My father didn’t tell me how to live. He lived and let me watch him do it.
–Clarence Budington Kelland
Fathers in our culture are given the role of Mr. Fixit, like the repair fox in Richard Scarry’s children’s books. They are expected to be the family adviser, problem-solver, protector and provider. They are expected to control their children. When their children get out of control, they are expected to fix it.
These expectations are enormous and completely unrealistic. Some things simply can’t be fixed. Even Mr. Fixit repeatedly fails in his role of repairing.
Losing a child
When we lose a child, we agonize. “What did I do wrong? Why couldn’t I have fixed it?”
Don, a 30-year addict turned 30-year licensed independent chemical dependency counselor, said, “The thing that really puzzles are substance abusers who come from a house where the parents provided and put them through school and did all the right things, and yet their kids turn out to be heroin addicts or alcoholics. So they say, ‘What did I do wrong?’ Well, they really didn’t do anything wrong.”
Father doing his job
This spring, the cardinal nest next to my porch provided an example for me of what Don said. Sometimes I caught glimpses of the father standing next to the nestlings, probably feeding them.
I later learned male cardinals typically protect their territory and provide food for the little family. They even feed the mothers, calling them away from their nests for dinner.
This father clearly was doing his job, because his ugly nestlings grew rapidly.
About ten days after hatching, one of the fledglings perched on the edge of the nest. It had no tail feathers, and simply sat there awhile. Frankly, Fledgling 1 reminded me of a human teenager daring to take off on its own with no parental control.
Mother and Father chirped madly nearby.
As I continued with my day, Fledgling 1 disappeared. My son and I looked around for it a few times, but never saw it again. What became of the bird? Did one of the feral neighborhood cats catch it? It’s quite possible—only 15 to 37 percent of cardinal nests produce fledglings, and Fledgling 1 was quite vulnerable. The dangers were real and close. The parents had no say in what their offspring chose to do or not do, or on dangers lurking so close.
The next day Fledgling 2 perched on the edge of the nest for a while. Later in the day I saw it hop from branch to branch around the shrub.
As I approached, both father and mother took turns flying at the bush and creating a ruckus, flapping madly and chirping with piercing volume. Both did their absolute best to lure me away from their remaining baby. Neither succeeded.
The next day, cardinal chirping slit the air from high in a nearby pine. And then it ceased. Fledgling 2 most likely made it into adulthood.
The parents provided
The parents provided a home, nourishment, and every attempt at a safe environment. Yet perhaps one of the two didn’t make it into adulthood. It is not the parents’ fault.
We can only do our best
We must accept that we are not in charge, ultimately. We do not control the choices of our children, their genetic makeup, nor their social, cultural, and economic environments. We can provide and influence and plead, but in the end, we cannot always Fix It. All we can do is our best.
May you find peace in the example you set for your loved ones, whatever the outcome.
Easing Your Grief:
If you feel lost in grief over your loss, perhaps make a list of things you did try to fix the issue. It probably will be a long list.
For a little pleasure, you can hear a cardinal chirp on this page https://birdsna.org/Species-Account/bna/species/norcar/introduction and watch a father cardinal feed his young here: https://americanexpedition.us/learn-about-wildlife/northern-cardinal-facts-information/