December 06

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My Father


Barry Ralph Nathan

Barry Ralph Nathan

It’s as if he thought his children would be strangers he would get to know, by and by, from across some agreeable paternal divide, from over the upper edge of the New York Times, or through the rear view mirror angled cleverly into the backseat.

I think my father was surprised, blindsided even, by how much he loved his children. He came late to fatherhood and didn’t expect the intimacy and personal connection that he found there. He didn’t anticipate the sense of direct identity he would have with his boys. It’s as if he thought his children would be strangers he would get to know, by and by, from across some agreeable paternal divide, from over the upper edge of the New York Times, or through the rear view mirror angled cleverly into the backseat.

They would have his name and they would be “his” children, but they would be selected at random somehow, from a kind of impersonal child lottery far away, his children arriving with arbitrary personalities and traits, apart from him, cordoned off, a certain preconfigured distance in play from the start, like his not being allowed into the delivery room. And, as it was in much of his world, it would be with his children as well. They would be slightly apart, behind a kind of psychological display window. They would be lovely, but not his own – in the same way that other people’s lovely children are lovely – but not your own.

But when his children were born there was a surprise, almost from the start. He recognized them somehow, inside and out, even if he didn’t know how or from where. They weren’t strangers at all. And this sense of recognition grew and grew, the pattern becoming more apparent to him with every year, drawing smiles from him suddenly and at odd times, when he was on long walks in the city or during business dinners. They were so familiar these children. Their intelligence. Their promise. Their wit. Their gentleness. Their kind eyes. Their childlike delight in the world. They were like a beautiful song you’re sure you’ve heard before. It was as if they were born on the tip of his tongue. But from where?

From where? From where? From where?

The answer, of course, was directly before the confounded. They were his beautiful features and traits, the ones submerged from his view, or distorted or even hidden in plain sight. They were the parts of him that he denied or was spiritually unable to acknowledge. They were parts he diminished or loathed in his own person. These parts of him were like vulnerable children who had been isolated by quarantine, or punishments in closets, or the laughing stocks. The parts that held his wit and his promise. Had his kind eyes. His childlike delight. These were the parts of him you couldn’t honor directly or you’d risk accessing a frustration that could rise to anger – almost as if you were almost mocking him.

But now his most beautiful qualities were sneaking in from behind and around and below, like vines. They were flowering up, pulling on his leg, asking to be picked up, looking at him directly and without guile, love itself moving only inches from his face, pulling off his glasses and laughing, patting his bald head, making the days beautiful with soft smiles and clever children’s thoughts. His having children was not just an opportunity for him to love his children. It was an opportunity for him to love himself. Life had, in its own time and rather effortlessly, outsmarted him.

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