Sunday, April 8, 2012 | Categories: Michael's Essays
The bathroom door is slightly ajar. The young man at the mirror is carefully running the new razor over the soft contours of his jaw. He is being thorough, but very careful. He is 16 years old.
How is it that he can be shaving? Wasn't it only yesterday or last week that he started kindergarten?
Every parent has to recognize certain things about their children as they grow, certain elements both heartbreaking and wonderful, things that trouble, things that delight. With each moment of recognition comes pain and pride.
We want them to grow up keen and independent and happy but we fret when they show signs of doing just that.
We measure these things, not in coffee spoons, but in firsts - the first day of school, first haircut, first sleepover, first date and yes, the first time a son picks up a razor and goes to work on a new beard.
Whether gratifying or disturbing, each of these moments reveals an essential truth - that change and the process of separation are the most important things about how children move out into their wider world.
The changes have profound effects on parents and their relationships with their children. But I wonder if they affect sons and fathers in a different way, than mothers and daughters?
Do fathers look upon their sons as a kind of rival, someone to be tamed in a way that mothers don't view their daughters?
Do fathers understand the complex wiring of their sons in the same way that mothers seem to understand their daughters?
One of my favourite writers, the humorist James Thurber once asserted: "Boys are beyond the range of anyone's sure understanding, at least when they are between the ages of 18 months and 90 years."
I started pondering these son-father musings after watching a wonderful Israeli movie called The Footnote.
It's about a father and son, both highly respected academics. But the father is aged now and his life's work has largely been ignored or relegated to a footnote in a dusty tome.
The son, on the other hand, is at the apogee of his powers. He, not the father, is garnering all the glittering prizes.
The father sees his son as a rival, as something of a usurper. His bitterness leads to a crisis in both their lives.
Fathers have dreams for their sons and usually their dreams are just that, fantasies. But we persist anyway.
In the greatest American play, Death of a Salesman, Biff Loman tries to make his father understand that his sons are not the standard bearers of his dreams of success, but abject failures.
Biff yells at Willy: "Will you take that dream and burn it up before something happens."
Willy, mired in his delusions, responds: "Isn't that, isn't that remarkable. Biff, he likes me."
The father wants the son to love him and more importantly to like him. So he goes to all kinds of effort to mold the son.
Be the best hockey player or engineer, or dentist. But most of all be like me.
It's a feckless endeavour, a hopeless exercise. Children, sons, will be what they will be without all the bending and conjuring of fathers.
The best we can do is to show them how to laugh and to recognize in themselves, the miracle that they are.