I didn’t grow up with a father, so my two sons have exactly as much experience with actual fatherhood as I do. What we’ve learned together is that fathers are mercurial, full of farts and orders, radiant with heat on a summer’s night already too hot for sleep. Fathers love words and pay children the compliment of deep attentiveness. They’re who you call for when you wake in pain. They cultivate the comforting myth of invincibility.
Boys who grow up fatherless spend precious time asking, “What is a father?” They ask endlessly, hopelessly, listlessly, fearful of the answers, and without realizing they’re actually asking, “What does it mean to be a man?” For their troubles, they get bits and pieces of fatherhood—castoff bits and dead pieces offered with the best intentions—which they pat together into golem-fathers that end up looking just like the children who made them. The resemblance makes their limitations all the more hideous.
I’ve had many ersatz or partial fathers. My Uncle Carl, a lawyer and former state’s attorney, lived in town. He’d once had my father put in jail overnight for trying to leave the area, and Carl used his political connections to try to find him when child-support checks stopped temporarily. (Department of State: “Our embassy there says no such island in the Indonesian archipelago exists.”) Carl was a gentleman farmer who smelled of green peppers and insecticide, and my mom and I often returned home to find trays of sunburned strawberries or bags with ears of sweet corn weeping in their silk, with no note. His wife preferred we didn’t use the kidney-shaped pool on their estate.
Doc was a cousin, old enough to have been a dentist in the First War, who lived into the disco era. He showed love with noogies and arm burns. When he threw me a football, he hurt me, and when he took me fishing I was afraid. His patients could recall him with his knee on their chests, straining to pull teeth. Doc himself lay in a reclining chair for at least the last decade of his life, spitting amber juice from his cigar toward a bucket on the living room floor. He arrested in that chair while my mom was present. She said the paramedic pulled him out of it, put him on the floor, and began resuscitation. The corpse divulged its stomach contents into the man’s mouth. I was supposed to be there too but have always been glad I wasn’t.
Uncle Paul sold Fords. Sold my mom a Thunderbird she couldn’t afford. He and Aunt Margie lived on the edge of the grounds of a federal veteran’s hospital. The hospital was built in an odd Egyptian Revival style and stood in the middle of a park-like space amidst old oaks that Margie painted with oils. On foggy mornings I imagined the battlefields of Europe, where Paul fought, had looked that way. My mother said they kept the “basket cases” of WWI on the top floor of the hospital, where no one could see. They were men who’d lost all their limbs, as well as sight and hearing, and a special nursing staff tended them like babies in bassinets. Paul, so vital and full of laughter that everyone called him Zip, grew barrel-chested from emphysema and eventually died in that hospital. As he slowly drowned in his own sputum, tied to bottled oxygen and a wheelchair, his eyes saddened and became perpetually wet. Aunt Margie never liked to hear “bad things.” She held her hands over her ears and sang “Dixie” if you tried to tell her what was going on in Vietnam. In the end Paul was reduced to having my mom try to cut his wild thick toenails, which were yellow and ridged, while Margie made tea.
Gary and Henry, cousins by marriage, never spoke of fatherhood at all but talked to me like equals, asked questions, played games. They were the right age in the Sixties. In the Seventies, Gary had Jim Rockford’s Firebird. Henry bought one of the first water beds, a real hip cat, and once when I was showing off my new microscope he took a clean slide and went to the bathroom for a very long time. Whatever was on the slide when he came back disappointed him when he peered at it through the eyepiece.
So many fathers: The fathers of friends—engineers, miners, a restaurateur, a factory worker with the brimstone hair and hillbilly eyes of Jerry Lee Lewis. Wild dumb-asses I knew in the army, one shot in the neck in a bar fight, others ripping phone booths off walls but also saving each others’ lives. Later, (very few) professors. As I aged and my experience accumulated, the men began to sink into other categories—big brothers, rivals, little brothers, mere acquaintances. How Not to Be.
My friend and former sergeant major, Frenchy, and I were eating boar in a restaurant in the highlands of Vietnam. I told him how my dad had left us after Vietnam and lived in Afghanistan, Beirut, Indonesia. What he’d accomplished. “Sounds like a hard bastard,” Frenchy said. “I like him already.”
My father seemed unlikely, a ghost formed of Kodachrome slides and a box of war medals. He was born in 1918, and that he would have lived long enough for me to find him, in my middle age, seemed unlikely. That he had, showed enormous good manners. I flew down in order to telephone. When I finally called, I wasn’t sure what I’d do if he denied me. I didn’t know what to do if he accepted me. “You might want to sit down,” I said, sitting. “I’m your son.” It was unlikely any man would welcome me so graciously on a Thursday evening while his third wife listened. That he wouldn’t faint or curse or simply hang up. They’d been out to dinner. “I always knew you’d call,” he said.
That he’d be smarter, better read, and more urbane than just about anyone else I knew, seemed beyond unlikely. Unlikely, given our differences in age, we’d have the same views of the world, that he’d be a folk artist-carver, that he’d been President of Johnson & Wales for a time. He sat sipping a glass of red wine in creased slacks and a guayabera. My mom had said he was…well, you know about a woman scorned. A handy lesson, then: The Devil can be rich in contingent traits.
I’ve never known my father as a father, exactly, but as something else, as good as it gets for a short, late time. Not others’ knowledge or memories, but my own. There’s a finishing effect in this, a maturing, acceptance, that makes it possible to continue and become. (This is not inevitable. Many people never approach what they must be.) To be, among other things—as unlikely as it might have seemed growing up—a father.