My father died sometime in the early 2000s. Maybe 2006 or 2007. I’m really not sure when because, to be honest, his death meant nothing to me.
How could it have? This man, who abandoned his cancer-stricken wife and 17-year-old only son for another, younger women, played no part in my childhood. He wasn’t there when I struck twelve batters out in a little league game or when I hit two grand slam homers. He wasn’t there when I came home from my first job washing dishes at Ponderosa, covered in other people’s leftover food and reeking of detergent.
He wasn’t there when I somehow passed my driver’s license test even though I accidentally backed into the man doing my evaluation. Or when I didn’t know how to handle unrequited love for the first time or when my mother told me her cancer was fatal.
He just wasn’t there. Ever.
His death came in a car accident that happened when he had a seizure while driving, the same seizures that I inherited from him, the only thing he left me after his death. A lawyer somehow found me in Salem, Oregon where I lived with a woman who is now my ex-wife and our five kids.
He told me my father, who I hadn’t seen since 1979, and whom I only talked to twice since then when he called, drunk and frightened, afraid that his relationship with his son was “lost,” was on life support. The hospital, the lawyer said, wanted me to decide what to do with him.
“Do what you want,” I said. “I don’t care.”
And, so they did. They took him off life support, leaving his crippled, withered body to fend for itself. He didn’t die right away, however. He lingered long enough for me to go out for the day, to get a haircut, to get a new suit I had bought tailored, to go to lunch at some new place called “Spoons” or “Forks” or whatever, and to completely forget that the life of the man who sired me was about to end.
When the lawyer called me back, hours later, to tell me that my father, Arden Bradshaw Wyman, had finally died, I was struck by one emotion: shame. I felt shame that, on his last day of life, I didn’t go to his bedside in the hospital in which he died alone, to be there with him.
That I had actually forgotten that he was dying, that his only son was enjoying a day off from work and felt no grief that his sole remaining parent had died.
Just like my father was never there for me, I wasn’t there for him in his last moments.
That shame, as irrational as it sounds now as I write it, didn’t actually start the day my father died. No, it started years earlier, back when I was a small child, when I first came to realize that my father never loved me.
It intensified years later, when I was a brash, single officer in the Air Force, having dinner on a first date with a beautiful Italian girl named Palma who I had been wooing away from her boyfriend for months. “So your mother was 40 when you were born,” she said between bites of the expensive dinner I couldn’t really afford back in those days. “You must have been an ‘oops’ baby, then.”
That’s what I was, an “oops,” an accident, a life created unwanted. The thought, as ridiculous as it now seems, never crossed my mind back then. My mother, who had doted on me my whole life, who made certain a day never passed without telling me that she loved me, confirmed Palma’s suspicions. “Yes, it is true, but you were the best accident of my life,” I heard my mother say into the receiver of the restaurant’s payphone.
So much was clear to me then. It explained why my father, 10 years younger than my mother, a beautiful woman whose life was a series of bad choices, never seemed to want me around. It was because I wasn’t ever supposed to be, in the first place.
My mother, who he never intended to marry, wasn’t the love of his life, as romance movie cliches depict serendipitous relationships, but just another woman my charming, handsome, dissolute and rakish father bedded. One who, this time, inconveniently, he impregnated.
The Lack of Relationship with a Father
Nine months later, in August of 1961, I was born. My mother gave me, as a first name, the middle name of her father, a man she recalled only spoke to her one time in her childhood, the day he came to get her after she swam too close to a paddle boat on the Ohio River and would have drowned had a woman on the boat not jumped into the water to rescue her.
She said he talked to her about turtles, as they walked home, about how they retract and extend their heads from their shells.
And, since they couldn’t come up with a middle name on their own, my father took the middle name of the namesake of the hospital in which I was born, “Steele.” He actually misspelled it, either out of negligence or, I prefer to think, to spare me the ribbing I would have gotten if I was correctly named after “Elizabeth Steel Magee.”
In the 17 years that followed, I recall playing catch with him once, going to a field near where we lived to catch golf balls he hit at me with a 9-iron until one went through my glove and hit me in the eye, and going fishing with him once in a small boat on a lake in a state park.
I didn’t catch anything and he told me I would starve on my own, if I had to fish to stay alive. He didn’t catch anything, either.
