By Daniel Brownstein
On my father’s bulletin board, hangs a note written to him from his father. My dad, often brimming with sentiment, had penned his dad a letter on Father’s Day 1986, thanking him for being such a wonderful role model and for raising him the way he did. That sparked a return note about how proud of him my grandfather was.
My grandfather grew up the poorest kid in town after his father — an immigrant from Romania — died of tuberculosis when he was just five. He scratched his way into the middle class after joining the Army Air Corps as an airplane mechanic. His boss was so impressed with his work ethic that he took him along to NASA.
He and my grandmother put both of their boys through college and set up a scholarship to help pay for their six grandchildren to get the education they had valued so much, but couldn’t afford to obtain when they graduated from high school.
My dad has a knack for figuring out how things work, whether it was an airplane part in his first career as an aeronautical engineer, or a computer (his second career) or the human body (his third career).
Twenty-five years after that note was written, my father spends a considerable amount of time caring for his father, who at age 91 is as sharp mentally as he ever has been, but has faltering vision. He does it to honor the man who put him on a trajectory to have such a great life, and to spend as much of his remaining years with the man he so admires.
I could fill this column with funny stories about my dad: him sliding down a ravine to “save” my friends and me during a camping trip; breaking his ankle while showboating on the basketball court; cursing up a storm while trying to fix something (anything) around the house.
I could also fill this column with times when he patiently helped me with something, when the two of us had a blast, seemingly-mundane occasions that are memorable like meeting for lunch once a week throughout college and my early working life or the times I’d like to forget, the instances when I let him down or said something out of teenage rebellion that I now regret.
While all of those things are aspects of being a father, they aren’t the essence of being a father. These days, I hope I have the best of my father and his father inside me.
In January, my wife gave birth to our first child, a son, something I have felt woefully unprepared for. There are no books for how to be a good father, although I am sure you could find more than a few in a bookstore. And the hospital doesn’t send you home with an instruction manual. If they did, most fathers wouldn’t read it anyway.
For the past six months, I have fumbled my way into competency in a variety of skills any dad of an infant should possess: changing his diapers, holding him, feeding him, calming him, coping with a sleep-deprived wife when you too are so tired that you’re not sure you can take another day of this.
I realize these sort of skills will only get me so far, like until the point he can ask a question, encounters a schoolyard bully, suffers loss, discovers lust and love, rebels against everything I’ve taught him, tries to figure out what to do with his life and becomes a dad himself. These things require other, more advanced skills like being a role model and dispensing fatherly wisdom.
It is this less tangible aspect of fatherhood I still haven’t mastered. I struggle to make a good enough impression on a little person that I only see first thing in the morning and when he goes to sleep because I spend all day working and all night studying to become someone or something better than I currently am.
No one teaches you the obligations of fatherhood, and that is perhaps why many people run from it, with disastrous consequences. It is hard, but not thankless. In fact, it is just the opposite. I am thanked every time my son smiles at me when I lift him from the crib or when I crack him up with a silly face or when he enthusiastically watches me do something that would be terribly uninteresting to anyone else.
Like my father, his father and my grandfather’s father — the man who came to a new country for the prospects of something better — my child will be my greatest legacy. For him, I seek to be the best man I can be, so that he may someday be greater.
That is the essence of being a good father.