We have in our offices a poem called "The Torch," about a man who traveled to meet with his father because the father was dying. The old man was in a coma and could not talk. But that did not stop the son from sharing with his father his fears of closeness with him, his reactions to his father's aloofness and his desire to tell his father — and to hear back — the words "I love you."
The poem reminds me of so many of the men we work with in our practice. Their characteristics are common:
- Longing for closeness with the father;
- Sadness at lack of intimacy;
- Superficial relationships with father — according to the father's standards;
- Wanting a "Dad" rather than just a "father;"
- Feeling inadequate, like young boys, around their fathers;
- Keeping their "walls" up with their fathers;
- Desire to behave very differently with their own sons;
- Overreaction to criticism by the father;
- Playing a role with their fathers rather than being themselves;
- Feeling guilty about not making the relationship better.
For many men, the awareness that something was missing in the relationship was felt at an early age. But the recognition that the problems were not their fault usually occurs during adulthood. By then, many men were acting out a part in a play they never tried out for.
I know these feelings and those issues, because they were true of my relationship with my father, who died 4 years ago. I desperately wanted closeness with him and I did the best I knew how to do to make that closeness — but it was not enough to bridge the gap between us. Two men, wanting closeness, or afraid of it, not knowing how, or afraid, to take the risks necessary for real closeness.
Many of the fathers of adult sons had relationships with their own fathers, and grandfathers. This pain, unresolved, became part of the barrier in the relationship with their sons. I believe that I accidentally triggered, by my actions, the pain my father had with his father, and this resulted in him becoming critical and aloof, maybe just like his father had done to him. The pain became transgenerational, passed on from one generation to the next.
My father was a good mechanic and carpenter and I tried to copy him. When I was a boy, I accidentally left a crescent wrench of his in the yard. It became rusty in the rain and he became extremely angry with me — maybe just like his father had once done with him. I was so afraid I hid outside of the house alone in the dark. My behavior triggered both my father's pain as well as his shame because after this incident — he simply avoided me for hours or for days. That was his way of licking his wounds — it was the best he knew how to do. But it did not meet my needs and it set the stage for our relationship.
I loved my father and I was afraid of my father, but I did not feel close to him. And if he felt dose to me, I did not know it. Throughout my childhood and my adolescence, I do not recall my father ever hugging me. I recall the first time I hugged him. I was in graduate school and I returned to my parent's home for vacation. At the front door I greeted my mother with a big hug and a kiss. Then, rather than shaking my father's hand, I reached out and hugged him. Usually his hugs included 3 pats on the back which seemed to mean, "that's enough, now let go." During that same time I began to tell him I loved him. At first he hesitated, but over time he would tell me he loved me also.
I have a strong memory of the last time he and I were face-to-face before he died. As we said goodbye, he grabbed me, hugged me and said, "I'll miss you, son." (And he said this with tears in his eyes.) Those words were the most spontaneous and the most intimate I recall him sharing with me. I am truly grateful he shared them — and himself — with me. It was very healing.
My dad and I were making good progress on becoming men together. I regret we did not start the journey together much earlier.