Fathers and Sons
by Neil Chethik
Each year when Father's Day approaches, I'm reminded of the most important words my father ever said to me. They didn't come in my toddler days, nor in adolescence, nor even in my college years. They came, rather, as I stood frozen at the door of full adulthood, on the occasion of the sudden death of my father's own dad.
The year was 1984. I was 27 years old, burned out by my first newspaper job, living just a few blocks from the Miami Beach apartment my paternal grandfather had moved into after his retirement. It was the first time in my life that my grandfather was close by, and along with meals of pot roast and potatoes, I soaked up the stories of his harrowing childhood in Eastern Europe, his desperate emigration and an eclectic life that spanned the century.
Then one day a doctor called to tell me my grandfather had had a fatal heart attack. I was speechless.
The next day my father flew to south Florida from his home in Michigan. We drove in silence to the hospital to identify Grandpa's body and to make arrangements to ship the body north for burial.
Then my father turned the key to my grandfather's home, and we began sorting the material remnants of the old man's life. We discovered curled black-and-white photos from the early years, key chains from more recent times, passbooks, matchbooks, coins, coupons and a pack of stale generic cigarettes. Occasionally my father and I would exclaim to each other about a special find. Mostly we sorted in silence in different rooms.
We kept at it until the glow of the afternoon sun had waned. For some reason we didn't turn on any lights indoors. We just sorted until we could no longer see what we were doing. Then my father and I poured my grandfather's scotch into glasses and collapsed in the heavily pillowed living-room chairs. We shared memories for awhile, then quiet. Finally, as the room faded into near-total darkness, I heard a guttural groan. At first I was startled. Then I realized what was happening. I had never before heard my father cry.
After a couple of minutes he spoke. "I am crying not only for my father, but for me," he said. "His death means I'll never hear the words I've always wanted to hear from him: that he was proud of me, proud of the family I'd raised and the life I've lived."
And then my father directed his voice toward me, and he uttered the words that continue to resound. "So that you never have to feel this way too," he said, "I want to tell you now how proud I am of you, of the choices you've made, of the life you've created."
Much of the pain that is inherent in father-son relationships dissolved for me in the calming resonance of that blessing. And in the months that followed, I felt stronger, more confident, especially as I restarted my career. It was as if my father represented not only himself but the larger world, and I had been accepted into it.
In the years since my father's pronouncement, I've discovered that father pride is a prominent theme in many father-son relationships. I recently met a man who, as a rebellious teenager, had been beaten severely by his doctor-father for failing in school. Twenty years later the father visited his son, who had moved 2,000 miles away, and walked gape-mouthed through the million-dollar homes appointed with oak staircases and cabinets crafted by the younger man.
The son recalls little more than the awestruck look on his father's face and a blunt apology: "I've underestimated you." In the following years the older man gave his son fine tools as gifts and often asked for advice on how to build things out of wood.
It seems that sons will forgive almost anything if they can hear the genuine affirmation of their fathers. Similar words from our mothers don't seem to have the same effect. Mothers tend to love us no matter what. That's not always the case with our fathers. Whether for biological, cultural or other reasons, a father's love often must be earned.
So this Father's Day, as we fathers accept gifts from our sons, let us remember the gift that so many of them desire but will not request. Simple words, expressed sincerely: "Son, I'm proud of you."