Of the Affection of Fathers for Their Children

To this, such as it is, what I give it I give absolutely and irrevocably, as men do to their bodily children.
MONTAIGNE, “OF THE AFFECTION OF FATHERS FOR THEIR CHILDREN”

Our children haunt us until we die, and then it is our turn to haunt them. When people are troubled, we say they have “demons,” but they’re not demons, only the ordinary sadness and regret that makes life so melancholy if we survive past the age of forty or so. Anyone who doesn’t have regrets is most likely lying or himself a demon. We don’t always feel the same about our pasts—sometimes a simple memory or an old photograph of our children, the eldest at five, dressed as Little Red Riding Hood, the other at three, dressed as the Big Bad Wolf, facing us from a distance of nearly twenty years, gives us simple joy. Other times, we contemplate what it means to see them now after so long, though they can’t see us. Unlike in a stranger’s photograph, we have all the context we need, too much context, which floods upon us and threatens to tear us from our fragile mooring in the present. Was this taken before or after the divorce? We wish we could reach inside and bring them to us just once more as children. Costumed now in adulthood, they can’t be carried around the way they once were. We can’t swing them through our legs. We can barely sit with them in a restaurant without someone thinking or us believing that someone thinks we’re cradle robbers, the kind of man so afraid of his own mortality that he has to be with women young enough to be his daughter, but not. Some of us are that kind of man, or partly that man—afraid, yes, but please, we’re with our daughters, not our girlfriends. And we want to hear everything about their lives, to still be included, in some way a part of them, and that’s why we lean forward, barely touch our food, find their most banal comment utterly fascinating. Perhaps we’re not even really listening to them, but looking for a glimpse of Red Riding Hood or the Big Bad Wolf. Who are these people seated across from us? Please, if you’re holding our child, if you’ve devoured her whole, can you tell us at least if she’s okay, if she’s being well treated, if there’s anything we can do for her to make this captivity more tolerable?

Some of us have married more than once, and this creates a kind of unthinkable dilemma….

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