Tag Archives: adoption

Catch: A story of fathers and sons

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This is my unsuccessful entry for the 2014 CBC Nonfiction Short Story Contest.  Their loss is your gain.  Please to enjoy.

Late afternoon, and amber light from a cloudless sky is mirrored in thousands of dandelions littering the field of cool park grass.  Wind tugs at my hair and bites at the flesh of my cheeks.  The scent of leather triggering a hundred fragments of memory, I reach into my old glove and curl my fingers around the seams of the ball.  Tightly woven threads rub against each ridge of my fingerprints.  What’s it to be – a curve, a slider, a non-athlete’s approximation of a ninety-mile-an-hour fastball?

“You ready?” I call out.

A short distance away, my son waits.  His glove is brand new.  A week ago a plastic tag hung it from the chrome arm of a store display.  It’s stiff, immaculate, ready to be infused with history.  And he’s not holding it right.  “Up and open,” I tell him.

Awkward fingers reorient themselves to the pose he thinks I’m asking for.  He doesn’t really want to be here, I can tell.  But he’s trying because he knows this is important to me.

I nod, wind up and release.  Perfect pitch.  Nolan Ryan would be envious.  The ball sails towards him.

My boy reaches up and closes the pocket too fast.  The ball bounces off the edge of the mitt and tumbles into the weeds.

“It’s okay,” I say.  “Try again.”

I’ve never purchased a glove for myself.  The one I’m using, the one I’ve always used, is my late father’s.  I used to have a smaller one, until I grew into his.  Just like his suits, the first ones I ever wore.  As ridiculously out of style as I must have looked, they had a reassurance to them.  Slipping my arms into the sleeves was like feeling his around my shoulder again.

My son doesn’t feel that way about my things.  Because until only a few short months ago, he wasn’t my son.

There is something of a skewed, Hollywood perception of what happens after you adopt an older child, particularly one who’s spent most of his life in and out of foster care.  I’m thinking of the end of Face/Off, where John Travolta’s character brings home a kid adopted from the terrorist he’s just killed.  The rest of the family embraces the boy, the music swells and the credits roll, the happily ever after securely in place.

Integrating our new son into our family has not been quite so instantaneous, and it has certainly been devoid of any triumphant orchestral music.  In preparing yourself for taking on an older child, you can rationalize until your brain oozes out your ears:  Of course it’ll be different than giving birth to our own baby, but that’s fine.  It’s okay that we don’t get to name him, or see his first steps, or hear his first word.  We’re giving a home to a child who needs one.  And at least we’ll never have to change diapers.

The trouble is, your brain can accept these facts, but your heart, not so much.  You can’t steel yourself with intellectual arguments against what you’re going to feel.  When your new son sits at the dinner table with you and all his stories, all his memories, are of another life that you weren’t in.  When he says “my dad” and he’s not referring to you.  You feel like you’re babysitting someone else’s child, this well-mannered little stranger whose stay with you seems to be going on a while.  And the very worst part is that this is normal, it’s no one’s fault, and there’s nothing you can do about it.  It just is what it is.

And it’s positively gutting.

He tosses the ball back, and I scoop it out of the air.  I catch a scent of my glove again as I wind up, and I think about the man who should be here with us and who isn’t.  I lost my dad when I was 11, and I adopted my son when he was 12.  I’m going to be presiding over this boy’s teenage years with no road map, no example to draw from, not a solitary conception of what it is I’m supposed to do.

He’s taken off his glove to adjust his sunglasses.  I’m so lost in insecure reflection I don’t notice.  I throw.  Roger Clemens.  Down and away.

In the general direction of my son’s face.

WHACK!

An explosion of tears, and my wife runs to his side.  With each choked sob a crescendo of guilt rises within me, the creeping and admittedly hyperbolic sensation of being the worst father in the world.  It sure ain’t like the movies, I think to myself.

Too many people in the world have made this boy cry.  Too many have disappointed him, failed to meet his basic needs, even abused him in moments unthinkable.  He wants so much to be happy and the world keeps kicking him while he’s down.  Now his new father has hit him in the head with a baseball.  One more chorus of pain for the cacophonic dirge that has been his life to this point.

My father made me cry when he went away.  When my mother told me that he’d died, I shattered.  Like the neighbor’s window met by a carelessly tossed ball.  My soul was broken shards on cracked earth.  It has been nearly thirty years gluing it back together.

Tears dry, but my son doesn’t want to play anymore.  We gather the gear and proceed home in a heavy silence, broken only by the roar of cars passing on the street.  Once inside, he tosses his glove aside and hurries upstairs to the sanctum of his video games.  There are aliens to destroy and princesses to save.

