This column originally appeared in the Orange County Register.
Because I often emphasize the importance of mothers, mothering and the maternal, it may appear that I completely disregard the masculine and paternal. I’ll clarify that by distinguishing between an actual mother and a maternal function. Parental functions may be construed as active or passive, directive or receptive, calming or stimulating, separating or merging.
Without inflaming gender politics or the feminist collective, we might conceptualize a maternal function as being receptive and containing. A paternal function might be construed as more active and directive.
Children must experience both functions and can receive them from either parent. A balance of activation and soothing, intense connection and independence is required for healthy development.
The origins of self-regulatory functions
The slow internalization of these interactive experiences prepares them to enliven and quiet themselves. Acquiring the methodology to control mind-body functions, they become capable of self-regulation. Analytic thinking considers not simply who we are today, but how we got here.
The manner in which we ultimately regulate ourselves as adults is derived from infancy and early childhood when containing and merging maternal functions are distinctly important. Despite physical separation, a neonate and its mother remain psychologically fused to insure infant survival. However, even young babies benefit from stimulating paternal functions.
Biology and oscillating gender functions
While biology dictates that only a woman can bear and nurse a child, gender functions are fluid and less concretely delineated. Individuals of either gender can and do provide maternal and paternal functions. We shift from passive to active, maternal to paternal many times during the course of the day.
Fathers nurture gently while mothers coach soccer. Male therapists provide containing functions while female therapists can activate. The parental or therapeutic intervention depends entirely upon what the patient or child needs at any given moment.
My nephew’s basketball coach is an amazing woman. Her gift is the gentle combination of passive and active functions. Parents, therapists, employers, coaches and friends shift to accommodate someone’s particular needs, increasing the degree of satisfying interpersonal resonance.
The shy child benefits from activation, while the vigorous child must learn to self-soothe and pause to reflect. There is no pure trait or function; one is not better or more important than another.
Celebrating men and fathers
While I’m not a big fan of media-created holidays, Fathers’ Day affords an opportunity to savor the importance of the paternal and masculine. This is a father’s tale, my father’s tale. I’ve written it for little boys who look to us for guidance and direction and for men who willingly and capably shelter their own children and vulnerable children they may never know.
This is for men who sponsor their employees and friends, who listen attentively even when exhausted, who care more about the environment than the car they drive. This is for men who respect women, make lunch and do dishes, who grow tomatoes and roses. This is for men who read bedtime stories and stand behind barbeques, for men who love sports and those who don’t. This is for men who facilitate the advancement of culture and civilization by exemplifying it quietly and thoughtfully.
This is for step-fathers and grandfathers and uncles and men with no biological children who recognize that we’re all responsible for those who follow behind us. We’re all parents. This column is for all of you.
My father died six years ago after a brief illness leaving us bereft and stricken. A common tale, indeed. Six years and counting. I still feel his absence palpably. When exhausted or diminished, I’m left clawing the air because I can no longer grasp his hand. And I still need it from time to time. I always will.
His capable hands pulled the lawn mower, tied shoe laces and pushed me up and down the street as I wobbled along on my new two-wheeler. Pedal on. Secure hands hoisted me onto his shoulders and carried me up the stairs to bed at night. “Lift me higher Daddy. Higher.” Good night lades…we hate to see you go.
Tender hands enclosed mine when I was sick. Elegant, educated and cultivated, my father was a generous and ethical man. He taught me how to treat people. He had a tremendous sense of humor. I am his eldest child, his only daughter. He was eloquent, and I am a writer. He was philanthropic, and I am a therapist.
Grief and loss
More terrible even than the loss of his corporeality is the disappearance of the unique configuration of consciousness that accumulated in his mind over nearly eighty years of bearing witness. I no longer have access to his personal archives.
The child of Eastern European immigrants, he grew up in a small town in the Catskills. His shared his birthday with Pearl Harbor Day. He drove a tank through the Ardennes and fought in the Battle of the Bulge as a nineteen year old. He observed the Nuremberg trials convicting Nazis war criminals, never learning who murdered members of his own family.
Afterward, like so many other veterans, he attended university, married my mother and moved from New York to California. A common tale. A heat seeking missile, he’d always wanted to live where oranges grew on trees. He was my father.
Like all men, he was complex. So traumatized was he by the Great Depression, it cast a Dickensian shadow over him until the day he died. His own father died during those bleak years, the most searing experience of his life.
