Fathers & Sons: The Hero’s Journey

I think about my father every day. I can’t help it. Every morning when I stare into the mirror, there he is staring back. As long as I can recall, people who knew my father have said that we look alike. The comparison was a point of pride when I was a child and an aggravation when I became an adolescent. That irritation grew into something stronger in my teens and  20’s. Not hatred, exactly, but certainly anger mixed with aversion.

I did not want to be like my father. There were many reasons. For a long time, I thought it was because of his drinking. I didn’t like the person he became when he drank. I didn’t like the old school jazz that he listened to on the weekend–the blues warbling voice of Billie Holiday, and the Dixieland rat-a-tat of Bix Beiderbecke’s horn. I didn’t like his jokes. I came to love them all later, after he was gone, because they reminded me of him. But at the time, I felt a strong desire, almost a compulsion, to be separate from him. The more I grew to look like him, the more I worried that I would become him.

Picture of cover of Dangerous Virtues by John Koessler
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No doubt, some of the impetus for this angst came from the vibe of the culture at the time. In the 1960s and 70s, sons weren’t supposed to want to be like their fathers. We disdained their workaday ethic and the suburban values of their American dream. The Monkees sang sarcastically of Another Pleasant Valley Sunday, and Joni Mitchell grieved over The Hissing of Summer Lawns.

Yet even though we lived on a suburban street, my father had no real interest in the suburban dream. He was an artist and a bohemian at heart. Our lawn was wild and unkempt, much like family life we lived inside the small brick home that it bordered. Even though he drove a Chevy and worked for the automobile company that produced it, my father was possessed of wilder dreams and aspirations. In his youth, he had wanted to be a commercial artist.  Quiet when sober, he had a quirky sense of humor that compelled him to fill our Christmas stockings with lumps of coal and with feet that he had fashioned out of clay. He was an avid reader, and I can still remember my sense of wonder when he introduced me to the grownup’s section of the local library. Some of the first books that I read there were books he recommended.

Of course, I saw none of this during the years of my flight from him. I only recognized it much later, after my anger had subsided. But by then, it was too late to thank him for what he had done. I now recognize that the divide I felt was, in part, a product of the natural divergence that occurs between fathers and sons. It is a kind of centrifugal force that seems to repel us from one another, even when we are on the same trajectory and anchored to the same center. Nearly every son feels it. It is part of the human condition. Myth and literature are replete with examples. It seems that every son must make his own hero’s journey and then return home wounded but hopefully wiser.

I don’t mean to sentimentalize the picture. There was real pain in our relationship. My father’s drinking was admittedly a significant contributor to the rift I felt. But it was not everything. Time and distance have the power to soften, and there’s no greater distance than death. Age is also a help. It enables us to be selective in our memory. I know this is true for me. I sometimes wonder if the man I now recall is better than the man I knew. If it’s true, I suppose it is a kind of mercy. But I suspect it’s the other way around. I see him more clearly, now that I have surpassed him in age. I am better able to recognize the man who stares back at me from the mirror. It is not just the shape of the face, but something in the eyes that I recall. I remember the look.

I no longer see my father as an adversary or a superior but recognize that I have become his peer. I’ve often wished that we could compare notes about our respective journeys. But such conversations are impossible. They are for most sons. The really interesting questions do not come until it is too late to ask them. When we were young, we weren’t interested. Or it didn’t occur to us to raise the subject. The best we can now do is to compile the story after the fact by relying on secondary sources and oral tradition. We reminisce with our siblings and marvel at how different their recollection is from ours. We ask the living to recall the dead, never quite sure whether they are relating facts or expressing opinions. We piece together our own memories, which arise from the depths in fits and flashes like dreams. We don’t always remember the fine details or the context. It is a little like working on a giant puzzle, but without the benefit of the picture on the box.

It has also helped me to be a father. Nothing has taught me more about the nature of unconditional love than fatherhood. Few things have made me feel as frightened or as helpless. Like me, my sons left home in their 20’s and moved across the country. The pain I felt upon their leaving mirrored the expression I recall in my father’s eyes on the day that I moved away. I have since marveled at their boldness, boasted in their successes, and worried over their trials. But I haven’t stopped missing them. Yet I sense that the distance between us is measured in more than miles and wonder when they will turn for home. It is a long journey.

The primary work is to forgive.

The primary work of the hero’s journey of sons where their father is concerned is to forgive. For me, this has been the work of learning how to forgive both my father and myself. I have had to forgive my father for being the man that he was instead of the man I thought I wanted him to be. Likewise, I had to forgive myself for being born in his image. And sometimes for being the man that I became. “The natural or normal course of human growing up must begin with some sort of rebellion against one’s parents, for it is clearly impossible to grow if one remains a child,” Wendell Berry explains.  “But the child, in the process of rebellion and of achieving the emotional and economic independence that rebellion ought to lead to, finally comes to understand the parents as fellow humans and fellow sufferers, and in some manner returns to them as their friend, forgiven and forgiving the inevitable wrongs of family life.” This is the hero’s journey. It is also the work that transforms us from child to adult.

The last conversation I had with my father was in 1987. I was sitting beside his hospital bed. Years of alcohol abuse had finally presented its bill, and renal failure had set in. The doctors told us that there was nothing they could do for him. I sat silent, holding my father’s hand, and trying to think of what I should say. With so much left unsaid for so long, I could only fall back on an old script that we had repeated many times before.

“I love you, Dad,” I said.

“I love you too, Johnny,” he whispered back.

Maybe it was all we needed to say.