Fatherless Sons: Healing The Legacy Of Loss
John Wiley & Sons, 2006 © Jonathan Diamond, Ph.D.
This is a book about death, but it starts with a birth. My son Julian was born on June 17, 1997, at 11:01 on a Tuesday morning. The first person I wanted to share the
news with was my father, so I called him from the delivery room. Dad was exuberant.
He kept repeating, “That’s wonderful news, just wonderful” over and over, and then
There was joy inside Dad’s tears, but there was also great sorrow. My father had
waited his entire adult life to become a grandfather. When the moment finally arrived
he had little time left to enjoy it. He died six months and ten days later, his body ravaged
by multiple myeloma, a form of bone cancer.
When my father died, some friends could not understand how I could miss someone
in death who had been the source of so much pain and anguish when he was alive. They
had witnessed how the contrast between my father’s rageful and loving sides created
more than an emotional crisis in my life, it was a spiritual state of emergency. They were
the ones who helped me put myself together after yet another caustic, if not violent,
run-in with the old man. However, it wasn’t until he was diagnosed with cancer that real
healing took place and the connection between my dad and me was transformed.
During one of my last visits with my father, I was sitting next to him while he held
his grandson in his lap. After a few moments, Dad very tenderly put his hand on my head
and left it there. “Does that mean I’ve done good?” I asked. “That means a lot of things,”
Many friends called to ask me how I was and offered to help in any way possible.
Three months after he died, people still asked how I was doing, but there was a hint of
impatience in their voices—they were ready for me to start feeling better. After six
months, they stopped asking altogether. After a year, most had pretty much forgotten
about my loss.
It’s been more than five years since my father died, and my relationship with him
still has a hold on me. If time heals, it works in much larger increments: Five years is a
Although my own clan and circle of friends grew tired of my mourning, people
outside my circle shared their stories with me. Sometimes complete strangers would
approach me at gatherings, “I heard you just lost your father. My dad passed away six
months ago,” “I was with my father when he died. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever
done.” When we dive beneath the particulars—cancer, abandonment, suicide, one year,
two years, ten, twenty—we find our experiences are uncannily similar. Sometimes we
even use the same language to describe them: “Our father was the glue that held the
family together,” “The old man was like a rock, he was always there with a hand when
you needed it most,” “My father was dead five years before I discovered how much I
loved him,” “I never knew my father but when news of his death arrived it felt like a part
of me had died too,” “No one understood me like my father.
To begin naming and finding words for a pain that’s unspeakable, for some,
involves having to recall unthinkable acts of terror and betrayal. At times, mourning
requires no less than what analyst Hans Loewald says about psychotherapy—that is, to
transform the ghosts that haunt us into ancestors.
In all our myths and metaphors about dying, death isn’t an end, it’s a passage. We
talk of “crossing over” and speak of a person’s “voyage” to the next world. This theme of
travel shows up in our dreams about death as well, in which we visit and receive loved
ones who are no longer with us.
There is an Aboriginal creation myth in which legendary totemic beings wander
over the continent in the Dreamtime, singing out the name of everything that crosses their
path—birds, animals, plants, rocks, waterholes—thereby singing the world into existence.
Over the course of time, these songlines become a musical road map tracing the territorial
spaces and paths that people inhabit and share with the spirits of their ancestors.
Individuals are born into one of the songlines but only know a section of it. The way to
extend one’s knowledge of a particular songline is to go on periodic “walkabouts” that
lead to encounters with others living far away who knew of other melodies or parts.
Fatherless Sons represents my own walkabout of sorts. It is an effort to come to
terms with my father’s death and the multitude of feelings and territorial spaces I’ve
inhabited in my grief.
In researching and writing this book, I wanted to get close to sons’ experiences of
their fathers. This is a book about relationships, a collection of men’s experiences with
death, dying, desertion and I-Thou encounters with their fathers as well as their own
children. I’ve met many fellow travelers along the way. Some through my therapy
practice, others who sought me out when they heard I was researching this subject. Their
stories gave me hope.
Losing a father is one of most profound events in a man’s life, and like the waves a
stone causes when thrown into still water, the ripples of loss continue on and on. This
book is written to help men understand the correlation between their past experiences and
how events continue to affect their relationships with family and friends, lovers and co-
workers, and themselves. To those whose fathers are already gone, the book illuminates
the possibility for a second chance—an opportunity for rediscovery—for men to feel
compassion and forgiveness for their fathers and thereby free themselves from the
emotional bonds that keep their present tied in knots, their future out of reach, and their
past chained to a wounded soul.
