I was reading an article last week about an on-the-job death where a man trying to deliver newspapers to subscribers during a tropical storm was killed by flying debris. The freak accident was bad enough, but the journalist saved the truly tragic coup de grâce for the last sentence: “He leaves behind a wife and three young children.”
I realize that the odds of my own tragic on-the-job demise are quite slim. I suppose I could be at a podium in an auditorium in which an enormous spotlight has been faultily installed above center stage where I stand lecturing on “A Christmas Carol.” Suddenly it comes crashing down upon me right when I am quoting Tiny Tim — immediately after I have movingly lisped out “God Bless Us...” but before I am able to close the deal with “...Every One!” Alas, it would be “the worst of times” for me.
I can see how a future cub reporter might write up this tragedy: “Professor Elliotte Engell was giving a literary lecture, which was sparsely attended by a few elderly retirees in a cavernous auditorium, when he was totally smooshed by a falling spotlight that ended his life and awakened a few nodding oldsters.” But as opposed to the tragic coup de grâce which concluded the young father’s story, my obituary would end on quite an upbeat note: "Fortunately, Professor Ingle doesn't even leave behind a wife, let alone any children, so the circumstances could have been a lot worse."
OK, I admit it. I do think occasionally that those of us not blessed with children (and those who specifically chose to be Unblessed) feel that our childless lives just might seem a bit less valuable than those lives of the vast majority who are parents—a whopping 84% of adults over 55!
And then there are all those People Magazine-type articles where narcissistic movie-star couples admit to being extremely self-centered before they had children but now, thanks to the maturing magic of parenthood, they gloat that they have abracadabra-ed themselves into noble and selfless beings. Yeah, right. Watch for their backstabbing divorce and bitter child custody battles in a future issue.
Far be it from me not to recognize the character-building, selfless sacrifices parents must make and the ennobling quality of loving someone as unconditionally as a parent does a child. But I disagree that we never can truly comprehend the love of a parent until we ourselves become parents. We childless adults can vividly remember the beauty of parental love encompassing us, and in our gratitude perhaps fathom the depths of it without “paying it forward” to future progeny. And we certainly can find avenues for experiencing at least a similar type of love with our families, dear friends, and adored pets.
And perhaps not being a parent might even have an upside or two. Years ago at my synagogue I listened to a delightful couple “kvelling” (the Yiddish term for “joyously bragging”) about their son and daughter when the wife suddenly and eagerly said “Now tell us about YOUR children.” I was very grateful to her after I confessed to being childless that she immediately grinned and replied, “So then tell me—what do you do for aggravation?”
With my entire career devoted to teaching, I think I'm in a unique position as to “having children.” I agree with the fictional Mr. Chipping, the beloved English boys school teacher in Goodbye Mr. Chips. As he's dying, he overhears someone say what a pity it was that he never had any children. "But you're wrong," he whispers, "I have. Thousands of them...Thousands of them...and all boys."
Teaching at UCLA, here in North Carolina, and lecturing throughout the country, I confess that my "thousands of children" are much older and varied than the boys of Mr. Chips, but my students and even my national lecture audiences have also been my "pupils," a word derived from the Latin, meaning “little boy or little girl.” No, not one person I have ever taught has been my child, but I would like to believe that some who have heard me lecture just might momentarily have become my little boys and girls if I inspired their childlike joy in learning. Perhaps I can “kvell” about having helped them discover brand new, even exhilarating knowledge. So then tell me—what's a more perfect parental role than that?