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Memories from a father: ‘My children have been my greatest project’

My drive to be a good father was steeped in my own pain as a child who craved a long-gone father’s embrace.

John Fountain, right, and his son Malik.
John Fountain, right, and his son Malik.
Provided photo.

Speaking at my 17-year-old son’s south suburban high school one recent morning about my journalism, teaching and writing career, a student asked a question: “What’s your greatest project?”

Students sat attentively, perched for my answer. I suspect they might have expected me to declare one of my five books to be the work that has been my proudest undertaking or accomplishment.

Or perhaps my rise from hard times on Chicago’s West Side to become a national correspondent at The New York Times.

Or perhaps it was simply my survival in a neighborhood that consigns far too many to a life of poverty and hardship. Or maybe it was my return to college with a wife and kids after having dropped out years earlier, and going on to earn my degrees.

All might have vied for being my “greatest project,” although I had never until that moment entertained such a question. I thought about it for a second or two. The answer was easy.

“… My children,” I responded. “It’s not the stories I’ve written or the books. For books eventually collect dust ... It is leaving a legacy in my children …”

Indeed, I have always wanted to be a good father. I don’t know if this was as much innate as it was born by the desertion of my natural father, by the countless days of futilely waiting as a boy on the front porch for him to return, or his absence from the seats at my basketball games, from the stands at track fields or from the audience at graduations.

Inasmuch as it stemmed from my own desire to be a good father, my drive was steeped in my own pain as a child who craved a long-gone father’s embrace, and also a prepubescent vow that my own children would never know such pain, would never have to sift the darkest corners of their mind for memories of their father’s face.

I vowed not to become an invisible man.

And though it is now nearly 42 years later, I remember like yesterday the moment I first set eyes on my firstborn and namesake, lying swaddled in a blanket, minutes after he was born that August summer evening. I remember vividly each of my five children’s births — the last of them my son Malik, whose umbilical cord I snipped soon after he took his first breath.

More important, I have been there, endeavoring to produce, provide and protect, though sometimes admittedly falling short.

Through their falls, scrapes and spills, through a lifetime of parent-teacher conferences, field trips, hospital visits, school plays, recitals and myriad other events and functions; through divorce and heartache, through good times and bad times.

It has not been easy. Parenting never is. And whether I have been a good father ultimately is not for me to say. For as fathers, we are not the best or most crucial assessors of how well we have kept the unspoken charge we owe our children.

This much, however, I think, every father, at the end of the day, should be able to say: That I have done all I know as a father.

That I have endeavored to do better when I have come into that knowledge. That my mistakes are never an excuse. And that I have exhaustedly poured my heart, mind and soul into loving and caring for my children.

This is my greatest project. Not books. Not my career. Not awards.

“And when I close my eyes one day, surrounded, if I am lucky, by family,” I answered, “my children will have been my greatest project.

And that’s as good as it gets ...”

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Email John Fountain at Author@johnwfountain.com