Mind On The Run: “Fatherhood, Sonhood, and Other Incurable Conditions”

By Anthony Kovatch, M.D., Pediatric Alliance — Arcadia



(Musical accompaniment: “Little Green” by Joni Mitchell — a ballad about a father who bailed out.)


“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forward”

–Soren Kierkegard, Danish philosopher and father of Existentialism (another incurable condition of mankind).



Lucky is the man who is father to all girls. He is free from the chains of subconscious role-modeling until his final day. No ambivalence about appropriate displays of love and affection. No bonds that can be fractured through failure to live up to expectations and reciprocations. Better to have a daughter who provides the love of many grandsons, where everything is unconditional and the emotional transactions are more like that of greeting cards, and everything is understood forward.

One, like my father (fondly called “Rocky” by his friends), was not so lucky. Born late in the reproductive lives of Hungarian immigrants, this short, humble, all-giving man grew up fatherless as his “old man” suffered brain damage from “too many years of working deep in the coal mines of northeastern Pennsylvania.” Therefore, he fathered his two sons by the seat of his pants without references.

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The buses that night in 1955 were too crowded and many folks were forced to either forego watching the Fourth of July fireworks or view them from a distance from the rooftops of their dilapidating apartment buildings in old Passaic, NJ. After the toddler brother was put to bed, the man, Rocky, either by design or by fortuitous discovery, escorted his four-year-old son through a secret passageway to the roof where they enjoyed the fireworks, isolated from the rest of humanity; not even “mommy” was aware of their absence.

Rocky held his son in his arms on the parapet of the dusty roof and not one exploding firework muted the steadiness of his smile. The young boy would later understand backward that in that silence (only broken by the far-off blasts) love would never run deeper, and that never again would everything be so right with the world.

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Sociologists and psychologists pose the question: Do our children lead better lives than we, their parents, did as children? Or as any of their ancestors did as children? Of course, our children suffer less fear of serious medical illnesses and enjoy the comforts afforded by technology. But do their parents love them more than our parents loved us? Can anybody truly define concepts such love, happiness, fear, quality of life? I cannot.

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If he had not been a young teenager, the insult would not have been so searing. His younger brother had offered him a religious article, a set of rosary beads, as a birthday present. Thinking that religiosity was beneath the “coolness” of a teenager, he refused the gift. When apprised of the incident that evening, the weary, preoccupied father fiercely slapped the cool teenager across the face and barked like a pit bull: “I never thought any son of mine would refuse a gift from his brother.” The crestfallen boy cried it off and the affront was soon forgotten by father and son. There were more important considerations: Mommy was dying.

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Is it not preferable in the grand scheme of things to cure the father-son dilemma by “skipping a generation?” To be blessed only with grandsons or great-grandsons? This will eliminate the conundrum which arises when the timeless question (first posed by Cain and Abel) is directly or tacitly addressed to the unsuspecting patriarch: Who is your favorite?
I was bailed out in this matter by the wisdom of my father-in-law — father to 12 children, 8 of them boys. The response was simple but achieved a temporary cure — or at least took the heat out of a potentially hot kitchen: You are ONE of my favorites. However, by the time my own sons had passed home economics and psychology in high school, the ambiguity of this response made it nothing more than a diversion.

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“All graduates, stand up, turn around, and give an ovation to the persons who got you here today — your parents!” remarked the high school principal. I went through the motions but knew that I was faking it. Only my father and brother were there, and my heart was heavy from incomplete grieving. My depression deepened as we interrupted the long, lonely ride home to “pick up something at a restaurant.”

Yes, they all were there waiting for me. Every bloody relative he could convince to come from within a 500 mile radius. It felt to me that more folks were at the party than were enclosed in the entire auditorium one hour before. To this day I cannot imagine how he pulled it off. I was “King” for a day, or at least for one evening. It was June 19, 1969 and the inscription on the underside of the gifted watch read: “Love, Mommy and Daddy.”

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All of which goes to disprove the popular modern-day hypothesis that dad has to be the “fun parent.” I think my father knew that parents are virtually inseparable and that mommy is always the favorite. I think a father’s sacred obligation is to illustrate to sons and daughters the beauty of life on earth and how to navigate its changing tides for better or worse, as he had previously promised to their mother. Sons, in particular, must sit on the shoulders of the giant, and try to understand life forward in all its idiocy and profundity, sorting through the illusions.



Tears and fears and feeling proud
To say “I love you” right out loud
Dreams and schemes and circus crowds
I’ve looked at life that way
But now old friends are acting strange
They shake their heads, they say I’ve changed
Well something’s lost, but something’s gained
In living every day
I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all.

— from “Both Sides, Now” by Joni Mitchell.


Happy Father’s Day to All!


(Pictures courtesy of Bonne Kovatch Martin and Travis Martin, the “skipped generation.”)