by B. Koplen
A Mrs. Doubtfire I’m not.
Even so, to this day I avoid its aisle at Blockbuster. As far as tearful experiences, it’s a close second to the Holocaust Museum.
Thank God for shadowy corners and darkened theaters. No one is supposed to see a strong, dark-haired, virulent man cry so much and so hard.
Not even at funerals.
The old handkerchief-in-the-back-pocket standard is the truest measure of the size of our ocular reservoir. Right ? As one who has had to learn to trash that myth (along with quite a few overly soaked hankies on the way), I must answer : wrong ! Long ago, I took my first timid steps out of the tear splashed shadows. Finally, I can say that I know how to cry even if the sun is shining on me while I do it.
Years ago, when our college humanities class moved outdoors because the spring day was so irresistible, our learned French-born professor saluted his Mother country, announced that, though this was Bastille Day, there was only one reason to fight in a war. That life-or-death cause was none other than his family. If they were threatened, he would go. Otherwise, forget it. His remarks were aimed at the few of us men in the class who were soon to be sized up for uniforms in time for the Tet offensive. None of us were married or had children. Though we listened, though some of us spilled blood on the administration steps in response to the insane Affirmation Vietnam production on our otherwise pacifistic campus, his advisor was as relevant then as a flyer from Lamaze.
Years later, I wish I knew how to reach him. Well past the pocket hanky stage, I had graduated to the need for a shoulder-to-cry-on. He would have been a good one, would have known not to say, “ I told you so “, would have leaned into my profound sadness to say, “ I know you’ve been holocausted “. He would have assigned us to see Doubtfire.
His antithesis turned out not to be a blackbooted Nazi, but close enough. Armed with a similar brain-warping, heart-dwarfing mindset, seated not on the ground like the unarmed professor but high above us all like a demigod, he presided : the J & D Judge. Without firing a single bullet, His Honor caused me to become the warrior a single sentence in my college career had prepared me for.
Or had it ? Years later, more than two years after my reunification with my children, I wonder whether my professor had said enough. For three years prior to my re-entry into fatherhood, I had been, pardon me Mastuh Judge for addressing myself so demeaningly, a non-custodial parent. I must admit, Your Honor, I was Doubtfire without a skirt.
The tears I cried then came from places I did not know tears were stored. Their quantity would have overwhelmed even my now deceased Chinese father figure, a traditional poet who praised a man’s capacity, when it was remarkable, as oceanic. Even Noah had not seen such a flood.
During that time, I was a walking sprinkler system. Even now, movies with child-parent vignettes set me off. ‘ Beloved ‘ and ‘ Armageddon ‘, even those, were unlikely five alarmers. But then, even friends who had the courage to invite me to sup, had Kleenex on the dining room table. I was a stark lesson to my older companions ; they glimpsed the proposition, through me, that, perhaps, the one hanky rule no longer applied to them either.
What I had learned was this: losing my children had left me as close to being mortally wounded as this lifetime allows. Though I was warned not to shout and cry out at the Judge when he stripped me of paternal rights, I pounded the pavement once outside. That’s right. In front of a world not watching, I fell to my knees and railed and cried the kind of breathless tears that pushed my lungs to heave for air.
I hung, suspended, in a state far beyond the temporary void a loved one’s death creates. Where I landed was not in a fillable existential pothole. I was in the abyss, in a blank and insignificant space in the universe. I had been cast out of my ship, kicked off of my planet, and left without the know-how or the resources to get back home. I was a goner.
But for the tears. Whenever a myth materialized, I panicked. Whenever I panicked I cried. Whenever I saw my children’s pictures, heard their missing laughter, received their wrongly addressed mail, I cried. When I felt them slipping away, when I sensed the alienation others assured me was imagined, I bawled as if my life depended on it. And it did.
What I had done was unfathomable to the Judge and his ilk.
I had done what mothers do.
I had committed my heart and my soul to my children. I had done that prior to their creation. It was nothing ritualistic, though it was a more direct spiritual connection than I had sensed with my bride…when she was my bride. With her, there was effort and mandatory rewiring. With my children, I tapped into the wellspring of the juice of the universe.
And that may be where all the tears came from. From the tear in my connection to it.
If the Judge could understand what the myth would not allow, I would tell this : I was born to have children : I was pregnant with my girls. I was a diaper changing, ga-ga-gooing, sing-‘em-to-sleep Dad. I was a drive-’em-to-school, letters-in-their-lunchbox Dad. I taught them about trees and flowers and how to make a garden grow.
But I did not teach them how to live without me. Because I did not know how. I did not tell them about my tears because I did not know how. I did not tell them how many Dads commit suicide because they do not know how to live without adequate time with their children to be a parent.
I did not tell them that a man who is a caring and committed Dad will do almost anything to become their parent again. Only when all hope of that possibility is lost will they stop. At that point, many know all-to-well the choices they face. The cynics and stouthearts choose either not to care or to let their children go. Both are sane decisions.
Those Doubtfire types, many of them, run out of tears, choose what Judges think Moms would choose were they stripped of their children. For them, I must admit to praying, not knowing, that their death brought the release their non-custodial life denied.
If only they had found a way to make known to someone important and powerful enough to gain the Judge’s ear.
Imagine the scene: in the Judge’s chamber there is a force, more a cloud than a persona, that conveys that message. It tells the Judge that this Dad is as good and willing as the Mom to be a parent. Lo’ and behold, the Judge listens. And more.
The Judge believes !
Says to the feuding pair : “ I don’t know why you’re here, but I do want to know why either of you think your children do not deserve the both of you as functioning parents “. A much lesser Judge than a Solomon could ask that, could stipulate that the only one he wanted to hear from was the one who was not committed to being a parent.
That would put an end to most of the dramatic ballyhoo lawyers produce as truth. It would prevent much of the harm that comes to many single-parented children. It would eliminate suicide as a logical termination to parenting lost.
And it may provide a signal that we’re ready to return to the former hanky standard…for both Moms and Dads.
B. Koplen 12/16/98