Many of the stories collected here are a tribute to survival of abandonment, abuse,
and neglect. However, even sons with mostly positive memories of their fathers must, as
another writer observed, “endure the separation of death, the affliction of mourning.”
Fajcing death takes great courage. No matter how confusing or painful a man’s
relationship with his father may have been, experiencing grief is heroic and sacred work.
While the path you embarked on when you opened the book was about grieving, the
journey is about healing.
My father, Malcolm Diamond, was a fixture at Princeton University for forty years.
It was a mostly uphill ride from John Witherspoon Elementary School on Walnut Lane to
my father’s office in 1879 Hall, the medieval fortress that houses Princeton’s religion
department. It was hard work for my ten-year-old legs and I always arrived out of breath.
For me, fourth grade had started a week earlier but it was my father’s first day of classes.
I climbed the spiral wooden staircase all the way to the top of the gothic spire of McCosh
50 and peered down from the balcony—the vantage point many students watched from.
The auditorium, which held five hundred, was packed. No one noticed me enter; all eyes
were fixed on my father. His brown tweed jacket with beige leather patches on both
elbows, was tossed on the floor behind him. The sleeves of his sweat-soaked white
Oxford dress shirt were rolled up, exposing his hairy forearms. A bright orange cotton tie
hung loosely from his open collar.
Dad was just a speck on the stage, but his presence filled the hall. Ivy League
decorum gave way to Hasidic delight, Talmudic contentiousness, and Borscht Belt
comedy. His listeners were enthralled. At the closing lines of his lecture, you could hear
your own heartbeat, so thoroughly had he seized everyone’s attention. And then,
spontaneous and prolonged applause. It is not unheard of for a professor to receive such
an enthusiastic ovation at the conclusion of a course; my father would get one after his
On a faculty roster that included names like Toni Morrison, John Nash, Elaine
Pagels, Ruth Simmons, Cornel West, and Andrew Wiles, Malcolm Diamond was
certainly not the most celebrated or well-known professor to pass through Princeton’s
hallowed halls during his tenure. Few would dispute he was its most beloved.
When asked what he did for a living, it was my father’s habit to simply say, “I teach
college.” If pressed further, in a lighthearted reference to the movie Goodbye, Mr.
Chips—the sentimental James Hilton tale of an all-boys school in England and the prim
and proper professor who lives for its existence—he would answer, “I am Princeton’s
My father wasn’t well enough to travel the summer Julian was born, so six weeks
later I took my son to meet his grandfather. During that visit Dad sat me down, along
with his wife, Denise, to go over what sort of service and burial he wanted. Dad asked me
to deliver his eulogy, as he had done for his father. I felt like one of his students
negotiating a deadline for my final assignment. I remember that the juxtaposition of the
two events—meeting his grandson and planning for his death—felt both surreal and
natural at the same time.
Trips to the doctor or the hospital due to complications from his cancer or his
medication had become a routine part of every visit with my father. A cold would quickly
become flu, and flu became pneumonia without any warning, which immediately meant
another trip to the hospital. The stays varied in length from a few days to a month in
During one of these stays, in a phone call from his hospital bed, my father got the
Hanukkah prayers confused. He had sung those prayers for seventy-three years. Each
evening at sundown during Hanukkah, I called his room and put Julian on the phone. The
first night he cried because he never thought he would be singing them to his grandson.
The third night he said them backwards.
We had been planning to visit him after the holidays. The next day I received a call
from Denise asking if I could come sooner. Dad’s condition had worsened. She was very
upset because against my father’s wishes his doctor had put him on a ventilator.
On the way down I drove like the wind. I had made this trip from western
Massachusetts to New Jersey hundreds of times in my life. Crossing over into
Connecticut, past Hartford, down Route 91 to the Merritt Parkway, the Merritt to the
Hutchinson Parkway, the Hutch to the Cross County Parkway, the Cross County to the
Henry Hudson Drive. It was a clear night so traveling over the George Washington
Bridge on route 95 I could see the Empire State Building, the World Trade Center, and
the Statue of Liberty—beacons of my childhood, lighting my way home.
