To Be A Father Be a Man

Below is Noah’s most recent post from Psychology Today:

The comedian Chris Rock once said that the only thing being a dad gets you these days is the big piece of chicken. And when people used to make collect phone calls, the day the most collect calls were made was on Father’s Day. Yes sir, being a dad was and is inevitably a balance of glorious and thankless.

For a number of years the schools in Southern California were divided into an A and B semester depending on whether your parents enrolled you for kindergarten in September or January. And when I was fourteen and in the B-9, an older woman in the A-9 invited me to be her date at her party that coming weekend. The girl who invited me was not only older, she was also generally thought of as the prettiest girl in the Junior High. And, overnight, my social stock rose immeasurably.

But I was fourteen, and feeling pretty socially vulnerable, and in my vulnerability decided I would die if I didn’t get some brown shoes to match the tan pants I knew I had to wear to the party. The problem was I already had black shoes and in my family a second pair of dress shoes was a luxury that lived outside our budget.

The moment my father came home from work, I rushed to make my case. He listened like Solomon, with his half-chewed cigar moving reflectively from one of side of his mouth to the other, and without a word, we got back into the old Plymouth and went shopping.

Walking back to the car with my new shoes, I trailed behind my dad and noticed that the heel was flopping off his old shoes. “Hey dad,” I shouted, “why didn’t you get some shoes too?” “Next week,” said my father without looking back, “maybe I’ll get shoes next week.”

But my father did not get shoes the next week, or the week after, or the week after that. It was a long time before my father got shoes because it was a long time before we could afford for him to get shoes. Some part of me knew that, even then, but I was a kid and like a lot of us who know we want and choose to ignore what gets in the way of what we want, I just stared at my shoes and denied to myself that I felt a self-indulgent corruption from my soles to my soul.

Though my father was a big heavy man, and his job required him to stand on his feet all day, day after day, for his entire life, he never ever again mentioned that evening or our conversation. And I never forgot it.

There’s a lot of talk these days about what it means to be a man. But my father was a man of few words. Indeed, he was a man who knew that often in life, actions don’t just speak louder than words – they shout.

Someone recently wrote that a man becomes a man on the day your child is born and/or the day your father dies. There’s probably some truth to that, but in the court of events this is not the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

The truth is that a man becomes a father in a thousand ways on a thousand days that no one else sees and often even in a way the man himself doesn’t notice. Becoming a father creeps up on you the way time and truth creeps into all our lives. We don’t usually see it coming, sometimes not until we see it going. For a man to become a father he must first become a man.

And oh yeah, I did go to that party – in my tan pants, and in my new brown shoes, and with my flat-top greased to flat-top perfection with Butch Wax.

But what happened next was far from perfect.

While I was still dawdling at the potato chip bowl and wondering when my date would actually talk to me, a group of much older guys from the Catholic High School crashed the party. And one of the party crashers turned out to be my date’s very real boy friend.

I was the beard. I was the guy who my date invited so her parents wouldn’t give her any grief about which she was dating. I was the good guy fall guy. And I fell hard.

My date totally ignored me. Somebody put Johnny Mathis on the record player, the lights were turned down, and I stood in the corner in the dark, in my tan pants, and my new brown shoes. And I stared down at my feet so I wouldn’t have to look at anyone. And my shoes stared back at me.

A few of the other girls later came up and talked to me. But their pity only made me feel more pathetic.

When my dad came to pick me up, he asked me how the party had gone. “Great” was all I could say. I knew if I said even one more word I would start to bawl. Regardless of my intention, I felt I had dumped on my dad, and had got dumped on, and God was just setting things even.

But I was wrong. No cosmic divinity was interested in embarrassing me. God was just hoping I was paying attention and often sends fathers to do the heavy lifting. Just don’t confuse fathers with seraphs flapping white wings and plucking a harp. A father is a man who may forget how his wife wants the clothes folded when they come out of the dryer but is also the guy who is generally mindful to do right by his kids.

Being a righteous dad isn’t always about telling your child was is right but doing the right thing, even if no one else sees – or your kid doesn’t even think to acknowledge or thank you. These days even when you thank a salesclerk the best you get is “no problem.”

My dad’s gone. Like Elvis, he’s left the building but is not absent in my life. Oh, I know he’s around, and every pair of brown shoes I have is a reminder. Funny how that works, what you would like to forget isn’t likely to let you.

Any day we remember our father, is father’s day. Remember your dad, and make it more than “no problem.”

Noah benShea
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