In a few months, God willing, my father will turn 100. He has always lived his role as a parent thoughtfully, as on the day he invited me—I was 12—to go with him to the country morgue, where he had to do some consulting for a serious plumbing problem it had. Intuitively he knew that part of becoming a person involves coming to terms with death, if only in a passing and symbolic way. He led me through the morgue until finally we reached the room where the bodies were kept. There, I looked into the faces of the dead and began to wonder about the meaning of life.
When I was four years old, I was in a boating accident. I would spend Sunday afternoons fishing from a small boat with my grandfather, my father’s dad. This day something went wrong. I was in the front of the boat and saw my grandfather stand up. Cold water rose up over my ankles and thighs. Then I was in the water and saw a spreading oil slick and cushions and cans floating around me. I felt my grandfather’s hands holding me up in the choppy waters on top of the capsized boat and then I went unconscious.
My father’s father died that day in a terrible exchange of lives. They had been close and had worked together and enjoyed afternoons at the lake. My father often talked about his dad and the good times they had, though he said little about the accident and never spoke of his death. But I felt the shift of fatherhood to the son who had said he never wanted to grow up. My father was thoughtful beyond the ordinary in raising me, giving me books, initiating many significant philosophical conversations, and teaching me how to use tools and do excellent work.
I don’t know if I have ever witnessed a life so ethical, so sensitive to people, especially to the young, as my father’s. Even now at 99 his overriding concern is to help his grandson deal with an injury he received at work. He has always had a young man or woman to mentor and teach.
I had a conversation recently with a woman who works with cancer patients. I myself had participated in intensely emotional gatherings of cancer patients who shared their experiences of the illness and told of their hopes and fears. “Yes, but the men don’t do that,” she said. “In my groups women share their feelings about illness, while men talk about sports and money.”
In that moment, I considered starting my own men’s movement—one for those of us who are not inclined to seek out the sensation of speaking loudly or drumming or finding ourselves in the wilderness. I’m sure that those approaches are effective, and I know that the movement has found inspiration in poetry and music, but I imagined a way that would emulate my father’s other-directed, gentle masculinity.
Many men can’t seem to be fathers either to their children or to themselves. Maybe they need a nekyia, their own life-changing visit to the underworld of death. Maybe they need a model, like my father, to understand how deep is the calling to fatherhood and what it demands of us as men.
I have felt the profound rewards of this fathering with my daughter—especially when we home-schooled together for three years and made our descent into buried history and dead poets—and with my stepson as we’ve shared crucial points of contact on his fascinating journey into his future. I sense these moments of fathering as injections of soul blood into my being, making my life more significant. I feel a kind of giving that enhances me as it flows from such a deep place that my will is hardly engaged.
What will it take for men to wake up to the depth of their being? To get over their fears of being exposed, to tenderly dip into the source of life and risk real fatherhood with the boys and girls that need so much from them? The entire world is suffering from the neglect of the deep, guiding father. Distant, disengaged, and overbearing pseudofathers should be relics of the past as we enter a new sensibility. It’s time for the Great Father to show himself in all the men looking in the wrong places for power and strength and meaning. Their object of desire is closer than they think.