I pulled up to the gray parking monolith adjacent to the hospital and took the
elevator to the main floor. Up another set of elevators, I pressed “3” for Oncology. When
the doors opened I stepped off, paused, quickly stepped back inside, and pressed the
button next to the letters “ICU”. I had never been to the Intensive Care Unit before. When
the elevator opened to the basement, I hesitated so long, the doors almost closed on me
again. I was turned around and surprised to discover the floor containing the hospital’s
most fragile patients located in the basement among all the plumbing, wiring, and the
building’s other infrastructure.
When I walked into the room, I barely recognized the man in the bed. My father
had always been a strikingly handsome and charismatic man, even when sick. Now there
were wires and tubes connected to every part of his body. The breathing apparatus
pumping air into his lungs caused his chest to slowly rise and sink over and over. His
eyes were bulging from all the pain medication and anesthesia he’d received when they
put him on the ventilator.
I gave my father a kiss and placed a picture of Julian on his pillow.
The first doctor I came in contact with was a resident on call, a very well-meaning
woman who wanted to place a tube in my father’s stomach so he could be fed in this
semi-comatose state. After considerable discussion, she agreed to abide by Dad’s wishes
not to take any extreme measures to prolong his life. “Your father and you appear to have
talked a good deal about these matters,” she concluded. I spoke by phone with my
father’s own doctor, who said he would arrange to have him taken off life support the
Dad’s nurse, Laura, saw Julian’s picture and brought me photographs of her four-
month-old. She and I sat at the foot of Dad’s bed, comparing stories about sleepless
Dad had only a short window of consciousness the entire evening. Laura asked him
to squeeze my hand if he knew his son Jonathan was here. He did. Then she asked him if
he was cold or in pain. He shook his head no.
My father always said that one of the worst things he could imagine about dying
was his family feeling obligated to keep some sort of a “death watch” over him, so I like
to think that the relative quiet in which we sat together was comforting to him. I say
relative because at four in the morning, alarms and whistles sounded from the legion of
machines that were monitoring his vital signs, bringing nurses from every direction.
Mercifully, the nurses did not call the doctor right away, which avoided any further
Talmudic debate over the fine points in my father’s living will.
A few minutes later, at 4:10 in morning, one of the nurses said, “He’s gone.”
Several of the staff bowed their heads in silent prayer. I tried to join them but I could
barely hear myself think. The doctor I had spoken to earlier arrived shortly, but neither
she nor the nurses could figure out how to turn off the alarms, so we all stood silently
around my father while the hospital’s shofars announced his ascendance to the heavens.
It’s odd the things we remember about the events surrounding a person’s death. We
don’t remember days, we remember moments. The details of the events that led up to and
followed my father’s death are very foggy, but those last hours spent with him before he
died are emblazoned in my mind. There was no white light or divine moment when he
crossed over. It was all a bit chaotic, very real, and in many ways, a fairly typical day
with my father.
The day before my father’s memorial, I took a walk across the campus. Everywhere
I looked I saw little slumped over professors wearing Burberry trench coats, wool
scarves, tweed hats, and thick-soled shoes. For the next three blocks I watched myself
repeat the same futile march up to each one of them just to be sure it wasn’t Dad. Did I
say three blocks? I meant three years.
The service was held inside the same building in which my father had taught his last
class. I climbed the twelve steps up to the podium. Seeking a brief respite from the sea of
faces waiting for me to start, I gazed up at the balcony and spotted my father’s ten-year-
old step-grandson Jarret wading through a row of empty seats where no one would notice
him hiding. I wanted to join him.
I tried to stay present and composed while delivering my remarks, but speaking
about my relationship with my father caused me untold pain—the pain of all the words
and images I chose to share, as well as those I chose not to.
Breakfast, Sunday morning. My father was eating, hurrying to get to the office. Dad
demanded his toast. My mother turned from the other plates she was preparing, stepped
into the dining area, and shouted, “You want your toast, here’s your God-damned toast!”
and hurled the side order over his head. Neither my brother nor I had ever seen my
mother stand up to our father in this fashion. Whenever our father wanted something that
wasn’t on the table, he acted as if he was complaining about bad service at a restaurant,
behavior we already found equally disturbing and even more upsetting when it was
directed toward our mother. But throughout all the bullying tantrums we witnessed over
the years, she always responded the same way, ignoring or placating him. This time was
different. Her defiance gave us a vicarious thrill. You never talked back to Dad when he
was in one of these moods. I threw my brother a knowing glance. Suddenly, my father
rose from his chair, walked into the kitchen, picked up each plate of bacon and eggs my
mother had prepared, and started smashing them down, one at a time, on the counter.
