That Whole Father and Son Thing

The 'This American Life' episode where the young boy sends his absent father half-filled cassette tapes with the hope that his dad will listen to the tapes and respond by filling the blank side with a message, just for his son.

Yeah, it's a devastating episode (listen here, if you dare: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/289/go-ask-your-father) and the adult son gets to confront his dad--on air--about why his dad never bothered to respond. The dad founders and makes some excuse about how the tapes--the naked earnest need of his own child--wrecked him and somehow made him unable to respond. 

Ira Glass asks the son if there is any sense of closure now that he got his father's answer, and the son says something to the effect of: not really. The man to whom the son was sending the tapes is gone and has been replaced by this much older, much different man.  

I had the opportunity to spend time with my own father this past weekend at my sister's wedding. The TAL episode kept coming back to me. Like so many of my closest friends, like my wife, and like so many of my peers (we Generation X-ers), my dad split when I was young.

I was six.

My dad wasn't completely removed; my sister and I saw him three or four times a year. But he certainly wasn't present in my day-to-day life. He was a persistent, chafing absence. I so envied the other kids whose fathers were simply there. There's no secret that kids believe that the departure of their fathers from their lives is their own doing, and there's no mystery that we carry that rejection (someone can one day just decide to leave) with us the rest of our days. This knowledge infects every relationship we have, and while as a plus it can make us more self-reliant and accepting of the fact that life is change, on the downside it can torpedo our confidence and make us feel abandoned. Unworthy. 

Like the son in the TAL story, the man who left, the man whom I missed, is not just absent, he's been replaced by someone else. No matter how much relationship triage we perform now, the two people who most need the fix--the shredded child, the fleeing and guilt-ridden father--can never reach anything like resolution or peace because those two people are in some other time and some other space.

The one calling, the other running.