My late husband used to say that he spent more time with his son in one week than his own father had with him in a year. The two engaged in multiple “male activities” such as playing Call of Duty, attending soccer games and eating greasy fried chicken out of a bucket. When we lived in the United States, they embraced civil war reenacting and together tromped off to war: my husband, outfitted in the scratchy blue and gray Union uniform and toting a nine-pound musket; his young progeny wearing an identical uniform and lugging an oversized red drum as the unit’s drummer boy. At Gettysburg and Cedar Creek, they ascended the battlefield during the day and at night chugged root beer floats around a campfire and slept atop soft piles of straw inside cloth tents. It was Boy Scouts for history lovers.
My son was always a questioner and his father seemed to have all the answers. Their favorite topics were history and politics, which were my husband’s professional and personal passions. From his father, my son learned about the formation of the modern Middle East and military history — topics about which he still reads avidly.
They had secrets, some of which I later learned and some of which I likely never will. There was the time they went on a road trip and my husband realized he had forgotten his wallet which had all his money, credit cards and drivers’ license. Rather than turn back, they continued driving and even scrapped up enough change in the car’s glove compartment to buy two soft drinks and a doughnut. There were several school nights when my son couldn’t sleep, and his father, a lifelong insomniac, let him stay up late and watch television.
I was always very close to my only son, my youngest child, but ours is a different relationship. I was the one who cooled his forehead when he was sick and went out of my way to buy the special sourdough bread he liked. But it was understood, in the ways things are in a family, that I was never someone to advise him on his future. I accepted this. His father was his mentor, the man he wanted to emulate and who he looked to for guidance. He was lucky to have him.
Then my husband became stricken with cancer. He was suddenly completely dependent on others, primarily me, to help him get through each day and fight for his life. My daughter had left the house by then, but my son, who had just turned 13, lived through his father’s physical and mental collapse.
Sometime during those last weeks of his father’s life, my son came home from school and for the first time ever refused to spend time with him. When I pleaded with him to reconsider, he said it was just too painful.
“Because I know that soon he won’t be here at all,” he said.
His father died when my son was only 14 and he was left without a mentor to navigate his path toward adulthood. The prospect terrified me. I felt desperate to find him a substitute male mentor, but there were few candidates around. My husband had no remaining family at all. My own father was gone and a lone uncle by marriage was far away. I had several close friends around, but they were all female and I knew that for my son that wasn’t the same thing. I found him a male psychologist, but my son, insisting he didn’t need it, refused to return after one meeting.
I worried about potential mentors of whom I might disapprove. My son had become interested in Orthodox Judaism. Was there some manipulative rabbi taking advantage of a fatherless boy? Local Chabadniks gave him a lot of attention when he attended their synagogue. The rabbi often invited him over for Shabbat dinners and joked that he would join their ranks one day. But for several reasons he wasn’t drawn to their Judaism and they never pushed it further.
There was one self-anointed mentor who had my full approval and sheer gratitude. He was a longtime friend and colleague of my husband; they even both traced their roots back to the same shtetel. When this man came to make a sick call on my husband, he revealed that at age 13, he had lost his own father. While the loss was enormous, he said the older men he met afterwards had been enormous positive influences shaping his life. He made a promise to me:
“I will be one of those people for your son.”
He kept his word as best he could and provided my son with the same mix of life lessons, political knowledge and even road trips. But this man also resided in the United States most of the year, meaning that most of the time my son was still on his own.
He’s 18 now and making big decisions about his future. I have wondered and worried who, if anyone, was guiding him in these decisions. I asked him one evening as we were walking by the beach in Tel Aviv after Shabbat dinner. As we looked toward the water the horizon was indiscernible in the darkness and I felt a faint chill come over me.
My son mentioned the family friend and a few rabbis at his school. But he added that each of these people understand only one facet of his life. He’s a complicated young man. He’s religious and very political, but he also has a foot inside the secular world. It’s as if he’s still taking that red drum he lugged around on the civil war battlefield and marching to his own beat.
Despite everything I believe he’s still one of the lucky ones. Because for 14 years, my son had the benefit of a father who was also a mentor. That’s more than many children get in a lifetime.