When Mr. Alex asked me to contribute to the Bookshelf for Father’s Day, as the old guy looking back on raising three sons, I thought I’d offer some reminiscence about about my kids’ eccentricities. I imagined I’d gently make the point that our kids need to be their own true selves, not our reflections, no matter how attractive we may find the mirror. But the past few days have sent me to a much darker place. Watching other men’s sons murdered on television on seemingly endless repeat, and hearing stories of my own oldest son’s friends being brutalized for their participation in the demonstrations in Philly, forced to the surface the ineluctable fact of fatherhood-the terror we feel contemplating our children’s freedom. Our impotence, in the end, to protect them.
Young parents, please know this. No matter how you hover, no matter how meticulously you instruct, how diligently you supervise–your child’s chance to grow up, reach his or her potential and live to a ripe old age will depend over and again on the kindness and sometimes just the rationality of strangers. Allow yourself to know it or not, your kids will take chances, some calculated, most thoughtless and dumb, many the unavoidable consequence of simply living even the most cautious life. And believe me, you don’t really want your child to live the most cautious life (though Fatherhood will have you praying sometimes that they did.)
I say “young parents” as if I address an abstraction, but as Father’s Day approaches my youngest son and his wife are expecting our first grandchild. The anxious cycle begins again in my own family. Stairways will be gated. Outlets filled with plastic plugs. Sharp corners padded. Monitors strategically placed. Locks checked and rechecked. Knowing my son and daughter in law, all this and more will be done with exceptional care, better than I did, better even than my hyper competent wife. But sooner or later the little one will escape this cocoon. What then?
My oldest son and his friends were parked as teens and accosted by a policeman. “Roll down the window…I smell marijuana? Have you all been smoking?” They came clean, of course. I’d neglected to instruct on the invocation of the Fifth and provide them lawyer’s business cards. The officer and the system were gentle. And again it happened with my middle son, at college in Boston. This time I flew to attend his hearing before a notoriously tough magistrate, all suited with an overqualified criminal lawyer by my side. A stern talking to and a nod to me, “I’m only letting you go because I sympathize with your poor father who took off work to be here with you.” It did not have to go so well either time. I feel both gratitude and sadness.
Oh, yes. My darling middle son. On the day after he received his driver’s license and we allowed him to claim the privilege of driving to school, he decided to revel in his freedom and cut school to drive to lunch at MacDonalds. An inexperienced driver, exiting the fast food parking lot into the flow of traffic on a busy artery, his car (my car) was smashed on its left front fender, the axel bent, but my son unharmed. Good fortune, the police and the other driver let him live. I’ll be forever grateful for all that.
But we know these encounters don’t always go so well. A few days back a friend of my oldest son, now 35, who I’ve known since he and my son formed a band, What to do with the Children?, in middle school, attended a demonstration in Philly’s Fishtown. He’s a producer for WHYY, though he was at the demonstration as a participant, not on assignment; he took it upon himself to film violence being committed by local “men,” purportedly present to protect the police. Those same “men” saw him and beat him mercilessly while the police watched and did nothing. Thanks to his footage and other documentation, the conduct of the police that day became a scandal, though not nearly the most notorious of the past weeks. The violence, the neglect by the police, these were bad enough, but with press exposure came the haters, and now he wonders if he’s being hunted for his role in exposing what occurred.
Days later another dear friend of my son, a young woman stand up comic with nothing martial about her protested peacefully at a monument to Christopher Columbus in South Philly. Old guy that I am, had anyone asked, I’d have counseled restraint. Right or wrong, Chris is a symbol of Italian pride in South Philly and Italian communities around the country. But this generation has lost patience with the glorification of oppressors, and Columbus was certainly that. This time a counter-demonstration was “guarding” the monument, some with weapons. My son’s friend described the encounter as follows on Facebook:
One of the men shoved my left breast, bent my fingers back so I would let go of my sign, crumbled the top of my sign and tried to rip it up, and tore the bottom sign from my hands. A man next to him was shaking a baseball bat, and said, “You won’t make it home tonight, cunt.”
All of this happened with a barricade of of officers standing 4 feet in front of me watching. They [the officers] swarmed me after the assault had taken place in front of them, and said I had to press charges for them to arrest the man who shoved me. They refused to bother with the man with the baseball bat who threatened me….Subsequently, I saw these south philly vigilantes literally punch people who disagreed with them in the face, shove them to the ground, and threaten to kill them. [P]eople who did not look like me. The police did nothing.
Next time when you encounter a stranger, young or middle aged, congenial or not, remember that somewhere, if their Father lives, he likely lives in fear. He fears with all the reason in the world every ill and fraught encounter he cannot protect his child from. If you are Father, old or new, you are now a member of the scared shitless Brotherhood of Fathers. I enjoin you. Do what you can to protect that other man’s child, deserving or not. Somewhere a Father will thank you.
Marc I. Machiz–Contributor
Marc spent his career as an advocate for participants in employee benefit plans, primarily by practicing law. He has three sons with his wife Jean, of 37 years and they are looking forward to welcoming their first grandchild. In semi-retirement, Marc plays tennis, advocates for immigrant rights and has founded a mediation and expert witness business, Justician Mediation, LLC.
You can find more on parenting here.
*The views expressed in contributor posts are those of the contributor and do not necessarily represent those of Mr. Alex’s Bookshelf.