Stepfather. It is an unfortunate word. It conjures up images of Hamlet's white-hot hatred of Claudius, or of Cinderella's domestic situation -- only with more testosterone. Bartlett's Quotations has 58 entries under father. None for stepfather. Webster's New 20th Century Dictionary points out that one of the meanings of stepchild was a synonym for orphan. Stepchild comes from the Anglo-Saxon word astepon, the verb to bereave. It's not too difficult to figure out why we don't use the prefix in our house.
I met my son -- he is not my biological son -- when he was nearly 3. When I married his mother a year later, he managed to find enough room in his heart to call two very different men Daddy. It was the boy's idea. His natural father was not so sure about sharing the title. Eventually, he relented. I don't know how he decided that father is not something that dissipates if shared. I'm not so sure I could have been as magnanimous.
I don't steal glances at my son to decide if he has my hair or cheekbones. I find myself staring at this child because I can't imagine loving the boy any more than I do. I don't get to make puffy claims about how his baby pictures look like mine, or how he hits a baseball like I did in Little League. I feel a bit sheepish, even guilty, when a stranger at the supermarket insists that the boy favors me. I can sense that these moments are awkward for the boy. I can only guess what thoughts, what different and complicated allegiances, tug at his small soul on this Father's Day. And Father's Days to come. I am only beginning to understand that it takes a special kind of courage to be a boy with two fathers.
James Joyce in "Ulysses" suggests that for a boy a father is a "necessary evil." John Steinbeck once remarked that "Father and son are natural enemies and each is happier and more secure in keeping it that way." Franz Kafka seems to have built an entire literary career on the awesome attraction and repulsion of his father, Hermann. I read these men more carefully now. I search for clues in their lives. I practice a kind of magical thinking where, if I can pinpoint the problems in their relationships with their fathers, some keys to explain it all, this kind of unhealable fracture will not happen to my son and me, or the boy and his natural father.
Fredrich Nietzsche's father died when the young Nietzsche was 4. Much later, he wrote, "When a boy has not had a good father, he must create one." I always think about this line on Father's Day -- the longing and desperation it implies. But I wonder what Nietzsche might have said about my son, a boy with two men trying, in different ways, to be good fathers.
The boy has recently turned 6. He had two birthday parties. Both fathers attend his Little League games. Each of us has reassured the boy in the middle of the night. We both have felt the small arrows a wounded 4-year-old can pluck at the soft tissue of the heart. I wonder if his other dad thinks about the inevitable separation and the tender pain that will come later on. I wonder if we both will worry about the rebellion. And I wonder if we will have the good sense to keep from blaming it on the other father.
From very early on, I thought about my own father as old, or at the very least as middle-aged. The astonishing truth was that my father was then a man much younger than I am now. My father is in his mid-60s. He has worked all his life with his hands. Last week, while I was struggling with this essay, while I was trying to make some sense out of what it means to be a father, my father showed up to put a roof on the small shed next to our house. Looking out the window I could watch him work. There were the same deft movements, the same sureness of purpose that I saw as his unwilling and unappreciative employee in my high school summers.
Row after row, he laid down interlocking gray shingles. Each row, only partially covering the row before it. Each row interlocking with the next, keeping out the wind and weather. It did not occur to me until that morning how much my family is like those rows of shingles. Each generation supported and fastened to the whole by the one before it. But I wonder how my son regularly manages to find his place, interlocked in two very different families.
I wanted to tell my father I was trying to write about all this. I was attempting to write about all that has passed for 41 years between the two of us, things that have remained, for the most, unarticulated. I wanted to tell him about the things that have passed from him, through me, to this boy he has also come to love. I went out to the shed to tell him, but he had finished his job and was gone.
What I wanted to tell him was that I now understand that when it comes to the word father, is so much easier to be a verb than a noun. I wanted to tell him that as a young man I was wrong to blame him for failing to be perfect -- that what was important was the love and the unexpressed pride that still passes between us as silently and as real as a whispered prayer. More than anything, I wanted to tell him that someday I want my son to feel the same way about both his fathers as I do about mine.
OC I wanted to tell him, but he had finished his job and was gone.
STEPHEN VICCHIO teaches philosophy at the College of Notre Dame. His most recent collection of essays is "Ordinary Mysteries."