parents make on our behalf, not to mention their incredible love for us, until we are faced with the daily choices between personal gratification, and the sacrifices being a father demands. We live in a material world, of course, and that's not a bad thing, until we fail to recognize that our "toys" in life can wait for our time and attention.

Some things in life can't.

This, of course, has been a difficult week for our country, and for any parent. The waste of talent that could -- and probably would -- change the world for the better is incalculable. The tortured soul that others might see only as evil, I see as a reminder that the brain is the most mysterious and vulnerable part of a body, capable of breaking, just as any limb, and that it's time for us to approach this form of illness in a more intelligent way.

Though, I'm talking about what happened in Virginia this week. I'm also talking about what happened in the homes where a father walked away, leaving wives and children to fend for themselves. I'm talking about what happened in, sadly, every other city and town in America, where fathers missed a T-ball game, a band concert, a quiet moment with a struggling son, in exchange for a few more minutes at work, chasing something that ultimately has no value to creating a life well-lived. I'm talking about the increasing disconnect between fathers and their children, which makes it more difficult to detect that early sign of mental illness, until it's too late.

Today, we wish we had recognized the signs of mental illness in one person, even as we continue to ignore those signs in people around us.

Today I am watching video of what's being called "a shooter's manifesto," which has made it easier for us to blame evil, and find a degree of rationality, in an individual who no longer had the capacity for rational thought. I fear this makes it easier for us to ignore our failures -- our failure to reach out with help, and caring, and love while it can still make a difference.

This is a day that makes me look away from the television, and glance in the mirror. This is the kind of week when I'm reminded that at our age, and with our role, we are the fathers of our country.

This is the kind of week when I wish we were better at it.

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