Sunday, June 20, 2010

On the Road to Breaker's Point

Happy Father's Day to Dads everywhere, including both of my brothers, all four of my brothers-in-law and my father-in-law. Loud, polyester ties and World's Greatest Dad coffee mugs for everyone!

Fatherhood is a helluva gig. It is not a lark. But it should not be looked at as a dark ride either. (A nice pseudo-obscure Springsteen reference to get your mind working early on a Sunday morning.) I have written in this space that the jukebox containing the soundtrack of my life is jammed to the gunwales with Springsteen music. One of the themes that Springsteen has visited repeatedly throughout his career is that of his relationship with his father. A relationship that is spelled out in a way that allows any of us who has been a son, a father or both to walk a bit in the shoes of the characters in the song.

My father died on Memorial Day weekend in 1981. He and Mom had six kids of whom I am the youngest. I was 14 when Dad died. Of his three sons, I was the only one who still lived home. Both Bill and Kelly were men - adults with their own families and their own lives outside of the four walls of the parental home.

Christmas 1980. Among the presents I received (if I had to wager I would say that Kara and Jill bought it for me) was "The River". You have to understand that listening to records in our house took a bit of finesse and finagling. I did not have a record player in my room and my sisters did not have one in their room either. Instead along the wall of the dining room sat my father's Fisher Hi-Fi, a piece of furniture noteworthy for three things. First, it was the approximate size of a small car measuring at least eight feet in length and weighing what felt like several hundred pounds. Second, it had a sound quality that could generously be described as terrible. Third, it was among my father's prized possessions, which meant that accessing it to listen to one's own music required either securing Dad's permission or waiting until he was not home and using it without his knowledge. Given the infrequency with which he granted permission to use it in my experience least resistance's chosen path was using it without his knowledge, which I did whenever I could.

Thirty years after its release, The River remains among my favorite Springsteen albums. Its sheer size likely has something to do with it. There are twenty tracks on it. Its variety also has something to do with it. The songs on the album range from sing-along songs to haunting tunes awash in sadness both musically and lyrically. The central reason however is Independence Day.

Independence Day is a track that stands high in the pantheon of those that Springsteen has written about the relationship between fathers and sons. It was certainly not the first one he wrote about the topic. Among others, Adam Raised a Cain from the "Darkness on the Edge of Town" album dealt with the subject as well: You're born into this life paying for the sins of somebody else's past/Daddy worked his whole life for nothing but the pain/Now he walks these empty rooms looking for something to blame/You inherit the sins, you inherit the flames.

The tone of Independence Day was less one of anger and more one of resignation. Or perhaps of frustration. It is a song about a flawed relationship - one that yielded only limited benefits to father and son - from which the son had decided to escape. You see the world of the two characters only through the eyes of the son but you get a glimpse through his eyes of the fact that life has not been a joy ride for the old man and - more importantly perhaps - that the son recognizes that fact and recognizes as well that a lot of external forces have been responsible for making the father the man that he is. He himself is not solely responsible for what - as seen through the eyes of his son - he has become: Cause the darkness of this house has got the best of us/There's a darkness in this town that's got us too/But they can't touch me now/And you can't touch me now/They ain't gonna do to me/What I watched them do to you.

As a boy of fourteen - and not being even fully in possession of the admittedly limited powers of observation that I presently possess - I did not understand why my relationship with my own father became as tense and as strained as it did during what turned out to be the final couple of years of his life. I used to joke with my friends in college that it seemed to me that Dad liked the notion of sons far better when we were little but wished he possessed a way to either trade us for daughters after we reached a certain age or simply flip a switch and make us so. It was as if he was mindful of his own self-created health issues and his rather limited physical prowess that came with them and worried about his ability to retain some type of command presence with a son who had reached a certain age. It was never something he and I discussed while he was alive so I know not the answer to the riddle and never shall.

I remember though listening to Independence Day and thinking that Springsteen had written a piece of music that captured the essence of the father/son relationship in my house. Dad and I never reached the point in the program where I felt I had to escape. Life intervened. I know not whether had he lived we would have reached the point where I would have felt the need to do so. Yet another riddle to which I know not the answer.

I think though as I have gotten older and as I have watched my own kids grow from children to adults I have a better understanding of my father than I ever did while he was alive. It is true that the prospect of being a father was one that for a long time terrified me. It is also true that I am thrilled beyond words that the two children I love the most in this world carry not a shred of my genetic material. Better safe than sorry; right?

Life is a journey after all. We have arrived at the point on the horizon line where we find ourselves today only by having traveled the distance we have traveled to get here. And while we do not carry with us every bit of every step we have taken along the way, there are trace elements of every step we have stepped stuck like gum to the bottom of our shoes. One of the great joys of my life is being a father. And I think of the things I have experienced with my kids both when they were children and now that they are adults and I marvel at them. And they would not have been possible without the lessons, both good and bad, I learned from my own father a lifetime ago.

Papa now I know the things you wanted that you could not say. Happy Father's Day.


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