The Man Who Wasn’t There

By Nicholas Dawidoff, the author, most recently, of The Crowd Sounds Happy: A Story of Love, Madness and Baseball (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 15/06/08):

This time in June every year I have only to walk by a drugstore display window filled with Father’s Day cards or to open the newspaper where every advertisement seems to feature a necktie or a power tool that is “Perfect for Dad!” and my youth sweeps over me. Even though I’m halfway through life, a little part of me still dreads Father’s Day — the holiday when, it seemed back then, everyone was celebrating exactly what I didn’t have.

One of the ways we grow up is by deepening our understanding of how we can honor others. With Father’s Day, this often means graduating from making a construction-paper card in class at school, to simple, handmade gifts — I remember building my father a pipe rack that consisted of ring nails hammered into an unfinished scrap of wood — to purchasing presents whose apt choice reflects our desire both to make the old man happy and to show him how well we know and love him. But what if your father is missing or dead or, in my case, absent and frightening to you? How do you celebrate someone you don’t want to know and no longer love?

My parents divorced when I was 3, not long after my father suffered a violent psychotic breakdown. After that, my father and I always lived in different states and, although I visited him from my New Haven home throughout my youth, he was never again the person he’d been before he became ill — and was, increasingly, a different person each time I saw him.

I had loved my father very much before his breakdown, and to lose both his physical presence and then to watch his once-warm personality become hostile and strange was terrifying. You can’t see mental illness, and people didn’t talk about it in those days — certainly not in our family. Scarier even than his rages and antisocial actions was the prospect that his invisible tragedy would be my fate as well. Every family has its burdens, but as a child with a secret burden, I believed that everyone else was burden-free.

Of all the things I romanticized about the lives of other boys from intact families, Father’s Day had the greatest potency. It was that projection of good-hearted masculinity and the cheery rituals of advertisers to match. In the morning, visit the lumberyard! Come afternoon, play a round of golf! Steaks at night on the grill! During the run-up to the big day my mind would fill with imagined games of catch, camping trips, a face in the Little League crowd, sessions of advice. When I selected Father’s Day gifts of sporting goods, books and desk supplies I was, of course, unaware of how transparent were these attempts to make my father be vigorous, clear-headed and employed.

Most of my friends who grew up happily with their dads think of Father’s Day as a contrived holiday. It’s the people with paternal shadows for whom the third Sunday in June takes hold. So it’s not surprising, I guess, that those who are missing out on culturally signified occasions — the loveless on Valentine’s Day; the lonely on Thanksgiving — are the ones who are most affected. We often generalize about American men’s refusal to engage with their painful emotions, the way they will do anything to fight them off, and for a long time I was no stranger to that kind of willful oblivion. Then one spring day, not long before Father’s Day, I sat in a theater watching a new film, “Field of Dreams.” I spent much of the movie gripping the armrests of my seat, trying to maintain control. As the narrative built to its famous climax — disaffected son (Kevin Costner) plays catch with long-lost father in Iowa cornfield — I was overwhelmed. But then, there in the dark, I heard something. All over the room, like boats softly tooting their horns in a harbor on a foggy night, men were weeping.

Recently, on the radio, I listened to a teenager named Star recount her attempts to find a reason to love her father, who was in prison for murdering her mother. While she spoke of her extraordinary longing for closeness, what flashed into my mind was a line from a Wallace Stevens poem about New Haven, which says, “Next to love is the desire for love.” Here as never before I understood Stevens to mean that the absence of a much-wanted experience is inseparable from the experience itself, is part of the experience. It’s the vulnerability to loss that is the coefficient of the depth of feeling.

Not having a good father opens you up to what fatherhood stands for, makes you appreciate it with the intensity of emotion that can come only when you are aware of the risk. That’s what I’ll be thinking about today, and I’ll be thanking my father for helping me to see it that way.