A son who cannot emulate the man who was his dad asks searing questions.
If fathers are not role models for their sons, who is? Where does a young soul on the precipice of moral and ethical development look if his father is not or cannot be the man his son wants and needs?
When my late sister called me 13 years ago with news that our father had died two days earlier, a bag of mixed emotions spilled inside me. A sense of loss was not one of them. My father had not been a part of my life, or me of his, for years. We had not really been father and son since I was 14 years old when, in a drunken rage over an infraction long since forgotten, my dad tossed me into the streets where I survived by whatever means for three years. I had not seen or talked to my father for some 15 or 17 years when he died, and not feeling a loss made sense to me because I hadn’t lost something I really had.
But, in my first 14 years of life, I never knew what kind of man I was supposed to be and instead knew what I did not want to be. I neither wanted nor could be the man I saw in my father, swearing I would never be a husband who was drunk more times than not and who physically beat his wife and almost every one of his children. And if I had a son of my own, I pledged never to hit him with my fists and belts and call him names like “f**king queer” and “ni**er lover.”
Living in my father’s house, I tried to understand and rationalize why my dad acted the way he did and what I was doing wrong to be the “target child” of his fury as a psychiatrist called me years later. My father was born in the South of the “segregation always” era and when a man’s worth hinged largely on the color of his skin. Men who weren’t white were subjugated to subservient status.
I was well into adulthood and out of my father’s life when his sister confessed to me that my father parented me the way he was parented by his father. My grandfather, like my father, had an insatiable thirst for alcohol. My father suffered a blow from which I do not think he fully recovered at age 4 when his mother committed suicide. She killed herself, my father’s sister told me years into my adulthood, because she was pregnant a fourth time and “just couldn’t face” bringing another of my grandfather’s children into the world.
I never heard my father mention his mother at any time in my life, and I knew somehow that I was never to ask. It is no surprise, then, that no one in the house I grew up in talked feelings or resolve differences with communication rather than physical violence. And I was imploding with feelings that were fighting for a voice.
But there were no role models for me, no one who could listen and tell me why I felt like I did and what I was doing wrong to be the disappointment I was to my father. Then, for some reason, I turned to writing about everything I felt. Writing became my refuge and words my best friend, language my protector. In writing, I was free to say what I felt without being called stupid and maybe understanding what I didn’t understand. In desperate times, I was free to rewrite my life into something I could only imagine, a life where no one was drunk and no one got hit and my dad and I were best buds. I never stayed long in that fantasy life. Reality always punched me back.
I never kept what I wrote for long. Afraid they would be found by one of my sisters or brother, I destroyed them soon afterward. I was not able to write during my years as a “street orphan,” but I returned to writing soon after my mother’s sister took me into her house when I was 17. Since then and still, I am never too long away from spilling my guts in a new chapter to this evolving process called my life.
If writing didn’t hone my skills, it undoubtedly disciplined me in the rules of effective communication and instilled in me a deep and abiding respect for the power of the written and spoken word. That respect probably explains why I am dismayed that the language of communication has disintegrated into abbreviated letters like LOL, LMFAO, BRB and TTYL I have little tolerance for people who don’t know the difference between to, too and two, and there, their and they’re, and zero tolerance for people who don’t know there are no such words as “ain’t” and “irregardless” and that the word is pronounced “for,” not “fer.”
And I walk away from people who say they “ain’t gonna learn ‘cause their ain’t no reason too irregardless.” With me, they’re ain’t no ‘scuse fer anyone bein’ ignernt irregardless of social background and amount of learnin’.
Irregardless, that ain’t the reason for this essay. The hope here is that fathers know they have a responsibility to the children they raise, to be their sons’ hero and their daughters’ first love. With sons in particular, fathers have a responsibility to set the example of what a man is supposed to be in every sense – morally, ethically, socially and always with a sense of duty and compassion for the lesser of our brothers.
Sons have a responsibility to their fathers as well. Our dads have a reasonable expectation of our unconditional respect and love, and to us understanding that theirs is an awesome responsibility – making a man of the child whose soul has been entrusted to him.
Therein, perhaps, lays my failure as a son, and the words I have written through the years remind me.