A week or two ago, I spent an evening trying to navigate some of fatherhood's choppier waters: talking to a young teen in whom a mild correction had triggered a tearful crisis. The details in these matters do not bear repeating because the grievance is never about the actual words or actions which triggered the scene. "You warned me that joke was straying from sarcastic into rude," turns into, "You always criticize what I say. You do it in front of other people all the time. You do it just to make me look stupid."
While I don't remember specific grievances of my own, I have the feeling that I enacted similar scenes with my parents back in the day -- though given the differences in personality and sex my scenes involved storming rather than sobbing. It may in part be out of embarrassment that I've lost the details to memory over the years, that I remember the type of scene but no real details, but perhaps it's in keeping with the fact that these scenes are not really about the flash point, but rather about the difficulties of relating to those great archetypes in human form in our lives: mother and father.
What caused the tears was not that I had offered a correction, it was that in that mild correction loomed something able to cause strong feelings: Father's disapproval. Sure, maybe that teasing was taking things a bit far. She would have been willing enough to concede that. But not when it came with the idea that she was somehow being disapproved of or held up as imperfect by Father.
We gain a lot, as parents, from the mythical place that he hold in our children's lives. How else can we keep order among this fast moving, strong willed group of small people with few inhibitions that charge around our houses at breakneck pace, often outnumbering us, were it not for the fact that to them we are those massive all encompassing figures: Parents.
On that particular evening, as I sought to stem the flow of tears and make sure that the message which had started the tempest was not lost in its reconciliation, I was trying to set Father with his capital "F" aside for a moment and provide a little bit of low pressure advice: You're not in trouble. I'm not disciplining you. I simply want you to understand, as you move into adulthood, what will pass for polite behavior among adults and what won't. It can be a tricky thing, and I stumbled at it many times myself when I was your age. And when I stumbled I sometimes insulted people or made myself look foolish. So while I'm not blaming you, I want to tell you when you're treading off the path so that you can learn with as few mishaps as possible how to get along in the world you're emerging into.
But of course, even as I tried to explain this -- and how Mom and Dad won't always be looming figures in charge of every aspect of your life, but rather simply other adults who care about you and have history with you and have a lot of experience in the world because they're older than you -- I could feel that looming figure of Father making the conversation more fraught.
I think at some level I used to imagine that in the process of becoming a parent one would become truly different, that there would be a dividing line and having crossed it I'd feel at one with the outsize place I have as 'Dad' in my children's view of the world. After all, I'd been a kid, and I knew that Mom and Dad were huge, nearly all-knowing figures.
There is no satisfying dividing line, however, no sudden infusion of parental wisdom, just a lot of people who somehow go from little bundles that just want to eat and sleep to talky small persons (full of at times tempestuous emotions) who call me Dad.
The long term, nagging lack that death imposes is the fact we can no longer talk to our loved ones. As a Christian I believe that my father's soul lives on, and in the quiet after receiving communion I pray that his soul is freed from any remaining need of purgation and admitted into the light of the Beatific Vision.
But although I believe my father hasn't ceased to be, I can't talk to him, can't hear his reaction to my own experiences of the last ten years. When he died my oldest child was three. Being the father of a three year old is very different from being the father of an adolescent. As I experience what it is to be the father of older children, events from my own teens come into new focus. But because death separated us, I can no longer call up and ask what the other side of those experiences is like.
The result is that a father lost while still comparatively young remains in some sense that more archetypal figure of childhood. I talk with my mom fairly often about various adult topics: finances, jobs, cars, parenting. We've completed the transition to adults with a lot of history together. There's a level of mystery pealed back from our interactions when I was young, because we've not talked about them as fellow adults. But while Dad was in no way a distant or mysterious figure, my relation with him is still trapped in childhood and young adulthood, and it always will be. This is all the greater challenge as I try to follow his example with my own children. If it's hard to live up to the example of a good father, it's harder still to live up to the figure that one's father represented while young.