I’ll begin by telling you something that is not a secret—I’m not a dad. I’m not a husband either. However, the value of these roles is not lost on me. My own experience with dads and husbands is that of, well, a daughter and a wife. And, the joy I have in watching my husband father our children. His bond with our sons is beautiful in so many ways, and so very different from my relationship with them as a mother. It’s irreplaceable. I cannot offer first-hand knowledge of what it means as a man to fulfill these roles. But, I can say a thing or two as an outsider looking in. I couldn’t venture on this project, (that is, this documomtary), without having a place for the men who share in this experience of parenthood. Your role matters. Your stories matter. You matter. And, you’re very welcome here. I hope you’ll join the conversation. To get it started, I’d like to share what comes to mind when I think of fatherhood…
Years ago, I heard in passing a story about a father and husband. There was a man named Nicolas. He was 39 years old and infected with tumors. This took away his ability to speak and all feeling from the waist down. At the time, he and his family had been searching for a surgeon willing to operate on his brain. If he didn’t have the surgery, he’d have had one year to live. If he had the surgery, there was a 30% chance of survival. I don’t know if they ever found a surgeon. If he did have the surgery, did he survive it? For how long? Or, ultimately, did he choose the one, final year instead? What would I do? What would you do? I don’t know which version of “survival” became his fate. Either way, this was 15 years ago, and so he has surely passed on. Yet, when I think of fatherhood, it is this man—this stranger—who has deeply inspired my understanding of what a man can be. I like to think he lives on in this way, as I’m certain he does for those who knew and loved him.
What does it mean to be a father and husband?
For Nicolas it meant watching youtube videos to learn how to sign phrases like, “How are you?” “Good to see you.” “I love you” to his wife and teenage son. He was preparing for the day when his weakness no longer allowed him to hold a pencil to write his thoughts. It meant doing what he could each day to the extent his capacity would allow. Bathing independently. Feeding himself. Having a daily goal to stand, unscrew the toothpaste tube, brush his teeth, and screw on the cap without falling. It meant picking herbs from the garden for his wife’s mint jelly.
Picture a thin man hunched in a wheelchair. His legs look like they belong to someone smaller and younger. Feet slightly turned inward, brown hair speckled with gray and grown just outside the lines of his preferred haircut. A shadow of a beard. Dark, deep eyes that are so tired, but afraid to close for too long. He sits facing the July sun, letting it pour into his skin. He unfolds his hands to balance a bowl on his lap.
His motions are shaky, so it takes a minute to position his chair. Bowl in one hand, leaves in the other. His hands’ creases and movements say he is a worker, a father, a husband. They are worn with faint scars and wrinkles, each telling their own story. His hands lifted tools, worked machines caked in oil or dirt. Tenderly, they held his wife’s hands before she was his wife. Had tan lines in the summer from his wedding band. Caressed his son in a protective welcome to the world. When his son was young, he’d wrap his tiny fist around his father’s one finger. Someday, his hands, too, will grow worn and knowing.
He pinches off one mint leaf at a time. Each whispered snip is the sound of a blink in the universe. He tastes a leaf. The mint’s sharp chill fills his head, its coolness travels to his chest. It’s a rush followed by calm. Like jumping into a pond, the jolt settles into serenity. Like telling her “I love you” for the first time and hearing it back. Like the onset of terrifying love from the first sight of his child. No build-up, no warming-up. Just all-consuming. Overwhelming. Like feeling alive.
The bowl is full. Slowly and not without struggle, he wheels his chair into the house. He’s careful not to drop his harvest as the door creaks open. He pushes the bowl to the table’s center where it will be safe from falling. He goes to rest knowing, later his wife will make peppermint jelly and his family will enjoy what he has provided.
Looking for guest blog posts on fatherhood. If you are a father or have a story about fatherhood that you’d like to share, please email me!