Wisdom is born of suffering. It comes from what the Greek playwright Aeschylus called “pain that cannot forget,” the trials that transform wretched souls into better people “through the awful grace of God.”
There is nothing more awful, more cruel or more unnatural than a parent burying a son or daughter. It’s a wound that never heals.
So it was that I found myself spending the lead-up to Father’s Day thinking about a wise man I met recently with strong opinions on child-rearing.
Who better to explain the meaning of fatherhood than the dad of a dead Marine?
Socrates Peter Manoukian is a Santa Clara Superior Court judge. With fatherhood weighing on my mind, I called him up and asked for his thoughts about the one thing that matters most to him: family.
“You know, there’s that old saying,” he said. “ ’Any man can be a father but it takes a real man to be a Daddy.’ ”
This is going to be a tough interview, I think to myself at this point as my eyes well up with tears.
As he warms up, Manoukian mentions how every father should listen to and take to heart Harry Chapin’s classic 1974 folk song “Cat’s in the Cradle,” about a father who was too busy for his son until one day when his son was too busy for him.
The judge recalled the years he spent in juvenile court where people came before him who could have had better lives if they’d had better parents. Then there was the stint in family court, where parents fighting over custody of their kids sometimes stooped to making false allegations of child abuse to hurt their former spouse.
Born in Lebanon to parents of Armenian ancestry, Manoukian explained that both of his parents grew up without fathers – one of them felled by cancer, the other by genocidal Turks.
Manoukian’s father, who was born in Syria, started out as a carpenter and soccer player and wound up as a doctor who spoke five languages and served as an interpreter for the British army.
When I asked Manoukian what his father taught him about being a dad, he rattled off a list: “Take care of your kids. But don’t spoil them. Make sure they go to work and go to school. Make sure they take up honorable professions.”
Like what? I asked.
“Priests or teachers,” he said. “He used to say that one holds the book of God, the other the book of knowledge.”
On the day he graduated from law school, Manoukian recalled, his father literally punched him in the gut and he gave him marching orders: “Your job is not to make as much money as you can; it’s to do good things for people.”
Manoukian and his wife, Patricia, who is an appellate court judge, were blessed with three sons: Michael, an attorney; Martin, who enrolled in medical school before joining the Navy; and Matt, the Marine.
While the boys were growing up, Manoukian was still a lawyer working long hours, and he missed a lot of school activities. He made a change. Suddenly, he was coaching soccer games.
When I told him that I’m struggling to find a balance between being too strict or too lenient, he advised: “You’re better off being too strict. If you’re going to make a mistake, make it in that direction.”
After graduating from college, Matt joined the Marines, completed Officer Candidate School and infantry training, and served his first deployment in Iraq as a platoon commander. He rose to the rank of captain and became what his comrades-in-arms call “a Marine’s Marine.” Whether in a firefight, or on patrol, he protected his men by being the first into harm’s way.
Matt later did two tours in Afghanistan with special ops. Sadly, he didn’t complete his second. He was killed by a rogue Afghan policeman in August 2012 as he wrestled the attacker to the ground in defense of fellow Marines. For his heroism, Matt was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, the nation’s second-highest medal for valor in combat.
“To say I’m proud of him doesn’t quite capture it,” Manoukian said, choking up. “I’m proud of all my boys and what they’ve done with their lives.”
This American family has come a long way, and it has paid a heavy price for the trip. No one knows that better than a certain judge who, while already an immigrant success story, wanted simply to be a good dad – and pulled it off.
Ruben Navarrette Jr., formerly of Sanger, writes for the Washington Post Writers Group. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.