Shards of glass and food flew everywhere. My brother and I cleared out fast. After my
father left the house, I went back into the kitchen. My mother was crying.
I began picking up the pieces.
This and other incidents like it were faith-shattering. Although they weren’t
everyday occurrences, they happened often enough that the memory of the last one had
not quite faded when the next episode occurred. And the terror of this or some other type
of violence was part of daily existence, although on some days the fear rested closer to
the surface than others.
I always wished my mother had left my father sooner, but I understood why that
was such a hard thing for her to do. Dad was capable of great expressions of love. This is
what made his rages so painful and hard to bear—they undid such good.
My stepmother knew about my father’s abuse of my mother, but thought it would
be different for them. That makes her a statistic; another victim of men’s violence against
women. She also thought she’d met her soul mate, someone who wanted the same things
from life that she did. That makes her human. It’s important to hold on to both
I was more traumatized by my father’s marriages than by his parenting. Dad spent a
lot of time in therapy with me, trying to make what happened between us right. However,
not until the very end, when he went to a batterers’ group, was he willing to take
responsibility for how he treated the women he loved, at which point it felt like too little
After my father died, I felt great relief knowing that his violence died with him. I
hoped that his death would bring all of us who were hurt by his anger (including him)
some peace. These thoughts, like so many memories of my father, occupy my own
dreamtime and helped me come to terms with both the men my father was. Even though I
didn’t share the words in this particular stanza with the hundreds of people in attendance
at his memorial service, I consider them part of the same songline.
Breaking the Silence
Speaking the truth of Dad’s violence in this book has been an important way of
mending our relationship, and very healing for me personally; but for others, particularly
my father’s former students and clients—the ones he saw in a small psychotherapy
practice he hoped to retire to—the reality of some of the shocking events depicted may
take a while to register. It will not fit with their memories of the encouraging and
nurturing professor who loved and guided them, and it will, no doubt, bring unexpected
and new grief.
At bedrock, the two guiding principles I drew from my father’s life were sympathy
and love. Dad had a tough time living up to these ideals as a husband and father. “We
teach what we need to learn most,” he used to say. However, he applied both generously
as a teacher and therapist, where he recognized that the task of healing others is the only
true way of healing oneself. I believe telling this part of my father’s story serves the same
purpose—that is, to transform experiences and emotions of derision and shame into gifts
I can share with others, many of whom, I imagine, have had to struggle with similar
experiences with a parent or someone they love.
Interviewing other men who lost their fathers, writing their stories and trying to
understand what they meant, while writing about my own father’s death wasn’t easy.
Every conversation brought up some previously overlooked aspect of my own painful
On the other hand, I found the process healing beyond all expectation. It wasn’t
simply the catharsis of releasing long-suppressed emotion, although that did happen. It
was the act of storytelling itself; it was my listening to other men’s experiences and their,
in the course of our conversations, witnessing mine. It all made me think of the Eugene
O’Neill lines, “Man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is the glue.”
The kind of grace O’Neill speaks of is hard to come by, but that shouldn’t stop us
from trying. In this book you will find, set between the chapters, some reflections on my
relationship with my own father. In her Long Life, Mary Oliver invites readers to think of
her poems as “little alleluias.” Poetry is her way of offering praise to the world,
especially the parts she can’t explain or which aren’t easily understood. Similar to the
way Oliver writes about her verse, the passages about my father are not trying to explain
anything, “they just sit there on the page, and breathe.”
What I miss most about my father are his hugs. When I was a small child, I used
to crawl into bed with him after his morning exercise. Dad smelling like sweat and Icy-
Hot, me burrowing my whole self into the crook of his arm while he read the newspaper.
I can still feel the intense heat his body threw off. Even his love cast a fiery warmth.
When it was time for him to get up and get ready for work, he would engulf me in a bear
hug that would leave me smelling like him for hours. Like his spirit, Dad’s embrace
didn’t just hold me, it lifted me up. And I haven’t yet resolved the fact that the most
violent and the most loving touch I’ve ever known came at the hand of the same man.