Fatherhood: Three

By  |  September 4, 2013
“Barrow Cabin 08, 2010” By Eirik Johnson. Courtesy of Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco “Barrow Cabin 08, 2010” By Eirik Johnson. Courtesy of Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco

THE PROBLEMATIC FATHER

T
he problem is, my son sees the man I am now and not the previous men I was before I became the man I am now. The man I am now is a result of his presence in my life and therefore I’m not even close to being the man I was before he existed, and that man, it seems, had a pure vitality that was taken away by the responsibilities that arrived with his son’s birth. On the other hand, the father I knew was the father who was there when I was there, and so the fact that my father was highly problematic at times came in part from the fact that he was dealing with me. But then the fact that being a father means having a son, or a daughter, must also mean that without a son or daughter one cannot be a father, and therefore, of course, the vital man who existed without the son or daughter wasn’t a father. Therefore, whatever he was before the son or daughter existed doesn’t count and can’t be compared to the man he became once he was a father. The father I know is the man who had to deal with a mentally ill daughter. During those first several years he didn’t know she was mentally ill and was, at that time, simply a man who had a daughter who was in trouble all the time. Then, later, he became the father of a mentally ill daughter, which changed the way he looked at things but not her troubles—she was still arrested, disappeared for months at a time, had to be rescued from one scenario to the next, including a court case that lasted six weeks when she was sixteen; then jail time, and later, the stolen check she cashed, more jail time, and mental hospitals and so on and so forth. The father I remember is most often the later, older father who had to figure out ways to deal with an older mentally ill daughter. He was a problematic man, but heroic in his own way. Now here I am, a father with a son and a daughter who can only see me the way I am now, I thought. I thought: there is nothing I can do but present myself as best I can to my son and daughter as a man who is aware that he is not as vital—or alive—as he was before he had a son or daughter, or perhaps alive in a different way, as a father, and in doing so give them something that other men, who don’t even think about these things, might be missing. In that manner, I might avoid being a problematic father. Although just by thinking about it so much—not only my own relationship with my son and daughter but also how I saw my father as a man who was dealing with a troubled daughter, and later a mentally ill daughter—I’m exposing myself as a problematic father.


THE SAD SACK

O

n the train in the dead of winter, I looked out at the water and saw a man in a kayak, his paddle flashing in the morning sun as he worked hard, looking forlorn and silent, trying to dig against the ebb tide. He was a doomed man, I thought. One way or another, no matter what kind of shape he was in, even if he got to shore and hauled his boat up, scraping the ice off the sides, lovingly rubbing her hull with a cloth before going inside to heat his hands alongside a stove, the fire simmering and comforting, sipping coffee while he looked out triumphantly at the river, he would be unable to detect in his groin the upcoming events that would, some other day, in similar conditions, when he was just as strong and sure of himself, take him to task with a rogue barge wake, striking his kayak from the side, startling him forever out of his mute complacency until he was nothing more or less than a man clinging to a hull. Call me deranged or a sad sack, but that’s what I imagined when I caught sight of him before the train entered the tunnel and a surge of ear-popping darkness threw his image against the soft agony of my own life. That’s the way I thought back then. Even a beautiful sight—a man alone on the river bearing up against the elements, daring nature—delivered to me a sense of doom.


(ANOTHER) STORY I’D LIKE TO WRITE

A
man who has been married twenty-five years remembers the time his son broke his femur in the backyard—twilight drifting in the trees—by catching his heel in a hole in the grass, falling at an odd angle, spiraling the bone. I’d like to write about cradling my crying son, his shoulders quivering as we drove him to the hospital. Not in order to show how pain and love combine in a particularly vivid fashion—no, not that!—but rather in order to explore the way heart and touch unite under duress. I’d recall the hefty, stiff weight of his body as I carried him out of the hospital to the car. In his cast—on both legs—he felt like a gift, a Yule log, and my wife and I knew, weary and exhausted after the ordeal, the shock of seeing the femur split down the middle on the x-ray, that we’d be in for a long, hot summer. I’d like to get in the story how it felt to be a man who could bear up under certain responsibilities. I’d like to capture that particular afternoon, when my son found a way to translate his inability to an ability, not even understanding that he was limited, because for all he knew, it seemed, his state at that point in time was simply one more stage he had to go through, like a pupa in a cocoon, as he threw his arms wide and made a swimming motion, pushing himself across the sunlit floor through the motes of dust and the quiver of leaf shade as he made a light, half-laughing hoot sound to accompany each stroke while we held hands and looked down and watched and felt at that particular moment that we had everything under control and were operating under auspices of a deep wisdom that seemed to arrive just often enough to allow us to negotiate each day, one at a time, in pursuit of what could only be thought of, at the time, as a visionary end goal: a full-grown man who would function on his own in the world, using what he had garnered from us to confront whatever the future threw his way. If I could get even a fraction of this down in some kind of pure form, I would be able to lean back, rest, and simply live in the world.


Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American

David Means is the author of four story collections, including Assorted Fire Events, The Secret Goldfish, and The Spot. His first novel, HYSTOPIA, was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2016.

More from David Means