Lost Fathers, Famous Sons

Copyright 2008 by Neil Chethik – www.NeilChethik.com


Actor Sean Connery called the death of his father “a shattering blow.” Writer Norman Mailer likened it to “having a hole in your tooth. It's a pain that can never be filled.” And the poet Dylan Thomas, witnessing his father's losing bout with cancer, composed one of the most oft-quoted couplets of the past century: “Do not go gentle into that good night./Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Like all rites of passage, the experience of losing a father tests the strength and suppleness of a son. And the son's reaction may surprise both himself and others.

In this article, I will briefly share the stories of three well-known men, and discuss how the deaths of their fathers affected them. (Further details about the men in this article are available in my book, FatherLoss [Hyperion 2001].)

Michael Jordan

In June of 1993, Michael Jordan was at the top of his game. At age 30, he had just led the Chicago Bulls to their third consecutive NBA championship. He was the high scorer in the league, and the high earner too. Then, on August 3, 1993 , his father, James, was found shot to death in rural South Carolina , the victim of a random roadside robbery.

Michael Jordan immediately went into seclusion to mourn the man he called “my best friend.” When he emerged two months later, he shocked the sports world: He would leave the NBA. He said: “I guess the biggest positive thing that I can take out of my father not being here today is that he saw my last basketball game, and that means a lot.”

It also meant a lot that James Jordan had always urged his son to try professional baseball. Michael had resisted. But after the death and his retirement from basketball, Michael decided to honor his dad by joining the Birmingham ( Ala. ) Barons of the Class AA Southern Baseball League.

The experience helped him heal. “I think about (my father) every day,” he told an interviewer during his Barons stint. “I think about him when I'm worried, and I think about him when I have a decision to make…. On my drive to practice in the dark every morning, he's with me, and I remember why I'm here. I'm here for him.”

Jordan lasted in baseball for18 months, about as long as the average grieving cycle. Then he returned to the NBA. The following year, the Bulls won another championship. The final-game victory occurred, appropriately, on Father's Day.

H.L. Mencken

Even when a son admires and cares for his father, the death of the father can be liberating. That was the case with Henry Louis Mencken, the cigar-chomping, acid-penned columnist widely considered the most influential U.S. newspaper writer of the twentieth century. If it hadn't been for the early death of his father – “the luckiest thing that ever happened to me,” he would later write – H.L Mencken might have spent his life making cigars instead of chewing on them.

From his childhood in the 1880s, Mencken loved writing. He took correspondence courses and spent his free time playing with words. His father August, however, didn't approve. August ran a cigar company and demanded that his son prepare himself to take over the company.

The younger Mencken was not interested, but he felt duty-bound to his family. During his teens, he worked in every department of the cigar factory. There seemed no escape from his misery. Then on December 31, 1898 , August Mencken, 44 and apparently in robust health, suddenly began convulsing. Two weeks later, he died from a kidney infection.

According to Mencken's memoirs, the funeral was held on a Sunday evening. The next day, Mencken, then 18, walked into the offices of the Baltimore Morning Herald and launched his newspaper career.

Mahatma Gandhi

How a son interacts with his father in the period leading up to the father's death can profoundly affect the son. The story of Mahatma Gandhi and his father is illustrative.

Mahatma Gandhi, known as Mohandas in his childhood, grew up in a village in west India during the 1870 and 1880s. He viewed his father as wise and moral, though sometimes aloof. When Mohandas was 14 (and, by tradition, recently married), his father contracted a virulent infection.

For months, Mohandas cared for his father at the bedside. One night, the father's brother offered to take over. Mohandas gladly accepted and returned to his room. There, he awakened his pregnant wife for sex. In the midst of their intimacy, his father died. Worse yet, the infant born to his wife a few weeks later also died.

To the end of his life, Gandhi referred to the loss of his father and son as “my double shame, a blot I have never been able to efface or forget.” He believed that a higher authority had weighed his devotion to his father, found him “unpardonably wanting,” and punished him by striking his child dead.

As the reader can see, the impact of the loss of a father affects the son in a variety of ways. In the worst of circumstances, the loss can propel a son toward despondency. In the best, it can inspire in the son a new appreciation for his life and loves, and move him with urgency to make the most of his remaining days.

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Neil Chethik is a writer and speaker. He is author of FatherLoss: How sons deal with the deaths of their dads (Hyperion) and VoiceMale: What Husbands Really Think of Their Wives (Simon & Schuster). Reach him at neil@neilchethik.com or at www.NeilChethik.com .

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Copyright 2009 Neil Chethik