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. Should we have stuck it out with our first wife? But then, the other children we love so much would never have been born. Should we never have married the first time? But then our first children whom we love so much would never have been born. And we never would have missed them, never would have thought of them once, their oblivion only heartbreaking because now it’s the last thing in the world we would wish for. And what of those potential children, the children we could have yet with our wife? One more, maybe two. It’s not too late, but we don’t want to be one of those men whose sons and daughters are young enough to be their grandchildren. We don’t want to go to the parent teacher meetings and the talent shows and sit among the other parents young enough to be our children. And we don't want to die before our children really know us. To start haunting them so young seems cruel. Some of us whose parents died young already know this pain. We wouldn’t admit this to our wives, but there are times when we can imagine ourselves the man in the restaurant sitting across from the woman young enough to be our daughter, but who isn’t. Our wives are not stupid. They know this full well, though there’s a tacit agreement that our glances should be brief and circumspect. It’s not all about sex, about the biological imperative. Yes, we want more babies. There are more babies to be born, ever more babies, and some of them could still be ours. They’re lurking in the wings. We know their potential and they, we suspect, know ours. Maybe we have always wanted a girl. Or a boy. They’re remarkable, these invisible children. We care nothing for them now, but give us a good year, and we won’t be able to live our lives without them. We will hardly be able to imagine a time before they were born, hardly able to bear the thought of their deaths.
But there are times we have resented them. Times when they were for Raymond Carver “a heavy and baleful presence.” That’s too strong, too harsh. Never baleful. He didn’t feel that way, not really. He loved his two children and never should have committed those words to paper. But male writers who are also fathers, when they’re feeling self-pity, that no one loves them enough, are bound to lash out, themselves heavy and baleful presences upon the world. And then they drink or smoke or practice baby-making. Was there anything ever more self-defeating if what we wanted, after all, was affection?
These children wanted nothing but our affection and our affection was always split between them and our other children, the incorporeal ones, the ones who made us cruel, who made William Faulkner tell his daughter Jill, “No one remembers Shakespeare’s children.” It’s a commonplace to say that no one on their deathbed ever wished they’d spent more time at work. But men on their deathbeds have regretted what was still locked away inside them, what they suspected still lurked in the wings. The poet Lucan died reciting his own verses, as Montaigne has it: “a tender and paternal leave of his children, in imitation of the valedictions and embraces, wherewith we part from ours, when we come to die.” If his corporeal children were with him at the time, Lucan might well have preferred to embrace them. But these other children he could summon to his side in his need, and they would fly to him. Our embodied children we cannot be so sure of, as King Lear learned too late.
We don’t remember Lucan’s daughter, alas, if he had one, but we honor Faulkner’s poor daughter, who only wanted him to stop drinking, who only wanted a radio by her bed, and Faulkner wouldn’t allow her even that, because this would distract him from the children he wanted to survive. We do remember Carver’s children, who forgave him for what he wrote in a fit of bitterness. We do remember Montaigne’s daughter, Leonora, whom he wrote about so lovingly, and how could he not when all his other four daughters “died at nurse.” No wonder he and his wife could never raise a hand against her, could not bear to correct her until she had reached upwards of five years of age, and “then words only, and those very gentle.” Another reason to love Montaigne, such a good father—this is what loss will do—who never spanked Leonora because he knew that a child’s fear is not a good substitute for a child’s love and respect.
Our children don’t simply spring from our biological yearnings or our pens, but from our wills, our obligations, and our losses, and to these last we sometimes show the most kindness. When Faulkner’s brother died in a plane crash, he adopted his brother’s daughter and gave her away at her wedding. In the last five years of Montaigne’s life, he adopted a young woman who felt that in his essays she had at last found a kindred spirit. She had lost her own father at a young age, and Montaigne filled this long-vacant role, their relationship as father and daughter one of the most important of his life, that Leonora, though she had every right to resent, apparently didn’t. She and Marie le Jars de Gournay became as sisters, though this new daughter was old enough to be Montaigne’s mistress and apparently was not. Perhaps her acceptance of this new fully-formed sibling stemmed from her own father’s kindness towards her and trust in him, a gift repaid.
Rene Descartes’ daughter Francine died at the age of five of Scarlet Fever, but many years later, when he was summoned by the Queen of Sweden to tutor her, he took passage on a ship and claimed, so the story goes, that he was traveling in the company of his daughter, Francine. The sailors had never seen Francine, and one day they decided to search for her. They found his quarters empty, but on their way out they opened a chest – inside was a girl, or something like a girl. A mechanical doll that moved. The captain, fearing black magic, ordered the doll thrown overboard. And so Francine died a second death and Descartes followed not long after of pneumonia. Whether the story is true can only be the subject of speculation now, but it’s been told many times since his death. When it comes to our children, even the father of reason, it seems, was as helpless as the rest of us poor fathers.
This is what we want to say to our children. This is what we must say, the fathers of two kinds of children: to the ones who we should have loved better, or who were taken away too soon by accidents we couldn’t have foreseen. We love you. We love you dearly. We are so thankful you have walked with us upon this earth. But we cannot always be with you. We cannot even always be with ourselves.
I often tell my students that the thing they are most afraid of writing is often what they should be writing, and it was this way for me with this assignment. This year is a particularly difficult one for me because I have moved to Singapore for a new job, while my family remains in Iowa for the year. So, for the most part, I’m alone in a way that daily phone conversations do not fill.
When I started writing this essay, it was inevitable that my melancholy over being separated from my four daughters would be a large part of it. Still, I didn’t want the essay to be a whiny exploration of my own situation, so I opted to take on the voice of all absent fathers, especially those who are writers. Montaigne’s original essay speaks directly to the notion of a writer’s work as his children, and so it seemed natural for me to go this route, too, though somewhat differently. Montaigne chooses in his essay to elucidate and justify the ways in which writers consider and perhaps prefer their imagined children to their real ones. I decided to look at this from a slightly different angle.
Several years ago, Stuart Dybek mentioned Carver’s famous essay “Fires,” and suggested Carver never should have written it. In the biography of Carver by Carol Sklenicka, she too wonders why Carver chooses to write such a resentful essay just when his career is coming together for him. His children, it seems, forgive him for what he wrote, and Sklenicka, too, tries to understand it in a much larger context of Carver’s obvious love for his kids. Faulkner, too, was a complex writer dad, and I’ve long been fascinated with the cruel statement he made to his daughter, Jill. There’s no doubt he was a bit of a bastard. He once remodeled his home while his wife and daughter were away to give him more privacy, and when he wife returned she was so angry she wanted to divorce him. But he was kind, too, to his late brother’s daughter, and hopefully kinder to Jill and his wife at times than the above anecdote makes out. Finally, I’m fascinated by the story of Descartes’ daughter. It’s such an odd story, and it’s impossible, I think, to know whether there’s truth to it, but it encapsulates so much of what being a father means to me, to carry the loss or potential loss of our children with us at all times.