Can I be a good husband and father if my own dad wasn’t?

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I watch with alarm as flurries drift from the sky on a late spring day in upstate New York. My fiancée, who went to college here, brushes it off. This is the real upstate, not the everything-above-the-Bronx definition used by those, like me, who grew up in the five boroughs. I worry that if the weather is this cold in May, come October, when we are due to be married here, it could be even worse. It can snow at almost any time, my fiancée confirms.

By coincidence, we are visiting on Pentecost. We decide to go to an afternoon Mass in the college chapel, where the wedding ceremony will be held. Most of the students are either packing up or already gone for the summer, so it is just us and the last few choir kids in the pews. I feel like an undergraduate who has skipped every lecture and has shown up to take the final. My fiancée, the magnanimous Quaker, is unfazed.

The priest tells the story of the apostles huddled together in fear, not knowing where to turn. Their savior and teacher has been brutally killed. Are they next? Was it all for nothing? Though they have each other, they have never felt more alone. But then, impossibly, there is hope. The Spirit comes upon them and they are renewed, imbued with the courage of their convictions and the power to share their good news with all who hear them.

I find myself identifying with the apostles, with their battered faith and potent doubts.

I find myself identifying with these men, with their battered faith and potent doubts. I worry that I do not really know how to be a good husband to my future wife or a good father to the children we plan to have someday. Still, I begin to acknowledge and let go of the things, like the weather, that are beyond my control. If it is clear and sunny on our wedding day, we will get married. And if it snows, we will get married. Like the apostles, I have seen enough to believe that there is beauty and purpose in the world. But I have also experienced enough to perceive the darkness encroaching on it.

Darkness Creeping

My father was a decorated New York City police officer, but he retired early to focus on his drinking. Prone to alternating fits of rage and melancholy, he never taught me or my brother to shave or drive a car or talk to girls, as some fathers do, but he did teach me a few things. He taught me to lie about my home life and isolate myself from my peers. He taught me not to make too much noise when he slept until dark. Like the Old Testament God, he taught me that everything—our house, our money, my physical safety and that of my mother—were granted at his mercy and could be revoked without notice. He taught me dread, which is broader and deeper than fear and lasts, as far as I can tell, indefinitely.

My father taught me dread, which is broader and deeper than fear and lasts, as far as I can tell, indefinitely.

Though he had some religious notions, I cannot recall my father ever setting foot in a place of worship outside of the obligatory weddings, baptisms and funerals and on the days I made my first Communion and confirmation. I do remember how, when he found himself on the losing end of an argument, he would declare, “We’re all going to start going to church more!” If he ever did go, he did not seem to find what he was looking for.

A week before my high school graduation, as I am drafting my valedictorian speech, my father dies from complications related to alcoholism. Initially, this comes almost as a relief. For the first time that I can remember, my family is free from his reign of terror and from the misery of watching him slowly waste away. But relief soon curdles into anger. How like him to die so selfishly close to graduation day, casting a shadow over my accomplishment. How thoughtless to leave his wife and sons with nothing but debts and bad memories. The thought of mourning him now, of taking pity on a lost soul, only unsettles me.

During college, I armor myself with cynicism. Fancying myself a learned agnostic, I scoff at the idea that there is inherent meaning or purpose in anything. With seemingly so little at stake, I find this an easy pose to maintain at first. Then one day, as I am walking to the bus stop to meet a friend for a concert, I am overcome with nausea and feel convinced that I will die if I go. I press through it, dismissing my first full-blown anxiety attack as an aberration.

Fancying myself a learned agnostic, I scoff at the idea that there is inherent meaning or purpose in anything.

A year and a half later, as I am walking to the same bus stop, I am run over by a paratransit van that comes speeding through the crosswalk. I am dragged down the road and left with a compound leg fracture, pulverized collarbones, a broken shoulder, burns across my back and left arm and gravel permanently embedded in my face. I force myself to stay awake until I am taken to the hospital and wheeled into surgery, terrified of what fate awaits me if I close my eyes.

My parish priest comes to visit me in the recovery room. We joke and talk about the 2008 presidential primaries. Even as the surgeons fuse my bones with titanium, I feel some of my armor beginning to chip away.

In Recovery

As the years pass I make a full physical recovery, but the accident adds stress to my underlying anxiety. This heady cocktail makes every day a challenge, to be managed minute to minute and hour to hour. Too often I fall back on the bad habits of my childhood, hiding my fears from friends and loved ones out of a sense of shame. I turn to prayer because I feel I can only be fully honest with God, who after all, already knows everything about me. Every morning and throughout the day, I run silently through my list of grievances. Illness. Death. Poverty. Loneliness. The oceans are rising and angry young men are armed with automatic weapons. Why is there so much wrong in the world, and why do I have so little power to fix it?

Then there is the wedding—and the new life that comes after. I love my fiancée, and in time I allow myself to share with her the fears I have only confided to God. But still, I worry. I am struck by Pope Francis’ suggestion that couples who do not fully understand the challenges before them may not have valid marriages. I have no role model for this relationship, only a cautionary example. What if, in the end, I am no better than my father?

What if, in the end, I am no better than my father?

On the long train ride home from our visit upstate, I begin reading a book about the life of Jesus. As always, I find myself drawn to the role of Joseph and his quiet strength. Here is a man who took the ultimate leap of faith. Husband to the mother of God, father figure to the father of all. He could have laughed in Mary’s face and turned her out of his house. Instead he took a leap of faith and chose to believe the unbelievable. He did what he could and taught his son what he knew. In the end we never learn what became of him, but we know enough: We know he was the man who loved Mary. Maybe that is my answer. If I can be the husband who loves my wife and the father who loves my children, maybe that is all they need. Maybe that is all that is asked of me.

A month later, I pass St. Patrick’s Cathedral on my way home and stop in to light a candle. I pray for myself, for all who have come before me and for all who will come after. And as I often do these days, I say a prayer for my father. If forgiveness still seems out of reach, then at least I can offer some understanding of the demons with which he wrestled. He will not be there for my wedding, for the birth of his grandchildren or for anything else in this life. But he is no longer an unwelcome guest, merely an absent one who cannot traverse the long distance between us but who does, I believe, send his regrets.

I always hoped that as I got older the answers to life’s great mysteries would reveal themselves to me, appearing like tongues of flame. For now I still find myself huddled, fearful, waiting for a sign. But I no longer feel alone.

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