My father is gone. He died in 1993; I vividly remember how I felt when I got that phone call, the desperate search through my memory of every last moment I’d spent with him, the anguish over the missing details and lost days and years, the despair that there would be no more memories, ever. It’s gotten worse over the years, too — it becomes harder and harder to recall the faces and voices of the dead as they recede into the past, no matter how important they were to us once, and while we might regularly resurrect fond remembrances, they aren’t so pressing anymore, nor are they as vital as they once were, and the pain of loss slowly fades. I loved that man very much and respected him as a guide, a father in the best sense of the word, yet there he goes, all his personality and works and words and concerns, dissipating into the background hiss of the universe, someday to be lost to all.
His grandchildren scarcely knew him, if they met him at all. To his great-grandchildren he’ll only be a name, at best, and to his subsequent descendants, even less, perhaps a scrap of a tattered record in some archive, or a tombstone, or a few bits in an online database. There is no immortality for us, not even in the history books or in some great saga … which only serve to promote a myth or echo of the man, anyway.
And so it will be for us, too. You and I will be gone some day, and be realistic — a few generations beyond that, and we will be unknown, forgotten, unimportant to anyone.
Perhaps you think this is too bleak a view, and that this is a vision of the future that we have to turn away from or lose all hope. It’s truth, though. Think back through your past: most but not all will remember their fathers well. Many will have known their grandfathers, but only in their aging years. Some will have met their great-grandfathers, but remember only an old, old man. Beyond that, you might have a few stories, a sepia-colored photo, an entry in a genealogy record, and the otherwise relatively recent will be nothing but a name and a few dates, while go back a few centuries and not even that will be there anymore. Each of those men were for a time among the most important people in their children’s lives, and now, nothing but dust. Do you think you will be any different?
But wait. I am not some glum nihilist who counsels everyone on the futility of their existence. There is more to this story than generations of wasted effort — to think that misses the whole point.
Look at the biology. Parenthood has a personal cost — we know this objectively. Both males and females are sinking a great deal of effort into reproduction, and we know experimentally that parental investment in breeding and care for offspring reduces longevity — and it’s true for fathers as well as mothers. Those of us with caring fathers know well the time and work involved, and the heartache we caused, and the hopes and worries that afflicted our parents.
Richard Dawkins famously said we come from a long line of survivors, that we are all descended from historical champions. This is true, but it leaves off another important factor: they were all survivors who made a sacrifice in order to leave progeny. Almost all of this chain of fathers are nameless and faceless, but all have in common the fact that at some time in their life they spent health and time to create new life (and before you belittle paternal investment as often little more than a spasm and spurt, think about the genuine cost of sexual reproduction; it’s such a silly activity, with only a small and transient reward, and yet it’s so ingrained in our being that we take for granted that males will sink much of their life into the business of courtship. Among humans, of course, responsible parenting is also a huge, prolonged expense.) Our parents were people who held our hand through childhood, who gave us the car keys when we were adolescents, who got us through high school and college, who paid for our weddings and gave us assistance through the rough spots, and all of that was to send us off into the world on our own, and they took pride in our independence. What a strange idea, that a life could find meaning in selflessly helping a generation that will leave one behind.
That is what fatherhood is really about: not immortality, not long-term reward, but self-sacrifice to launch a new generation into the world with a little momentum and a little potential … potential to stand autonomously and be something new; not to serve the past but to become the future. We regretfully watch our fathers fall away behind us, knowing that we will be next, and at the same time we prepare our own children to carry on and be themselves, just as we were given this chance at life.
I miss my dad, but I also know how to honor him. By being myself, as he brought me up to be, and by raising my children to be themselves, as he did for me.