It was 1984, my birthday, I was 36 years old with 2 sons 5 and 3 years old. I was in the office at work on a lighting project when my colleague brought me a cup of coffee and suggested I sit down. She put a call through from my wife who told me that my dad had died suddenly in the night. He was only 72 years old, exactly twice my age, and very fit and healthy. Bang—just like that—no warning—a heart attack.
It was my birthday. My first thought was how unkind that was, and how clever. I can never forget him now, never forget his death or his life.
Stephen Marche has written about ‘Why Fatherhood Matters’ in Esquire. In talking about his own father’s death, he said,
As the patriarchy is slowly dying, as masculinity continues to undergo a constant process of redefinition, fatherhood has never mattered more. Having children has always been a major life marker, of course, but the demise of other markers of masculine identity has given fatherhood outsize importance. The old religious rituals gave way long ago. The post-dynamic-capitalism of the moment has taken away the replacement methods of proving yourself. Making a living is principally a sign of good luck. Owning property is a sign of your parents’ status more than it is your own. Combat itself is now gender-neutral. Only fatherhood is indisputably masculine, which is why when you ask men when they became men, they usually answer when they became a father or lost a father.
He’s right, of course, and in thinking about this in my own life I can see the shift over three generations, the shift from detachment to to involvement.
When my father was 34, in 1946 just after the end of the war, with 2 sons aged 5 and 2, he went off to India on a troopship for 6 months to set up some factories for his employer, Chloride. That was what you did then. The world was in chaos so men needed to go wherever to bring order back. Men were needed to organise and plan. It’s OK for the women to stay at home and look after the children. There was nothing sexist in this, it was just the reality. I suppose that’s simply what the patriarchy was.
Jump to when I was 36, when my father died, I was living at home but I had let my passion go—working in the theatre—and taken a job where I could earn a living to support my children while being around them.
Jump again to my eldest son right now. He is 35 years old with a 1 year old son. He lives with his partner in her mother’s house and stays at home to look after their son while she is out at work as a Sister in Casualty in a local hospital. He is studying but has happily taken on the role of the major care-giver. He is indisputably masculine and became visibly more a man when his son was born.
Stephen Marche goes on to say,
On the day of my father’s death, as I walked to pick up my son, I had no idea what I was supposed to do, and I also knew that whatever I would do would matter enormously to my son. Naturally, I tried to imagine what my own father would do. His importance in my life had never been more vivid. We rarely agreed about politics or anything like that, but we were both smart enough to recognize that we weren’t supposed to.
My relationship to my father has defined me for many years, often in ways I would care not to remember. I remember, however, the moment late in life when he had called on me for help. Unable to keep up with family crises any more he called me across the country to be with him and help him deal with the latest crisis. He was always so sure of himself, he never asked for help—until now. That moment meant more to me than any other in my life.
That night, on my birthday, I went to the house group I went to every week. We studied Psalm 23, such an appropriate choice. I read it at his funeral and, to this day, I can’t hear it without thinking of him.
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,for you are with me
The image, above, typically shows me trying to imitate my dad. I clearly idolised him and wanted to be like him. What happened was that I moved on and became me. I grew to masculinity through experiencing his power, through seeing his faults and through knowing how much he mattered to me, but I did it my own way. Fatherhood mattered to me, but my own fatherhood was more important.
I know you are watching over me, dad, and thank you for everything.