Earlier this week, I told you about the Art of Manliness and their handy guide “30 Days to a Better Man”. One of the challenges they laid out was to write a letter to your father. For better or worse, AoM argues, fathers are our first models of manhood, and the impact of their lives on ours is inescapable. So much goes left unsaid between fathers and sons and if we are to understand ourselves as men, it’s important to articulate what we’ve learned from the first man we ever knew. What better way to do this than with a letter. This is mine…
me, dad, and my younger brother jeff
Some people, one imagines, may be naturally dauntless and buoyant of heart, but with him, good spirits always seemed, far more admirably, to be the product of a strict program of self-improvement in his youth – he believed, like most truly modest men, in the absolute virtue of self-improvement – which had wrought deep, essential changes in a nature inclined by birth to the darker view and gloominess that cropped elsewhere in the family tree.
Michael Chabon wrote that, and it reminds me of you, although not because that’s how you were. This is about a good man who battled the angels of his darker nature and beat them. The best I can say of you is that you fought them to a draw.
“You’re not specific enough to be a person. You’re more like a vibe.”
To say this feels a tad blasphemous, in light of the noble legend that has filled the hole created by your death; intensely capable in that prairie farmboy way, blessed with a sharp wit, selfless, devoted, and wise. There’s not a single aspect of that description that’s wrong, but strangely, it doesn’t feel right to me either.
There is a line in this movie,“The Limey” where one character tells another, “You’re not specific enough to be a person. You’re more like a vibe.” To the older five siblings you are a corporeal presence, one with definitive boundaries, delineated by actual experience: there was the time you drove across the country to get my sister and bring her home after her fiancé left her, or the time when you hired my older brother to work for you and then had to fire him when he screwed up. These memories sit with them like old friends and occasionally colour my own. Yet to me, you’re less an actual person than a series of charming anecdotes knitted together in the shape of one. Consecrated by time and repetition, they form a picture that I know in my bones is at odds with the father I actually had, no matter how much I wish it was otherwise.
The family on my parent’s 25th anniversary – 1979.
I suspect you were cursed with a congenital darkness and for a long time you successfully kept it at bay, but at some point unknown to me and for reasons I can only grasp at, you gave up and retreated from the life of your family. It may have happened before I was born, it certainly happened before I was old enough to understand the concept of “dad.”
Our interactions hinted at some essential goodness, an intuitive understanding of your commitment; you took care of things, and never once (even when you started having the heart attacks) did I feel you couldn’t. You met the textbook paternal obligations; pay for swimming lessons, get me to hockey on Saturdays, drive the family across the country in that RV – but underneath it all there was a suggestion of something deeper and possibly more sinister – an abiding turmoil that was never fully resolved.
Whatever it was, it seemed to summon all of your psychic energy and there was little left over for the rest of us. As I grew, little discussion passed between us, like we shared no common language, no way to express even basic emotions. It made you an imposing figure with which I shared pregnant silences in the basement as you divided your attention between hockey and crossword puzzles.
...you were a lighthouse, separated from the mainland, vigilant only in times of darkness.
You would tell people that your seven children think of you as wise, a perception borne out of 10 percent absolute truth, and 90 percent great PR on the part of our mother (your flaws were always a set up for a good joke). You’ll be pleased to know your wife continues her campaign to this day. I think every widow must, maybe to give all that time together some meaning.
To me, though, you were a lighthouse, separated from the mainland, vigilant only in times of darkness. I remember when I was fourteen, following your first heart attack. You turned to me after coming out of a coma and said, “I love you.” And then, perhaps to soften the shock of such a startling, unsolicited admission, you added, “I’d love you more if you got me a Coke.”
Moments like that make me feel like something of an ingrate. I can’t say we were fully happy, but we were far from miserable. You never beat me, or mistreated me; what few words that passed between us were never harsh and I can’t think of a single occasion where we ever argued. The only time you ever laid a hand on me was when I was three and I ran away – you spanked me once and never had to spank me again.
Most would say that’s more than fair. Not all that talkative, you were still as reliable and necessary to me as air, and every bit as invisible.
...you were still as reliable and as necessary to me as air, and every bit as invisible.
The thing is, it wasn’t enough that you do for me
, you were supposed to show me how to do for myself
. My car was always fixed, but not by me. You built entire additions on our homes and yet, I can’t countersink a nail. When I played hockey, you always tied my skates perfectly – now, I can never get them tight enough. Someone tries to run me over with their will, and I lack the strength of character to resist. Dad, there were lessons that needed to be learned which were never taught. I think the result is that I’m poorly equipped to fight the same dark angels that you faced and I don’t know the necessary codes to signal distress - a sad consequence for me and a poor reflection on you. I can’t believe this is what you wished for me.
There is one thing I learned from you
Dad & mom on the day they got engaged – 1953
and this IS to stay remote, to hide myself in plain sight. It’s not been an altogether bad thing – I suspect I’ve felt pain far less acutely than I might had I not been living with one foot out the door, bracing for departure in the same way you seemed to be. I don’t know why you were like that; life with a demanding mother, or a demanding wife, perhaps… maybe the gnawing feeling of unfulfilled promise of which you were too embarrassed to speak. I can only speculate and by the time it occurred to me to ask, you were already dead and there was little family tolerance for such conversation. Regardless, this remoteness was a state to which we all grew accustomed and which I ultimately inherited.
When I left for university you said, “You’re leaving home just when you were getting interesting.” You said that to all of us when we moved out – I think of it as your understated way of saying you loved us. Maybe it was true, because I was developing a sense of humour and perhaps you could empathize with my more adult struggles. There seemed to be something for us to discuss; how else would have I known about the Tarzan principle (jobs are like vines – never let go of one until you have another in hand)?
So I suppose you were getting interesting too. It was short-lived, though – you died before my thirtieth birthday. Perhaps I should’ve taken an interest sooner, but I was a kid, what did I know? You had the benefit of wisdom and held back anyway. Perhaps, there is something to gain from trying to understand why, maybe someday I will.
I’m not angry, or resentful. You at least taught me to be practical enough to realize how unproductive such emotions are. Moreover, I wonder if there isn’t some kind of lesson in the limited quality of your love, some kind of impulse; what you gave was a brief but lingering taste of something wonderful and that’s led me to try and recover it by collecting father figures in the same way people collect baseball cards. There’s my Ex’s dad, Peter, a loving and curious man, engaged in the world and happy to fill uncomfortable silences. There’s also my friend Jon, who takes an odd kind of joy in his own basic frailty and its lessons. Human frailty is just one of many subjects you were reluctant to discuss, so my life is richer for knowing someone like Jon.
Still, I’m here now, trying to be a better man. Maybe it’s the view from hindsight, but I suspect this exercise would be largely unnecessary if you were more than just a benevolent spectre. You’re on the honour roll, because your constancy is something to be admired and I believe my siblings’ accounts, even if I didn’t witness them. I suppose every son picks and chooses the parts of his dad to emulate…my path is made harder by a basic mistrust of my own memory of who you really were.
For the time being, I laugh at the funny stories the family tells about you and I even tell a few of my own, in hopes that one day I will actually believe them. None of this keeps me from loving you. In your way, I know you felt the same.