There are some experiences on which you can only speculate. With what certainty, for example, could I say how my life would be different if I had gone to the U of M rather than Northwestern? It is obvious that all my friends would be different, I likely would have picked a different major and developed different hobbies (cooking, Frisbee, and table tennis all came from people I got to know at Northwestern). But would my life have been better? Worse? Or would I just be a different version of myself in an unremarkably similar place in life, reflecting on the same choices?
I have said before that I never knew my father. But that has never stopped me from imagining what my life would have been. I picture myself growing up in a Pensacola trailer park, using the littered remnants of crumpled cans of Coors as some kind of hillbilly slalom. I see myself acclimating to a lifestyle that embraced both drunkenness and casual drug use, with little or no concern for the value of marriage or purity. Perhaps my first car would actually have been a motorcycle. It’s impossible to say, but that’s the picture that emerges in my mind.
I doubt I would have grown up in an environment as nurturing as the one I did: a grandma that taught me to read by the time I was three; a grandpa that was stern but modeled self-discipline, generosity, and consistency; an affectionate step-father just in time for me to become a teenager. I probably would have had none of that. And the cultural values of arts, education, and social responsibility that are endemic to the Minnesota zeitgeist…. Would they have been alien to me in the Florida panhandle?
There are some things I feel somewhat more certain about. I have noticed that people with involved fathers have an easier time than I when it comes to meeting and interacting with people. That could be just a coincidence or a projection. And I don’t think most people who meet me would think I lack those interpersonal skills: I’m perfectly confident and competent in my ability to connect with people, and now having reflected for a few moments I find myself surprised at just how many times I’ve had total strangers enthralled by what I’m sharing with them. But the important piece of this relational puzzle is it feels so unnatural – practiced or rehearsed – while the children of involved fathers seem so much more natural about it.
Another thing that makes me nervous is the fact that I didn’t have an immediate model for a healthy marriage. It has left me feeling like I lack some of the skills I’ll need to be a good husband. Or that I lack a feel for it, I guess? Like someone who has read about baseball and overheard conversations about the sport but has never seen the game. The image in my head of how it’s supposed to work seems like it must be incomplete by definition. Of course, I’ve filled in some of the gaps over time. And when I’ve expressed this concern to people who know me, they’ve been reassuring. My friend Carica told me she feels like I was born to be a husband and father, like I’ve been especially equipped for the role. I hope she’s right, but in the meantime I feel like I’m approaching finals week and skipped two months of class.
I’ve never had to learn the harsh lesson that my father was imperfect, that he wasn’t a hero, that he probably isn’t stronger than your father. I didn’t grow up and lose a hero, as some people did. That’s an important thing for the fatherless to remember: It’s all too easy to insert the image of a perfect man as a placeholder for what we lost. But in reality, it would have just been a flawed, selfish human being who had a series of small moral choices to make. Since he failed a basic one – one of the simplest test of manliness, actually – and abandoned us, I don’t feel like it was any great loss for me. But still…. I wonder.