There were never any conversations between the two of us about who he was, where he came from, what he did during the Korean War. We never changed the oil of a car together, never built anything from scratch, never snuck an under-aged beer or talked about how to win the hearts of women.
All those things a boy is supposed to learn about being a man, I didn’t learn from my father. I learned on my own. And got most of them wrong.
That was the same experience “John,” a patient of clinical psychologist Dr. Deryl Goldenberg had with his father.
“My father was a successful clothing salesman who worked a lot, but even when he was home on weekends he wasn’t available. All of my life I’ve suffered from uncertainties about my masculinity. I think it’s because he never shared anything about himself with me. He didn’t tell me what kinds of problems he wrestled with, what he felt, or what it meant to him to be a man. I’ve had to make it all up for myself, and I’m never sure I got it right.”
This lack of a relationship with fathers, Dr. Goldenberg said, was a constant theme in sessions he had with men struggling with career or relationship failings.
Undermining the confidence and ability to navigate the complexities of work and personal relationships, said Dr. Goldenberg, often were feelings of inadequacy that originated from neglectful and, often, outright hostile paternal upbringing.
German novelist Franz Kafka in his essay “Letter to his Father,” summarized his relationship with his father this way, “You put special trust in bringing up children by means of irony, and this was most in keeping with your superiority over me.
An admonition from you generally took this form: ‘Can’t do it in such-and-such a way? That’s too hard for you, I suppose. You haven’t the time, of course?’ And so on.
And each such question would be accompanied by malicious laughter and a malicious face. One was, so to speak, already punished before one even knew that one had done something bad.”
He added later, “My father’s method of upbringing had saddled me with a general load of fear, weakness and self-contempt.”
For many men, these emotions are their memory of how their fathers related to them.
For me, it was clear I was never going to be an interesting enough distraction to pull my father’s attention away from the Time and Newsweek magazines he read in bed immediately after dinner during the rare nights that he came home from work. Nothing I could say or do would cause him to skip a weekend of golf, the thing he loved more than anything, including my mother and I, to spend that precious time with me.
For all men, growing up fatherless or without a positive relationship with a father permanently alters that man’s life. Refusing to deal with the emotional scars left behind by a poor or non-existent relationship with our fathers eventually bleeds over to other areas of our lives, to our love lives, to our ability to retain and nurture long-lasting marriages and friendships, to our ability to relate effectively with our own children.
These scars can poison and contaminate so many aspects of our lives they become toxic and redefine us into men we don’t want to be.
“For a long time, I hated my father so much that my hatred extended to anything he liked, such as butter pecan ice cream,” wrote author Richard Morgan. “I was determined to be Not Him. But to be exactly his opposite was still to let him define me.”
Morgan, who said in a 2015 article in the Washington Post, “Not everyone celebrates their father on Father’s Day,” chose to break the grip his father had on him. He chose to redefine how he sees fatherhood, seeking out the best examples of paternal love and nurture.
“I find myself drawn to the many forms of fatherhood. I read about the dad who set up a micro-nation so he could make his daughter a literal princess. I read about 21-year-old Barack Obama, locked out of his apartment on his first night in New York, sleeping in an alley, sobbing and reading a letter from his estranged father; and about President Obama telling reporters that “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon Martin.”
At weddings, I listen for fatherhood references in the groom’s vows and always cry at those father-and-bride dances. I wonder what JFK Jr. thought of fatherhood, or what Prince William thinks. I wonder if Jesus, the Son, ever wished He’d gotten a go at fatherhood. I wonder if I’d ever feel inclined to hit my own children, and I joke that I’m such an overachieving father already that I’ve accomplished dad-bod and dad humor before having kids. I think about fatherhood the way you might think about the environment on Earth Day.”
And this is where I find myself today, the father of three sons and two daughters, the youngest 17. Have I been a father in name only?
Have I just made money and paid bills and driven kids to soccer practice and karate classes, while making no more impact on them than would an Uber? Have I been just a less malevolent version of my father, getting maybe a “B” for effort, but an “F” on the final?
To be honest, I don’t know the answer to that question because I never learned how to be a father in the first place. I made it up as I went along and I fear I got it all wrong.