Nearly 50 years ago I made one of those momentous choices that change the direction of our lives. Torn between loyalty, a sense of duty, and obligation on the one hand, and on the other, my own desire for what I saw to be my happiness, I chose... myself.
Impossible to overstate the pain that my choice caused, not only to myself but to those closest to me. For my two sons, then five and seven years old, it meant separation from their father: they were brought up literally a thousand miles away, and I lacked the financial means to bring them out to visit more than once a year, for a fraught few weeks in which I struggled to fit in a year's worth of love and fatherhood. I have lived with knowing the pain I caused them ever since.
And then there was the pain I caused myself. Hard to describe the inner rupture of two such powerful imperatives: between the sense of obligation I had learned from my youngest days and the need for personal happiness. At home and at boarding school, as a child, I had learned this rule: others always come first. It was embedded in my gut, my heart and soul. To be "selfish" was the greatest of all imaginable transgressions.
This belief had become a part of who I was. To repudiate it was to tear myself away not only from my family, but from my authentic inner life, from my very self.
I have lived with the pain of this self-inflicted wound for half a century, and have had to learn the hard truth that there is nothing I can do to heal it. I made my choice. I could not revisit it, even if I wanted to. I could not unmake it. I can also not simply "forgive myself." It's not that easy. I bear responsibility.
These thoughts return, with painful familiarity, because my then five year-old son, now over 50, is confronted with a serious medical situation. He has written about it on his Facebook page, so I am betraying no confidences. Following an initial surgical intervention last week, he now faces a three-month course of chemotherapy and later, in all likelihood, major surgery.
I have a father's instinct to wish that it were I, rather than my son, who had to deal with this intimidating prospect--that I could suffer, in his place, the natural fear and pain that any human being feels when confronted with the vulnerability of the physical body. But wishing does not make it so. My son still lives a thousand miles distant, geographically, and to "be there" for him in this predicament presents serious challenges. I must find out ways in which that can be done--in which I can make good on the love I feel for him, no matter the pain and the distance that lie between us. This is the latest challenge of my life.