Long after he’d buttressed his financial bulwarks and should have felt secure, he remained haunted by a memory of seeing the town bully weeping in the street after he’d dropped the single dime that would feed his family for the week down the grate. I can only imagine. Significant affluence never mediated fears of penury.
He’d turn off the television and lights in the den if one of us kids went to the bathroom during a commercial. Responsibility. Responsibility! He paid cash for every car he ever owned. He became the archetypal father he lost as a boy, the hero who died too soon.
The last time I saw him alive, we were seated side by side in a cozy booth at Five Crowns in Corona del Mar. The scene of numerous family celebrations over the decades, for many years, it was the only show in town. We celebrated my graduation with honors from UC Irvine in a private room upstairs. Relaxing with an aperitif in a comfortably worn wing chair flanking the fireplace is such a pleasure. Where else would we have gone?
My father knew he was dying. At his request, I’d arranged brunch for just the two of us. Ostensibly, he wanted to tell me he loved me. Our relationship had been strained for many years. A common tale, I told you. While he never actually spoke those three words, he did stir the last embers of the fading flame of his consciousness, a glow that warms me still.
Fading images, lasting memories
Sepia colored imagery transferred like holograms from his mind to mine. I received them like jewels. He’d had a dog named Fritz. While I knew many things about his childhood, I’d never known that.
I envisioned a playful boy-father romping with an energetic dog in the tall wild grass that flourished behind his house, a structure that was both home and family business. Not really the contained and manicured back yard we all recognize, it was more a slice of untamed mountainside. That tiny flame of consciousness now glows within me.
As he meandered through his life, the imagery we shared took on the color of verdant spring leaves, soft and green. Somehow, as his mind severed into discrete fragments, the result of a brain tumor with malignant tentacles that grasped and twisted, it was up to me to organize these tiny shards of living memory. I have been trying to do this for six years.
Leisurely eating his meal, and oddly, I don’t remember what he’d ordered, he told me that the day his father died was the saddest day of his life. He had been nine years old. Tears pooling in my eyes, replicas of his, splattered down my face though I struggled for composure. Middle aged, I felt at that moment like nothing more grown up than a little girl playing dress-up.
Adulthood is a parlor trick, a comforting illusion. My fingers, attenuated like his, long and tapered and perfect for the piano, could barely hold a coffee cup.
Unable to swallow, I moved lovely pink salmon, poached to perfection, around a white china plate. We were mostly quiet. I could feel the warmth of his still living body penetrating mine. Two days later I would rub his cold feet as he lay dying in a hospital. He and I both suffered with chronically cold feet. I can think of nothing worse than dying with exposed, icy toes. He died after breakfast and before lunch. He died in the middle of living, and so will we all if we’re lucky.
Oblivious to the room crowded with subdued, well-heeled diners, I followed the map-like pattern of blue veins on his hands with my eyes, looking for some sort of direction. There was only the open grave ahead. Holding a chilled Pimms cup in his left hand, or maybe it was mine, he nodded and looked around the room approvingly. “I’ll have to come back here again soon,” he commented, more to himself than to me.
We waved good-by to one another across the Coast Highway. It was a warm January day, but I shivered with chill. That was the last time I saw him alive.
The unconscious is timeless
But there’s no time in the unconscious. Everything that ever was resides there. He still pushes me in the swing. “Push me higher Daddy. Higher.” Still plays the piano and sings “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” The grass grows tall for a little dog named Fritz. I never eat peanuts without also cracking the tiny cellophane packets he always brought home from airplane trips. I am no longer sitting but standing on his shoulders. I balance others on mine. Higher. Stand higher.
The musician, Billy Joel, once responded to a child who asked what happened to people whey they died that “they go into the hearts of people who love them.” My father took care of me, and now I hold him in my heart, like a cherished objet encased in a locket. He was my portal to the greater world that existed outside my mother’s kitchen. I loved both places. I was giddy with delight when he came home from work and tossed me in the air. Higher and higher. He made the best Sunday waffles and pancakes I’ve ever eaten.
“Papa’s buried in the grass,” my young nephew said after returning from a brief excursion to the cemetery. “Can we bring him back with magic?” I wish. I see his hands when I reach to open my post office box, when I hug animals, when I take out the trash or hold a steering wheel.
None of us had perfect parents. If our relationships were good, we mourn for what we’ve lost when they die. If they weren’t, we mourn for what we never had. Most of us experienced something in between. Either way, we mourn. This is for my father. And for yours. Pedal on.
Happy Fathers’ Day.
This column originally appeared in the Orange County Register.
Contact Dr. Heller at www.mlheller.net or 714/662-7975