Life is Beautiful

These are stressful times. Every couple of days, there's another story about a out-of-work parent killing his children and then taking his own life. It just happened again in a trailer park outside Seattle. Usually, these stories make me wince and I scroll pass the headlines quickly.

I'm discouraged that the killer is invariably the dad. It reminds me of my father's ugly Irish temper. It makes me regret all the occasions I've been frustrated, angry and impatient with my own family.

Sometimes in the background-stories that follow these gory killings, you hear that the shooter was not a monster, that he was a sweet guy. An honest worker. A good father. A quiet, respectful neighbor. Someone who lost his job, of course, Someone at the end of his tether. Someone who couldn't see any future. Someone who didn't want to kill himself and leave his family to cope alone. But more often, he was a control freak and a monster. Someone who didn't want to leave his children alive with the memory of their father's failure. Someone who didn't want his unhappy wife to leave him. Someone who didn't want anyone else to be happier than he could be.

It's hard to tell exactly why these things happen, but it's important to say that these killings indict all men. Myself among them.

I don't know why single moms are less inclined to murder their kids when they're overwhelmed, but that's not a story you're likely to find in the popular press. As the son of a soldier, I know that male culture has a strong component of violence, but I can't say why men are more given to despair than women or how infanticide could ever seem like an honorable option.

The hardest thing to do, of course, is to be scared and to stay alive facing the lightless moments of night while your heart races with such panic that there is pain in your chest and you can hardly breathe. The psychologists say people commit suicide when they have a profound sense of isolation; when they develop a sense of fearlessness about suicide; and when they sense they are a burden to others. These three things do seem like an unbearable load...

I'm 55. During the bleakest moments of my life, my dead father's voice has sounded off inside my head barking the strange command he used to issue in combat through -- I am told -- clenched teeth: 'Don't panic now. Panic later.' I don't know exactly what this means, but when I hear the voice, I resume forward motion putting one foot in front of the other automatically. After a breath or two the panic becomes packageable. The world returns with its details. Life's whirling hurricane of shit is once again just the same old shit. You know you will get through it.

My dad, I should say, was the worst possible father. He drank like a fish and sometimes beat us. It was genuinely dangerous to tell him the truth so I lied habitually about myself for the first three decades of life not understanding who I was or what I wanted. The only thing I learned from him was how to work like a horse. When -- once -- in an airport near the end of his life, he told me he loved me, it came as a total shock. Three shocks really: the first that my father had feelings; the second that he had feelings for me; the third that he would ever say such a thing aloud.

Much later when I lost a job in a new country and had two children to feed, including a new baby, I realized that when we were in the airport together he must have known his end was near: it was time to set the record straight. Then, I began to understand what my depression-era father faced for us -- without running away or murdering us -- every day.

The point I want to make here, I suppose, is that he did not take the easy way. Although he was not cut out for fatherhood or for marriage, he saw all four of us up that first flight of stairs. He was a bitter, disappointed, frustrated and angry man who looked into the face of panic every day and stared it down until it became mere disillusionment. He was a war-weary Marlon Brando standing in front of a snarling dog in The Appaloosa (1966). When it put its tail between its legs -- every time it put its tail between its legs -- he picked us all up and soldiered on.

There are no medals for such mundane acts of faith or courage because they are as common as dirt. Every dad does the same thing. The only exceptions are the monsters who freak out and kill their children and themselves in order to avoid a responsibility to terrible to face or in order to hurt someone who has just hurt them.

While we're helping each other make it through these hard times, let's all remember that once we have kids we don't really own our own lives anymore. We've put a bow on them and packaged them up in nice paper before sticking them under a tree as a gift of love to the next generation.

Strangely, the best part of this is the lie itself:

--Dunno where it came from, son. Must be Santa.