My wife tells me not to worry about it.  She’s right, of course; it was obviously an accident.  I’m not there anymore; I’m trying to recall the very last time I played catch with my dad.  Memory is uncooperative.  No bars, no signal.  Only a gray blur.  It was likely a moment to which I assigned no special significance at the time, because it was one of a thousand, and I wouldn’t have suspected there wouldn’t be a thousand more.  So it is lost in the mists, forever.

It occurs to me then that it won’t be long before my son doesn’t remember this day either.  That maybe he’ll have the vaguest of recollections when he looks back from fifty years’ distance.  If I’m still around, and I remind him, he’ll laugh at the old man for dredging up such a silly reminiscence.

And then I realize.

It’s not the golden, soft-focus Field of Dreams moment we’re promised by the movies.  It isn’t even a collection of moments so perfect they might have been choreographed for maximum impact on the heart.  The smiling pictures we post online for our friends to envy.

It’s the work we put in one day to the next, through seemingly endless bouts of frustration and failure and feeling like the last people on the planet who ever should have been approved for parenthood.

It’s not in how we throw the ball, or even that we make the time to throw the ball back and forth whenever the sun shines on that field of dandelions.

It’s in the catch.

Our boy was falling, but we caught him.  He’ll stumble often throughout his life, but we’ll catch him.

Even if he never truly loves us the way a son is expected to love his parents, we’ll catch him.

One day he’ll be ready and he’ll want to throw the ball to me.

With my father’s glove I will catch it.

With a father’s love, I will catch him.

With a Song in My Heart: W is for…

“When You Wish Upon a Star” – Cliff Edwards (as Jiminy Cricket), 1940.

When I was putting the list of songs for this series together, this was one of the first, most obvious choices.  It isn’t my intention, however, to spend these thousand-odd words talking about my life with Disney:  that has been covered, I think, rather well, here, here, here, here and here.  Rather, I want to talk about one particular wish upon a star that as of yesterday, roundabouts 2:00 in the afternoon (in a nice bit of serendipity with the timing of this particular song post) came true.  Our adoption of our son was finalized.  Though in our hearts he’s been part of our family since the moment we met him, in the eyes of the law he is now forever, irrevocably, ours.  His life lies entirely within our hands; whatever may befall him going forward will be our responsibility and our fates will be forever intertwined.  Till death us do part.

I haven’t talked much about him here for a couple of reasons.  Primarily, it’s to preserve his privacy.  You see enough stories about cyberbullying to make us very grateful that he hasn’t asked to be on Facebook or Instagram or anything else.  My son has no digital footprint, and he doesn’t need one to grow up happy and healthy and with a rich experience of what young life has to offer him.  The second reason is a bit selfish, and it’s that my wife and I have talked about adapting our experience of becoming adoptive parents of an older child into a book, so best to save the lion’s share of the stories for that eventual publication.  Sitting in the courtroom yesterday, with this upcoming post looming, the words of this song flitted across my thoughts and it occurred to me that the path of wishes is often winding, with the realization of dreams seldom taking the shape of how they were initially conceived.  In less pretentious English, that’s my way of saying how I never imagined I’d become a parent in this particular way.  And yet, here I am.  Dad, for good.

You will sometimes read stories about celebrities who talk about their single-minded pursuit of their goals, with a clear plan established from childhood and each step executed with undeviating precision, so that when success comes it’s less a surprise and more an inevitable conclusion.  They know their future down to the minute.  This kind of ordered life is not my experience. Nor, I suspect, do the majority of the world’s population find their existence unfolding like clockwork.  When I was nine years old, I started writing a novel about a boy and his horse.  I distinctly remember the day I had decided to do it, and I had not written more than the first paragraph before I ran into my parents asking if we could get it published.  My father, wisely, suggested that I finish the book first and then we could see about it.  At that point I had everything planned out:  published at ten, a worldwide phenomenon at eleven, movie deal at twelve, retirement at thirteen.  It needs not be stated, I suspect, that none of the aforementioned came to pass.  (If I am fortunate enough to get a novel published at some point in the near future, it will certainly not be that one.  I’m still slogging through the query process at present, and should those stars align I’ll wager it won’t be in any way how I imagined it.)  In much the same way, every new year at school I imagined that this was the year I’d finally meet THE ONE.  As dry times drifted by, I kept faith that I would someday meet the woman I’d marry, little realizing it wouldn’t be until I was thirty.  But that dream came true.  This summer we celebrate seven years of marriage.

