Legacies and Inheritance

Every so often, I find myself ruminating on manhood, masculinity and the role played by fathers in the lives of their sons. I wonder, at times, whether I subconsciously seek my dead father’s approval. See, my dad was diagnosed with colon cancer when I was in the first grade. He didn’t survive second grade. I’ll never forget walking into school one or two days after he died. My entire second grade class was writing condolence letters to me. I gave my teacher, clearly unprepared for my arrival, a wicked side-eye glare, as if to say: my dad just died, and now this? My mom had given me the option to stay at home, but she was a wreck, lots of strangers were coming in and out of the house, and so my brother and I both wanted to go back to school. It didn’t seem strange at the time — still doesn’t. What’s a kid supposed to do when his dad dies? My parents had brought a social worker to the house to talk to my brother, sister and I long ago. They were both social workers themselves, so I’m sure it was a friend, although the details are hazy.

Point is, we knew he was dying. He died in front of us, slowly and in a great deal of pain. In his final days, my dad stayed on a cot in the living room. I had no reference point for how dying worked, but this felt all wrong. Too obvious, too predictable. He got weaker, spent less time awake, and then one day he was gone. My coping mechanism, then as now, was to pretend that nothing bothered me.

Losing a parent at that age is tough, because you remember so little. I was almost seven when my father died, and in some ways, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’ll never fully get over it. His absence shaped my upbringing more than anything else, and I still reflect on his legacy. Mostly, my ideas about that legacy come from my own cobbled-together memories, along with a local newspaper story. His obituary mentions his work with adolescents in the foster care system, volunteerism with the local Red Cross and coaching youth soccer. So, at this point in my life, I work with adolescents, donate blood regularly and coach a high school soccer team.

Recently, one of my students opened up to me about his own father. As a child, I lamented my own misfortune to no end, envious of children with a father. Looking back, I realize how much I have to be thankful for — as my cousin once put it, “at least your father was a good man.” I heard this often as a child. This student, like my cousin, was offered no such illusions about his father. He admitted to me that his father was incarcerated when he was born, and in his telling, “we kind of grew up together.” He thought his father was 16 when he was born, but he was unsure of his exact age. He described screaming matches on the bus, in the mall and in other public places, attributing his fiery temper to early battles with his dad.

I was told all this as preparation for meeting the father, who would apparently be attending graduation. It would be their first meeting in several months. In the past, this student had described his father only as a “street guy,” who he knew to be involved in criminal activity of some sort. Their relationship was distant — dad lived somewhere in the South with a new girlfriend and infant son. My student told me that he resented the inattention, but he rarely showed it. I found myself wondering about a man who could so fail to raise his own son. Wonderment led gradually into rage. I had grown to love this kid over his years in high school, he was like family to me, and so I knew how scarred he was by his father’s neglect. Despite my best efforts to avoid judgment of a stranger’s choices, I became furious with his father.

I had felt this way before, after another student’s father threatened him with violence and chased him from their apartment. And again, when the same guy slammed his son’s head into a wall during an argument. Nothing else ignited the same sort of hot, seething anger. Still hurting from the absence of my own father, I was perturbed by the harmful failures exacted by these fathers on their sons. How could they so waste the opportunity to raise their sons? It felt like the violation of a sacred trust, though rationally I knew it to be an all-too-common occurrence.

When I became a teacher and a coach, I saw myself claiming my father’s spiritual inheritance in large and small ways. I was continuing his work, which was largely aimed at supporting adolescents to transition out of foster care. While I never consciously planned out a career that would echo my dad or make him proud, it had happened all the same. I also took on a fatherly role with a handful of students, with whom I developed deep connections. Mentoring young men, especially those with absent or otherwise neglectful fathers, gives me great satisfaction, in part because I know my father would approve. This, too, feels like a part of his legacy.

Some of my dad’s kids — grown by the time I knew of them — used to visit after his death to help us with random chores. One guy brought firewood. A few sent Christmas cards. I still remember Steve’s smiling family, who I watched grow up in annual cards, meeting maybe once. Along with scores of adoring coworkers, these former wards of the state reminded me of my father’s virtue. I’m eternally grateful for that.

Virtue is a funny thing; while it may be subjective, social and cultural messages reinforce a common value system. I don’t have any real role models or mentors, because they could never live up to the idealized vision of my father that was created for me after his death. It’s the inevitable result of growing up with a 2-dimensional parent. I wonder whether I would be better off with a father like my cousin’s or my students’, visible and flawed and alive. The trade-off, simply, comes in knowing.

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