When I was my nephew’s age, my father read me ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,’ or as he liked to say, ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Ka-nig-it.’ Even though he shared a modern translation, not the Middle English verse, it’s a tale too advanced for a little boy. But, as many have told me, Dad thought Sara, Kevin and I were the smartest children any parents could have.
For those who don’t know the story, Gawain is one of the Knights of the Round Table and Arthur’s cousin. At the Christmas feast, a giant, green-colored knight arrives and challenges Arthur: swing an axe at my neck today, and I get the chance next Christmas. The chivalrous Gawain accepts the challenge on behalf of his king and severs the Green Knight’s head. Gawain glories in triumph, until, that is, the body rises, picks up his own head and reminds Gawain of his promise.
You can see why any father would tell their son this story.
‘Gawain’ is a tale of chivalry and honor, and how a man might live up to the rules he sets for himself. One year later, Gawain does set out, even though Arthur gives him an out. On his journey, Gawain faces three challenges – Dad always appreciated threes in his literature and life – and like all earthly men can be, Gawain is swayed from his code. He can’t meet the impossible rules he’s set for himself. As his punishment, rather than take his head, the Knight gives Gawain a gash on his neck, a permanent reminder of man’s inherent fallibility.
Still, history and literature remember Gawain as a man of honor.
As a boy, I admired my father. He was smart. He could speak on any topic. If you were wrong, he let you know with his full might. He defended the marginalized. As an educator, Dad did battle against small, self-important politicians so the less fortunate could get a good education. He took me to see the film Tron. He wrote clearly and concisely. He loved the Beatles and the Stones and Bob Seger. He loved dogs and babies and small children and they adored him. He made good French toast.
Days after he told me Gawain’s story, Dad brought me this toy knight. The paint has flaked off his plumage and the crest on his shield glued down with Elmer’s. I keep it on my desk at home and I look at it when I write.
Like all boys, as I grew older, I noticed rust on his armor and the frayed edges of his garter. Dad didn’t know everything, but sometimes acted as though he did. His stories were repetitive and long. If you held a poorly thought out opinion, he would lecture you on how to correct your error in logic. He rubbed people the wrong way and did not care. He moved our family half a dozen times before I was 13. His body was scarred from illness. Eventually, he stopped working. He stopped writing.
I thought he should be different, more like other fathers. Golf. Plan vacations to Florida. He should be cordial even to the people he disagreed with. We should have stayed in one place for more than two years.
And I think he focused on what his life should have been. During his last few hospital stays, we talked about how people should have recognized his ideas. Mom shouldn’t have work so hard, for him or for herself. He should secure our financial future. More, I know, he held on to. He did not believe he should burden me with his responsibilities.
But the word ‘should’ asks people to live up to an impossible standard. ‘Should’ tells us that we know what today would be like if we had lived differently yesterday. Should keeps us from moving on after we make mistakes and blinds us to good we do.
Today, as a man, these things I know. My father loved my mother. They were married for 43 years. Dad moved from San Francisco to New York City and earned a Bachelors, Masters and his PhD. He worked to improve community college education. He taught and mentored students. He raised three kids with mom. He supported every one of our dreams. We prosper. Sara is a PhD, married to a good guy and has three brilliant sons. Kevin is the most genuine dude in New York and brings music to people who really love him for it. I married a beautiful girl who makes me happier than anyone thought possible. Dad gave me advice about money and career and life that I use every day. He taught me how to write. He loved babies and small children and dogs and they adored him.
As a man, I admire my fatherfor all he was.