Our impermanent age features many broken families. Mine was one of them. My parents divorced when I was ten years old. My mom raised my sister and I, while my father followed a path that led him away from us. He departed with a slightly below average level of rancor, and then faded slowly from our lives, until he became an occasional correspondent and a distant memory.
We most often talked about the stars. He wanted me to help him figure out how the universe began, what it was doing right now, and how it might end. My happiest memories from childhood were of spending nights as far away from city lights as we could get, using a telescope to watch embers from the primal fire of creation fall into the icy darkness beyond the edge of everything.
After my father moved away, I had to settle for the odd newspaper clipping of some exciting new development in astronomy, accompanied by a few pages of hastily scribbled notes and half-baked theories. Even at a young age, I knew these thoughts were not meant to arrive in envelopes with distant postmarks. Fathers and sons were meant to confront eternity together.
I became a keen student of the family, using both reason and imagination to measure the empty space where my father had been. I knew something was missing. Even as my mother worked miracles to take care of the family, and give us a shot at college, I understood there were things she could not be to us, things she could not say. Take it from someone who has weighed the value of a father, down to a fraction of an ounce: they are essential.
In order for our society to grow, we need a lot of families having three or more children. There aren’t many alternative lifestyles that can handle that. It takes incredible sacrifices, combined with an unflagging attention to the duty of child-raising. The burden of those sacrifices is easier for a man and woman to bear together.
The future is woven from the sons and daughters of many different families finding each other, and treating each other well. The love inscribed on a wedding band is the kind of love that reaches across the horizon into tomorrow. Our stunning technology has found no way to synthesize it. It is a bond that doesn’t always fare well in clinical discussions of marriage, because every loving couple understands that it’s difficult to capture in words… except for the words they share only with each other.
It’s very hard to remain strong and self-reliant, in a world that often seems predatory and unfair. Men and women working together can do it more readily than either of them could alone. Together they have better chance of building a home that does not know desperation. This is a man’s duty to his wife and children. A good father is the tireless enemy of desolation.
Virtually all social pathologies stretch back to broken families. Correct for single-parent households, and the difference between ethnic groups all but vanishes. This is not to denigrate single-parent families – on the contrary, those who manage to avoid these pathologies deserve high praise, when we consider the magnitude of what they have lost. I am the proud son of a single-parent family that beat the odds. After watching my mother’s lonely struggle, I wouldn’t wish those odds on any woman, or any man.
A father’s gift to his family is the stubborn refusal to believe his children will be trapped in a smaller world. They reject visions of a bankrupt future and inevitable decline. They want better for their kids, hungry for the unique joy of watching their sons and daughters surpass them. It is a very fine thing to learn you were the source of such joy.
To its great cost, our culture spent many years dominated by a feminist ideology that insisted fathers were disposable. Watch any man hunting for dinosaur bones with his son, or tossing him a baseball, or showing him the rings of Saturn through the lens of a telescope, and tell me you aren’t looking at a treasure beyond price. Watch any man place his daughter on Santa’s lap, or warn off the monsters beneath her bed, or tell her first boyfriend what is expected of him, and tell me her life would be better without him. When men fail to meet the responsibilities of fatherhood, the fault lies with them, not the thousand generations of good fathers before them, who helped their children grow into gifts they were proud to present to the human race.
Speak to the world with the voice of your father and mother, and you will be heard. Act in their names, and you will be honored. Take the world they give you and make it greater, and you will be revered. Remember that they walk beside you, long after they can no longer press footprints into the earth. Your duty is to bring their honor out of memory, and carry it across history. Conduct yourself in the certain knowledge that you are someone’s treasure and hope, the incarnation of a promise that was meant to last forever.
I write this in memory of my father, William Hayward, who passed away last Friday, thirty-five years after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given six months to live.