Jewish World Review August 9, 2001 / 20 Menachem-Av, 5761
So, what does John E. Tobin Sr., the father of this wrongfully punished young man, have to say? In a news conference in Moscow this week, he said that, in a way, his son had "had a marvelous experience. . . . He's gotten to see Russia from the inside."
When I read Tobin's father's words, I could hear my own father. My father, Tom Kelly, is 78, and he has four grown children, and they have had their ups and downs. And over all the years, for every up, my father has been there to say how splendid (and how deserved) was this particular up; and for every down, he has been there to say how splendid (though not at all deserved) was this particular down.
An insane love, a failed grade, a lost job -- there is nothing that befalls one of his children in which my father is not able to find "a marvelous experience." This is not to say that he is irresponsible. If you (assuming you were one of his children) were to tell him that you had always felt yourself to be a duck trapped in the body of a human, and that you were determined to rectify the situation through trans-species surgery, he would argue (gently) against the idea. What about your mother's feelings? he might say. And what about duck season, what about duck à l'orange?
But he would not say that no Kelly had ever been a duck and by God none was ever going to be one, or that he had not fought the Nazis and worked two jobs for 10 years to send you to college to have you spend the rest of your life sitting around on your tail bobbing for duckweed.
And if you went ahead and had yourself duckified anyway? Oh, he would proclaim it through the neighborhood: What a wonderful, what a brilliant, what a brave and clever and good thing this was to do -- and what a duck you were! Was there ever such a duck?
What you might call the duck, or the Tobin, response is not peculiar to a few men, and it is not, despite all appearances, irrational. It is the necessary reaction to the quality by which most men define what it is, in the long run, to be a good husband and a good father. For what by now amounts to most of his life, my father has thought of himself, and judged himself a success or failure, in primarily these terms. And in these terms, at a minimum, what a good father is supposed to do for the people he loves is fix whatever goes wrong with them.
But life presents much -- wars, famines, depressions, sicknesses, broken hearts and broken lives -- that is beyond fixing. So, the good father endures by denying. This, admittedly, can be annoying, especially to women, who generally regard as a mysterious lunacy the male view that a problem expressed is a problem that must be addressed. My mother has often marveled, with exasperation, that it is impossible to engage my father in a simple complaint about the weather. If he admitted that 99 in the shade was intolerable, or that four days of rain was enough, then he would have to fix it, for the sake of the children. And, in fact (although this has never been acknowledged in my family), my father has no control whatever over the forces of nature.
Yet there is something to be said for the compulsions of the fathers. Men, as has been frequently noted, have their failings. The urge to make things right is their counter-failing, their allegory to women's urge to nurture. The male urge is of course ridiculous. Who can fix the world, even for one child? But its ridiculousness makes it great. In every life, there should be someone who believes that whatever goes wrong must be fixed, and if not fixed, must at least be made to go away.
So, happily, it was for me. In the house where I was lucky enough to grow, the weather was always balmy, rain or shine. And life was always good, good or bad, and the children were always successes, succeed or fail. And the experiences were always