John Fountain: A good father has to be there

SHARE John Fountain: A good father has to be there
SHARE John Fountain: A good father has to be there

The barber holds the buzzing electric shears, shaping my son’s thick Afro. He is 13 now. I have only recently relinquished our father & son ritual of me cutting his hair, which I alone had done since he was 1.

Partly my decision to take him to a real barber has to do with my inability to give him the kind of flawless cut required to keep him from potential ridicule by his teenage peers.

Partly it is because these days I have a little more money than that time in my life many years ago when I first began cutting my sons’ hair out of necessity. My two eldest, now men in their 30s, endured my various slipups as I learned to cut a bald fade, a high-top and assorted buzz cuts.


My boys withstood, mostly with a smile, the pain of my nicks and scratches and the times when my budding handiwork left their hair looking somewhat patchy and their heads a little sore. Their pain was perhaps their younger brother’s gain.

Partly I have recently begun taking my youngest son to the barber because I know I will not be here to cut his hair always. A young man needs to know how to walk into a barber, order a cut, tell the barber exactly how he wants it, and also be able to mix it up with men in the various conversations that transpire at the shop.

He sits this afternoon, draped with a barber’s cloth, the television abuzz with news of the church shooting in South Carolina. Breaking news of nine people slain and of the police capture of the alleged killer. Conversation swirls like the ceiling fans above the shiny wood floor.

My thoughts are adrift — on the tragic shooting. On the shame of hate that continues to inflict pain and suffering on the innocent.

But with Father’s Day looming, my mind is also filled with reflections on fatherhood, with a reminder of the gravity of this sacred calling as a man, but also of the knowledge that time and circumstance can encroach upon our lives suddenly and unexpectedly with inalterable consequence.

It reminds me that endeavoring to be a good father — that choosing to be a presence in our sons’ and daughters’ lives rather than an absence — is critical, for them and also for us. That this is the bedrock of fatherhood: selfless sacrifice.

I entered this exclusive fraternity at 17, as a single father, not fully aware of the trials and sacrifice required, or of the anxieties and heartaches that ensue. Not fully aware of all the joys and pride, the laughter and the countless incomparable moments of being a father.

Here lately, I am also reminded of how soon our little girls grow into women and our little boys into men, even as my youngest son’s voice seems to grow deeper by the day, his legs longer, and the wisp of hair above his upper lip darker.

And yet, as I look back over the last 37 years, it is not the many hours spent counseling, attending parent-teacher conferences, or going on school trips, or the time spent praying with my children or playing with them that stands most prominently in my mind. Not all the diapering or feeding, the encouraging or consoling, or even cutting my sons’ hair.

It is this: Knowing that as a father I was there. And that in doing so, I gave them something no one else could give them: Me.

That was at the heart of all those bad haircuts. And that is simply priceless.


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