Tears of Our Fathers
The image is as vivid today as it was when it occurred, November 22, 1963-my eighth birthday. I was in the kitchen of our home after a day in second grade during which we were informed over the loudspeaker about the events which had taken place earlier that day in Dallas, Texas. I was awaiting the evening return home of my father from work. It was dark and rainy outside when he entered through our back door. It was the first time I can remember seeing my father cry.
The next time was a few years later, when again, I was in our kitchen, sitting at the table having a snack, when my father burst into tears while talking on the telephone about his wife, my mother, to his father. “She has cancer, Pa”. The words are as clear today as they were then.
The last time was not so long ago. I was living in a city about 100 miles from my parents when I received the phone call early on a Saturday morning. My mother had become confused and agitated during the night, calling the police and then wandering outside in the street in her bedclothes. She had been taken to the hospital in what was to be the beginning of the long slow decline at the hands of the disease known as dementia. When I arrived and my father opened the door, the same one he had come through in 1963, the tears flowed freely.
What is it about seeing a father cry that leaves such indelible impressions on our memory? Is it the iconic image that we have of a father: the “strong, silent” man who is always there to help us in times of trouble, to offer advice and wisdom in times of doubt and indecision, to protect us in times of danger? Sigmund Freud once characterized the relationship between father and child in the following words: “I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.” Is part of that invincible protective armor that a father provides for his children penetrated by the witnessing of a father crying?
As I have witnessed my own father’s grace, generosity, and incredible patience during these years of my mother’s journey deeper into the grasp of dementia, I believe that the previous experiences of seeing him cry have come together to provide a much larger picture of a man whose role is not only that of a protector but also of friend, advisor, and compassionate human being. I believe that it is this image of the father who, if he does his job well as role model and mentor, his children aspire to emulate.
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