Among the many good fortunes of my life, I count the fact that while some men didn’t have even one good father, I was blessed with two: my father, the original Hugh O’Neill, who died too young more than 20 years ago, and my father-in-law, Lee Friedman, who passed away in 2007 after enriching Philadelphia for nigh unto 90 years. These two singular men came at fatherhood from poles apart. And so, standing by their shoulders as boy and man, I received a tutorial on the double helix at the heart of being Dad.
My great-spirited father, the patriarch of our rollicking Irish-American clan, was, to be sure, skilled at anger. And he was a certifiable genius with the ominous paternal silence. But more important, he was also gifted with joy, possessed of a vitality that was somehow elementally male, deriving as it did from his gratitude for a strong back, a good mind, and a powerful will. I recall one Whitman-like riff on the glories of the opposable thumb. “A fella can grab a lot with this baby,” he said, flexing his thumb like a TV pitchman hawking a miracle gadget. And grab my father did. With the sweetheart of his youth, he wrote a family romance–a sweet saga of seven children and seven million laughs, of poetry and dogs and summer and medicine and mending walls, of baseball and algebra and cookies. Above all, there were cookies. His life didn’t just happen to him. He carved it from his passions and hopes.
He was an enthusiast, but no Pollyanna. My father was a soldier and a surgeon whose brio had been around the block a few times, aged in the barrel of fatal wounds and family illness. He wasn’t buoyant because he didn’t know the harsh truths, but because they didn’t get the last word. He had a zest for the whole of life–the joy and the heartache, the sugar and the salt–and a kind of readiness for all of it. After all, a man didn’t flinch. My father shared his gusto and left us with a sense of our own agency, a belief that we were not only qualified to be the authors of our lives but also required to be by our blessings. My father took up a lot of oxygen in the room, but that’s of little moment. It was inspiring and exciting to be his boy. To this day, whenever I think of him, I can feel the wind on my face.
At first look, my father-in-law seemed like a smaller figure, but he wasn’t. Just a subtler one. A chemical engineer and professor without portfolio, he was, to my mind, the world’s leading expert on fossil fuels, military strategy, geopolitics, and loving his wife and kids. Part technophile, part sprite, he owned and operated both a keen analytical mind and a gossamer wit. And here’s the trait that made him, I think, unique in our gender: Lee Friedman was the only man I’ve ever known who subdued the anger that is, God help us, encoded in the Y chromosome. Unlike my father, Lee wasn’t in dubious battle with the world; instead, he was chatting with it. His wisdom was rabbinical.
He questioned and probed, seeking symmetries and delights and pointing us to what he had found. He didn’t need the spotlight. He was that rarest of men, a master of himself–modest, competent, generous, gentle. He burbled like a river, irrigating our lives with a kindness and mirth that were indistinguishable from heroism. Whenever I think of him, I feel safe in harbor.
If the sketches of these men suggest that my father lacked gentleness or my father-in-law lacked strength, I haven’t done either man justice. I remember a wicker basket in our living room that each Christmas season would slowly fill up with cards from my father’s patients, testimonials to his loving heart, many of which hinted that his healing was as much pastoral as medical. He used to say that most people were less sick than they were discouraged, and all he had to do to make them feel better was point them to their achievements–most often, their flourishing kids. And for all you need to know about my father-in-law’s strength, consider this résumé: He helped save Western civilization on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944, prevailed in the roughhouse of corporate life, was his wife’s rock for 57 years, and for the last five years, endured the brutal frailties of old age with surpassing grace. No, both of my fathers had the whole arsenal of male desiderata. They just wrote their Dad symphonies in different major keys. My father was a flourish of trumpets. My father-in-law was the rhythm section that made the whole song possible.
At my father’s funeral, a woman with whom he had worked told me that whenever she spoke to him, even for a passing moment, she felt better about, well, everything. “I thought that if there was a man like that in the world, maybe things would work out after all,” she said. I got the same feeling whenever I saw my father-in-law. Worries faded and the air tasted sweeter.
The two men barely knew each other–they met in passing at my wedding–but their legends crossed in me. Though my father wasn’t much for advice, he offered one pearl just before I got married: “Never let your father-in-law see you lying down,” went his wisdom. Sloth was the enemy, you see. No father needed to see the man to whom his daughter has plighted her troth sacked out on the couch, watching the game. It sounded right, and God knows I didn’t want Lee to know the slacker truth about me. So for a few years, whenever I was at the Friedmans’ house, sacked out on the couch, watching the game, I’d jump up if I heard someone coming and act as if I was just on my way to the hardware store to get some caulk to fix the shower. But slowly it dawned on me that Lee was a different kind of father. He would sit and watch the game with you. For him, I didn’t have to prove my worthiness; I was prequalified because his daughter loved me. He wasn’t passing judgment, just honoring his daughter’s. He wasn’t the center of the universe, you were.
There were a million differences in temperament between the two men, but they shared two chivalric traits. First, I never heard either of them complain. Not once, not through the toughest times. Either suck it up or fix the problem. And second, they did what men do best, which is put themselves at the service of women and children. End of story. Period. I said end of story, pal. Not long ago, I visited my father-in-law in the hospital. He was immobilized in a wheelchair and could barely speak, and yet his first words were somehow crystal clear: “Hey, kid, how ya doing?”
If you can resemble either of these guys at all, go forth and polish up the world, my brother. Don’t try to be both of them. After all, you’re just a man, freighted with the weakness to which flesh is heir. But remember the challenging puzzle at the heart of paternity and the only thing I know for dead-solid-sure about being a dad: Sometimes kids need a man who’s big, who can fill their sails with his hope and his joy, who can entrain them with his taste for life. Kids need a sense that the world is open to them, that they’re worthy of it all and, most especially, of receiving big love. But just as often, kids need a man with the courage to be small, who will defer to their ways and respect their strategies, who will be quiet and calm and just there as they find their footing and gingerly work their way toward their destiny. It’s tough to know when to break out your inner O’Neill and when to feature the Friedman within, but consider this guiding idea:
When it feels as if your child needs the exuberance of a man in full, challenge the thought with the opposite possibility, that he needs the serenity of a man in quiet command. And vice versa. Your heart will find the sweet balance of being Dad.