The song promises that “Fate is kind, she brings to those who love the sweet fulfillment of their secret longing.”  Even as I recited my marriage vows, I wasn’t certain I wanted to be a father.  I felt too young, too inexperienced, too utterly lacking the qualities of patience and wisdom that seemed to exude from every parent I knew.  Moreover, the idea of that responsibility was terrifying.  I’d just come through some tremendous personal turmoil and taking on someone else’s burden was an impossible notion.  So I went in to the pursuit of parenthood fairly half-heartedly.  After struggling for several years with the frustration and heartbreak of futile fertility treatments, we eventually resigned ourselves to the idea that it would be just the two of us.  At the time, I was okay with that, or at least, I put on a good show of being okay with it.  Then against expectation, we found ourselves moving to a house within spitting distance of an elementary school.  A man whom my wife has often consulted for spiritual advice suggested that this new home would be full of positive energy, and that a child would come into our lives in a most unexpected way.  When we signed up to mentor a young boy through Big Brothers and Big Sisters, we thought maybe this was what he was referring to.  And then one gray afternoon in late December, in a charged conversation we both arrived at the conclusion that something was still missing.  Mentoring once a week wasn’t enough.  We needed to be parents.

Two years and four months after that initial talk, with our families as witnesses we completed the final step.  Any lingering questions were wiped away by the tears welling up as Madam Justice read out the adoption order and congratulated us.  I’m still filled with doubt about the job I’m doing as a father, about whether I’m showing enough patience and whether or not I’m wrecking his self-esteem every time I lecture him about whatever he’s done that’s irked me today.  What I don’t doubt anymore is whether or not I wanted this life.  Fate, it seems, has indeed been kind, and fulfilled this particular secret longing.  It knew what was meant for me better than I did.  We have an amazing son, a bright, good-hearted boy whose future with us is far greater than the one that awaited him in foster care.  I look forward to the day I can stand up at his wedding and tell all the embarrassing stories that I’m cataloguing for that very purpose, and when I can bounce that first grandchild on my knee.  I have no idea what that will look like, but I know it will come.  The star has been chosen and the wish has been made.  And Jiminy Cricket told me so.

Cat’s in the cradle

A fairly accurate representation of my state of mind.
A fairly accurate representation of my state of mind.

Most men first find out they’re going to be fathers when a little plastic stick turns blue.  While the mood swings and crazy demands that often accompany the pregnancies of their partners may give them the vaguest sense of the responsibility and adventure to come, realization doesn’t strike them until they first hold their little wriggling, blanket-swathed miracles in their arms and recognize that they’ve been thrust into an irrevocable new job with absolutely no sense of what to do next.  My journey to paternity has followed a different path; after struggling with fertility and even the question of whether we wanted to be parents at all, my wife and I decided that our family would expand through adoption.  That was well over a year and a half ago; between then and now came extensive training, invasive interviews, traumatic phone calls, a few thousand miles logged on the car, hopes both raised and dashed and a thorough exploration of every single point on the emotional spectrum.  Was it worth it?  Listening to my new son laughing when my wife chases him up the stairs after he’s stolen her slippers should be evidence enough.

Fatherhood was never really on my radar.  In fact, the very concept of the father and the son has been something that  I’ve thought and talked about largely in theoretical terms, relating it to imagery found in literature, cinema and religion.  In a way, that’s all I’ve had to go on.  My father died when I was eleven, and strong, positive and consistent male role models were largely absent from the years that followed.  Like President Barack Obama, I’ve had to rely on dreams of my father, the images growing cloudier as the years slip away.  And it doesn’t feel that long since the days of the smoke-filled dance clubs (back when you could still smoke in them), sharing crude opinions on the hotness of the assorted females with no greater aspirations for myself than a night of physical fun with a nameless partner.  Sometimes I wake up in the morning incredulous that I even managed to get married – how in the hell did I suddenly become somebody’s father?  Yet there he is, playing on his laptop and asking if he can watch Star Wars again.  Every time he calls me “Dad,” I have to stop myself from turning to see if he’s talking to the guy behind me.  Even after a mere three weeks together I’m humming the lyrics to Harry Chapin’s melancholy anthem about fathers and sons and wondering if we’re losing out on oh-so precious time.

My son was one of the thousands of older children living in foster care waiting for a forever family, because a large swath of potential parents looking to adopt, if not the majority of them, insist on babies.  They want to give their child his or her name, witness the first steps and first words and other milestones they can photograph and post for their Facebook friends.  However, fewer and fewer babies are available.  If you don’t have the financial resources to look privately or overseas, or you’re unable to take on a baby with a lot of special needs (and heaps of praise are due to those who do), you’ll likely see retirement cheques before you find an infant in the public system.  And as the years go by and so many of these kids linger on in foster, it’s almost as though they pass their “use-by” date.  Couples start to think that if no one has adopted them by now, there must be something seriously wrong with them.  But there isn’t.  Of course there will be emotional trauma that needs to be addressed with patience and love, and perhaps even a few minor medical issues, but for the most part these are kids like our son – a good boy who’s had a rough start to his life and just wants a mom and dad to love him.  And not to diminish the hard work of the many giving foster parents out there, but according to the National Center for Mental Health Promotion and Youth Violence Prevention, 40% of kids in foster care don’t graduate high school, and only 3% of them go on to any kind of post-secondary education.  These boys and girls need more than parents; they need relentless, even to the point of being obnoxious at times, bullhorn-wielding advocates who will scrape and claw for every precious inch of progress. They need a family who will never give up on them no matter how rocky the road gets.

