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A Father's Mortification at Growing Old

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I’ve got the usual reasons for not liking the prospect that, in time, I will get old and frail and, eventually, die.  But I’ve discovered in myself a reason that surprises me with its power and poignancy.  

It’s got to do with my three children.  In the recesses of my mind, I discover within myself the feeling that by getting old and weak I will be letting my kids down.  These three people are not really “kids,” mind you:  the youngest is 20 and the oldest 32, and by the time I’ve become truly weak they’ll likely be middle-aged.  Yet the feeling is at some moments almost heart-breaking in intensity:  I can’t stand the idea that my children will not have a father they can lean on for support and protection.

At 63, I’m still pretty fit and vigorous.  I don’t have my old vertical leap, but I can still cover ground, and my build hasn’t changed in forty-five years, except for weighing ten pounds less with the loss of the football musculature of my youth.  But already I have aged enough to get a sense of where all this is heading.  And when I sense that downward path, sometimes my thoughts –accompanied by that poignant, apologetic feeling-- turn to my children.  It’s almost as if what I foresee constitutes a violation of a sacred promise I’ve made to them.

Why?  It’s not as though my children –stalwart and independent people all—ever demanded any such promise.  It’s not as though anything was ever said.  What’s it about?

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Reflecting on this question has led me to think that maybe it’s about my own experience of leaning on a father, and then not having a father to lean on.

My father was a hero to me when I was little.  He was also the one in the family I felt was aligned with me.  His steadfastness, his integrity, his sense of responsibility—all those made him central not only to my ideals for what I would become in the future but also for my sense of solidity and safety in the present.

And then, when I was in my late teens, he became terminally ill.  

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Was that why, two years after his symptoms began and a half year after he received his diagnosis, there was an incident in which he seemed uncharacteristically weak?  The incident was an encounter he had with an unprincipled man who was building us a house.  My Dad was confronting the builder about his failure to fulfill his contractual obligations.  Suddenly, this man tried to deflect attention from his derelictions by launching false accusations against my father.  As I witnessed this conversation, I expected my father to sweep aside this dishonest tactic and put the man in his place and the real issue back on the table.  But he seemed unprepared to stand up forcefully for himself, seemed to be nonplussed and to be having difficulty gathering himself.  So, as a seventeen year-old, I jumped in to defend my father and to compel the man to confront our legitimate complaint.

Perhaps, I thought, two years of pain had weakened my Dad. In the wake of that intervention of mine, in addition to the pride I felt in my own warrior powers, I felt a sense of loss that Dad had sputtered under attack, that my protector had needed my protection.  

Then, four years later, my father lay in a hospital bed.  My brother Ed and I, having flown in from our respective parts of the country, were in an office across the hall talking to the man handling my father’s case.  It was not his usual doctor, Dr. Brown, whom we all loved, and who, in two months’ time would be one of Dad’s pallbearers.  It was a Dr. Green –truly a doctor of a different color (and yes, these are their real names)—and Dr. Green was telling us that the cancer had probably entered my Dad’s brain, which would explain, he said, why our father was not very <em>compes mentes</em>, and didn’t have very long to last.  As painful as was the prospect of Dad’s death, the idea of his mind –that powerful, crystal-clear lens through which he saw the world—being cloudy and dim was perhaps even more frightening to me.  

My brother and I left our upsetting meeting with Dr. Green and went into Dad’s hospital room.  My Dad asked immediately why I was sniffly, why my eyes seemed teared up.  I had been weepy upon leaving Dr. Green’s office, but I didn’t want to tell Dad why, so I said, “It’s my allergies acting up.”  To which Dad replied, “Allergies, eh?  This hospital continually filters all the air.”  So right away, he saw through my story.  As Ed said later as we left, “<em>Non compes mentes</em>, eh?  Right.”  I felt so relieved that Green had been wrong.

Of course, the time did soon come when the light that was my father, and his lucid mind, went dim.  The next year, in the wake of Dad’s death, I had a nightmarish dream that conflated his death with that other big trauma, four years before, of JFK, getting his head shot off.  In the dream the crucial, frightening mantra was, “Dad dead.  Had head.”

I was twenty-one.

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As it turned out, my own destiny would involve my adventuring off the conventional career path –at the age of 24, an idea came to me to which I felt called to commit myself, which meant that pursuing my calling would be an undertaking most precarious—and in the years that followed I had many occasions to feel like an orphan.  

Fortunately, I did still have my mother --would have her for another more than thirty years—and she was a caring parent, whom I could always count on to be on my side and to be there for me.  I knew if worse came to worst, I would not starve and I would have a roof over my head.  But in terms of the challenges I faced on the difficult path I’d taken in finding my way in the world, she'd not be able to serve as a protector or as a guide, as my father might have been.

Even had it been only for emotional reasons, it would have been a source of great comfort to me to have been able to turn to my father with my difficulties during the decades that my so-called “career” unfolded, following my committing myself to developing and communicating that vision I’d received at the age of 24.   (This vision ultimately became the book <em>The Parable of the Tribes</em>, published by the University of California Press fourteen years after I began the work).  

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
 

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