Wednesday, September 21, 2011
In Praise of Dads
"Small boys become big men through the influence of big men who care about small boys."
My father's dad was overwhelmed by the sudden death of his wife and gave custody of his two young children to his spinster sister. My dad was raised by a schoolteacher with strict, firm love and as soon as he turned 18, he was outta there -- onto new adventures, courtesy of the Marines.
My husband said good-bye to his dad when he was about ten. His parents were newly divorced and his father opted to fade into the shadows. I'm sure in some twisted way he told himself that he was being noble and giving his children stability by only having one parent to answer to. In truth, his absence left a Papa Bear size wound that could never be healed.
Yet these two men each had children of their own and both are not just good and attentive and kind dads. They are superheroes. They get the ever-present, not-for-a-minute-am-I-missing this award. They are in it through every twist and turn and awkward moment. And every single one of their children can feel that commitment...that cement of stability and presence and it serves as a both a compass and as a talisman.
When the first tower was hit and fire was raging on that awful September day in 2001, I stumbled out of bed confused by a phone call from my mother urging me to turn on the TV. When I walked into the den, groggy and disoriented, I asked John why he hadn't awakened me. His words were some of the sweetest, kindest and wisest he has ever said:
"Because I thought you could use a few more minutes of not knowing this."
For a split second I was wrapped in that love and fierce protection and then the second plane hit shredding that cloak and leaving us all with the naked knowledge and dread that this was no accident but the methodical plan of evil intentionally crossing our path, hell bent on destroying us.
How could I send my two small children to school? How could I pretend that things were normal and life would just keep going? I called my dad, hoping he would give me the Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card and go along with my plan to keep Jack and Mary Kate home from school. He paused and let the silence on the phone make his point. "No, Lizzy, they need to go to school. They need that order in their day. If you keep them home don't you see that the people who crashed those towers win. You are giving them exactly what they hope. You are listening to the fear. You send them to school. That's what you need to do." Robotically, I did it, taking comfort in my father's words and wisdom. It was the right thing to do but it sure seemed questionable that day. Without my compass I wouldn't have known the right direction.
Both my husband and my dad make the mission of fathering their children their most important life's work and their children know it. This level of devotion changes everything. As a child, I knew I was safe, accepted, loved and highly regarded. That childhood send off allowed me to provide those same things to my children. But in the back of my mind I hear a critic yell: "Big Deal -- You saw what it looked like, you knew how it felt, so you were able to copy the model showed to you, no biggie."
But how did my husband do that? With out any fatherly figure in his life, how did he navigate adolescence, college, his career, his adulthood and his fatherhood without any roadmap? He listened to his gut and he plowed right in. Holding Jack in those first breathless moments, tears unexpectedly sprang to his eyes and he asked out loud: "How could my dad have given this up?" I had no words. I could feel the gigantic gulf of emptiness and the deep sadness that John had to somehow carry during this moment of immense joy. But that was all I could do -- I couldn't heal that wound.
But four people could. Jack, Mary Kate, Patrick and Caroline have somehow lessened the pain. His joy in their lives, their hopes and dreams and accomplishments is radiant. It is positively enticing. He is over the top in his regard for them. They are wondrous, amazing, fantastic and incredible. He always gives second chances, sees their good side, thinks they are beautiful and fills them up. His ability to give that love especially in the least deserving of moments is such a beautiful act that I am humbled over and over again. It's harder for me, truly, yet he makes me want to be that selfless.
Dads often get shoved aside. People disregard their powerful influence and today, shockingly, it is considered a viable option to have a child all by yourself as a woman. Ask any child who grew up without a dad to give their uncensored opinion about that and the truth becomes crystal clear. Dads are not optional, like some sort of appetizer at a grand meal. Dads are necessary and crucial and non-negotiable. They provide the other side of the coin. They are the mirror for their sons and a first love for their daughters. They are a daily grace that is indispensable and in need of some serious applause.
Three cheers for you, dads! You matter! You rock! You're amazing!
Most of all, thank you!