Parents and Children: Perfect Strangers

A couple of days ago, I received news that a gentleman who had known my father during their years of service in the air force had passed away. A dozen or so years ago, we had established a brief correspondence by email; in his messages, he had briefly detailed the extent of his contact with my father and spoken glowingly of him. (In other messages, he regaled me with stories from his own flying days, including one sensational instance of having walked away unscathed from a spectacular, fiery, crash-landing.) I am saddened by his passing, an emotion that has a selfish edge to it: yet another bridge to my father’s life has been folded up and put away.

But even if he had been alive, or for that matter, even if my father had been, I don’t think the mystery surrounding my parents would have been any lesser. It strikes me as a curious irony that the relationship between two entities–parent and child–that are ostensibly so close to each other, closer perhaps than any other type of human pairing, should be infected with so much that is destined to remain unknown. When I look at my daughter, I often catch myself wondering, ‘Just who is this person?’ I know that a great deal of her life will transpire away from my eyes, my presence; I know that despite no matter how much I seek to guide her along carefully planned trajectories of physical, moral and intellectual development, she will ultimately etch out her own grooves and paths in her own way and surprise me all too often. Hopefully, only some of those unexpected occurrences will be unpleasant ones.

I will be a mystery to her too. Forty-six years of my life had rolled by before she was born in a country remote–physically and culturally–from the one I was born in. And by the time she is grown up enough to start taking an interest in her parents’ life–in general, and in the portion before she was born–many more years will have gone by. She will have photos, stories–told by us, and by others–and her interactions with us to help her; the standard paraphernalia we all equip ourselves with to make sense of others. But the enormity of the task seems insurmountable.

Obviously, the problem I raise here is only a special instance of the oldest conundrum of all, the seemingly utter inaccessibility of our fellow human beings. We do not think too much of this enigma when it is manifest in strangers. But when it comes to lovers, partners, parents and children, we are brought up short by the proximity of this inscrutability. We are disconcerted by it; this person, most well-known of all those around me, is perhaps just as much a stranger as those I have never met.

This should be no surprise at all, but the unease we feel is real and palpable. And that too, is entirely unsurprising; for here, as in many other domains of our lives, we vainly seek reassurance we are not  well and truly on our own.

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