Is that me?

There’s an exchange between Peter Facinelli and Kevin Spacey in The Big Kahuna that comes to mind.  Facinelli’s character, a junior salesman about to experience his first convention, says that it’s time to throw me in the water to see if I can swim.  Spacey retorts that no, we’re actually going to throw you off a cliff to see if you can fly.  Adopting an older child, a little person with his own name and with a personality already shaped and molded by total strangers is kind of like the Sanka of fatherhood:  instant and occasionally might not taste that great.  You do have to grieve the loss of a lot of those firsts, including the loss of the not-unsubtle desire to pass on one’s genes and traits, the loss of ever seeing what that indelible combination of you and your spouse would have looked like.  During initial weekend visits as the new family adjusts to each other before final placement, it feels at times like you’re just babysitting someone else’s problem, resulting in massive feelings of guilt when you feel relieved after he’s picked up on Sunday evening.  And you have to try and “deprogram” a bit of the stuff that you likely would not have encouraged had you been raising him from birth and replace it with hobbies and habits that you know will help him grow (i.e. perhaps we can cut back a little on the 10 hours of video games per Saturday and replace it with at least one hour of reading – no, doesn’t have to be Hemingway or Dostoevsky just yet – and put away the Nerf gun before we accidentally shoot the cat?)  But at the same time, there are still lots of firsts to look forward to.  First birthday and Christmas together, first date, first time driving the car. First overnight away from us.  Figuring out how to have “The Talk.”  Graduation day.  Heading off to college.  Watching him grow from this shy, awkward kid into the amazing, confident man you know he has the potential to be, terrified all the while that you’re just making things worse.  I suppose there is a term for all of that:  being a parent.

I didn’t have my father to guide me through my teenage years, so I have no point of reference on which to base how I’m going to do it with my son.  My father was long gone before I could talk to him about my huge crush on the beautiful blonde in the other Grade 6 class, or the boundless depth of my everlasting 13-year-old love for the 18-year-old brunette who used to drive me to band practice, and my utter cowardice in being able to verbalize those feelings to their subjects.  I want my son to be able to seize the moment and not be caught up in his feelings.  I want him to be able to avoid some of the mistakes I made, and yet instinctively I know he has to be free to make them and learn from his failure.  Put simply, I want to be the example I never had, and as I sit here typing this I’m increasingly doubtful of my ability to do it.  I’ve had a lot of friends and colleagues tell me how touched they are about our adoption of our son, and how lucky our son is to have us.  Yet I still feel like a bumbling idiot who’s doing everything wrong.  Chapin’s final words haunt me in my sleep.  I can’t figure out my own life most days.  Do I really want him to grow up to be just like me?

Perhaps the best advice is to draw from the Buddha (or Winnie the Pooh) and to just be.  To let the good times roll with the bad and to take each day as it comes without ruminating endlessly on the shape of the overall to the point that it distracts from the little moments that truly matter.  Without letting the perfect become the enemy of the necessary.  For better or worse, I’m this kid’s father now.  He is part of the legacy that I will leave behind long after everyone’s forgotten about little ‘ole me – a legacy that includes my father as well.  I may not be passing on my genes, but I can pass on my values, my beliefs, the things I consider important to cherish in our ever-so-brief walk across this world.  The same stuff I got from my dad in the times we were able to share.

Maybe one day my son will sit down and write a blog post (or whatever the new equivalent is by the time he’s ready for it) about what he thinks about becoming a father himself, and maybe he’ll praise or damn the example set by his old man.  Maybe he’ll understand some of what I’m feeling right now.  Maybe he’ll finally understand why I don’t want him signing up for that online game that requires a valid credit card number.  Maybe the stern looks and the lectures and the occasionally too-obvious frustration on my face will finally make sense.  Maybe he’ll think it was silly that I worried so much.  Sure hope so.  Harry Chapin tells us that the lives of a father and son are cyclical, repeating themselves in familiar patterns as each succeeding generation emulates the precedent it was shown.  What better advice is there, then, than to work even harder to be a better me?  I told my son last night that if he looks after himself he has a chance to see the dawn of the 22nd Century.  (Wonder if there will be phasers?)  The greatest gift I can give him is to do my best to ensure that he will watch sunrise on January 1, 2101 with a big smile on his face, secure in the knowledge that it was, indeed, all worth it in the end.  That’s what this strange concept of “fatherhood” has come to mean to me, even after just a few weeks.  In the meantime, I know when I’ll be coming home, son, and we’ll get together then.  You know we’ll have a good time then.