In listening to David Axelrod’s interview of Anderson Cooper on The Axe Files (October 21, 2021), Anderson spoke lovingly of his father who died at the age of 50 from a heart attack when Anderson was 10 years-old. He expressed gratitude for a book his father wrote (Families: A Memoir and a Celebration, by Wyatt Cooper, Random House, 1975) that revealed much about his father’s history, thinking, and values. He said that though his father died young, he feels his dad speaking directly to him in the book that he re-reads every year. Wyatt Cooper was a wonderful model of a father for Anderson who, at the age of 53, became a dad himself for the first time.
My own father, who died at 53 when I was 9, left no written record of his life, family history, and values except a group of letters he penned to his cousins in Philadelphia from the South Pacific during World War II. He was a fine writer as I learned only a few years ago after my mother died and we discovered these letters amongst her papers.
After listening to Anderson, I’m reminded how much I regret that my father didn’t leave me a written record of his own history, thinking, and core values. Anderson’s father was a writer, so his memoir came naturally to him. My dad was a physician and his generation of parents didn’t leave written testimonies about their lives and values for their children. All that I have of him are photographs and my childhood memories.
My father’s early death hit me very hard and it took years for me to cope effectively and integrate into my life the reality of this loss. I’m not unlike a lot of men who lose their fathers when they’re young either through death or abandonment. Each of us must choose, based on that core experience and what our fathers (and mothers) valued or we value how we wish to live our lives.
I could have chosen to feel sorry for myself, become consumed with envy and jealousy towards other kids whose fathers were alive and well, or become self-centered, hard hearted, and angry out of self-protection from the pain of my loss. However, realizing that I could lose everything again at the drop of the hat, and thanks to my positive memories of him as a loving father (and my mother’s love too), I decided long ago that life is too short to focus on the negative. Though I always have carried the pain of loss with me, I intuitively knew from a young age that I had to go forward as positively as I could. I worked hard, learned from my mistakes and failures, cherished my family and friends, chose work in which I could help others and make a difference in their lives, and sought to inspire my community to care for one another and to embrace all comers. Doing all that and more served as a powerful hedge against my own loss that I feel still 62 years after my father’s death.
I often wonder what direction my life would have taken and what choices I would have made had he lived. I’ll never know. But, I know this – every major decision I’ve made and all the virtues and values I came to care about are rooted in my memories of him as a loving father and a virtuous man who cared deeply about his family, friends, and patients. I consequently respect and admire all who are decent and kind, who make positive contributions to the community and world, are optimistic and positive-thinking in outlook, and use their time to help others.
We can’t suppress ultimately what happens to us, but we need not become bogged down by our losses and regrets. How we embrace the past does effect how we engage the present.
The New York Times journalist Roger Cohen put it well (“The Presence of the Past”, NYT Op-Ed, May 18, 2015):
“… The past is there. We must understand it, our own, our community’s and our nation’s. Suppressing it will only be achieved at a price. … nor can we be consumed by the past, re-fight its battles or succumb to the sterility of vengeance ….Not to remember, or to be overwhelmed by memory, are equally dangerous. Only through a balanced view of the past, conscientious but not obsessive, may we shun victimhood, accept divergent national narratives, embrace decency, meet our daily obligations, and look forward.”
William Faulkner (1897-1962) said: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And Amos Oz (1939-2018) added: “The past belongs to us; we don’t belong to the past.”
For me, my father lives in me, and for that I’m grateful and have no regrets.