Father’s Day with Kate Bush

I was listening to Pandora and making dinner for my family on Father’s Day this year when Kate Bush’s 1980 single Army Dreamers came on. It is a sentimental anti-war song in which a mother bitterly mourns her son who has been killed in a foreign war. A repeated verse laments his unfulfilled life and unattained future. A male chorus sings the following bracketed lines and Kate sings the others, slightly overlapping:

(What could he do)

(Should have been a rock star)

But he didn’t have the money for a guitar

(What could he do)

(Should have been a politician)

But he never had a proper education

(What could he do)

(Should have been a father)

But he never even made it to his twenties

What a waste

Army dreamers

My eyes started to tear up at this point. It wasn’t the obvious anti-war message in the song that affected me. I think it was mainly the ideas of a young life interrupted and of his mother’s pain. Psychoanalysts sometimes call this familiar experience a trial identification. It’s the experience of partially and temporarily feeling what another person is feeling, even someone fictional as in a book, or film, or a song like this one. It is something one can practice, and it can happen unexpectedly as well as when one is in a predisposing mood. It is something that may become more common as one traverses life’s many stages and one’s consciousness expands.

Having children opens you to unexpected joys, but also to a new class of tragedy. The word tragedy has many uses. There is Greek tragedy where a protagonist is undone by a fatal flaw in their character. And terrible things happen to all kinds of people and are done to people all the time, which I do not mean to diminish. I mean a specific kind of tragedy to which parents are vulnerable.

Recently the tragic case of Otto Warmbier has been in the news. As readers probably know, this American college student briefly visited North Korea with a tour in early 2016, was arrested for allegedly trying to steal an official poster as a souvenir, had a show trial, was imprisoned, suffered some as yet obscure trauma in prison, and was returned to his parents in June 2017 with severe brain damage a year and a half after his arrest. He died in a US hospital a few days after his return.

A couple of months ago in April of this year his parents gave an interview to Anna Fifield of the Washington Post, about how they were coping with Otto’s then ongoing detention, who reported: “In the meantime, the Warmbiers have been trying to get on with their lives and enable their younger children, Austin and Greta, to get on with theirs. “If we are nonfunctioning and depressed, then they’ve not only imprisoned Otto, they’ve imprisoned us, too,” she [Otto’s mother Cindy Warmbier] said. ”*

While not knowing what had happened to their son, even whether he was still alive, his parents Fred and Cindy had to go on living, for the rest of their family. People put an inestimable and unutterable amount into their children. It is really not an exaggeration to say that it cannot be put into words or measured. On losing a child, which Euripides in his Medea called the “most terrible grief of all,” it can be impossible to see why one should go on living, and one may go on living really only for others.

There are fathers on Father’s Day and mothers on Mother’s Day, for whom that day, and every new day, is a wrenching reminder of a lost child, yet who have no choice but to go on living anyway, despite it all, for others who depend upon them. I don’t think there is a word for this emotional state and form of life, so “tragedy” has to do.