Tag Archives: parenting

Keeping the faith

jamaicasky

There is a melancholy to the world right now.  I’ve been sensing it for some time, but it crystallized this morning when I was driving my son to camp and we had the radio on.  BBC News was informing us in mellifluous London tones about the sum total of horror and death experienced on planet Earth in the last 24 hours.  The boy was nervous about his first day and a story about three people burned alive in their house wasn’t helping matters.  I switched to the classical station and made some comment about how, “you know, about 95-96% of all people everywhere are basically good, decent people going about their lives; dropping off their kids, going to work, coming home at the end of the day and eating dinner with their family.  It’s not ‘newsworthy,’ but it’s important to remember that when you hear the bad stories.”  He nodded and continued staring out the window in silence at the rain streaking past the glass.  When we arrived at the camp, he perked up in the presence of other kids and jubilant counselors eager to get started on what promised to be an exciting week.  The downpour outside would not dampen those moods.   I was envious, but I had to leave; work awaited.

Humanity, ever the walking contradiction, is remarkable for the limitless reach of its imagination and its capability to accomplish jaw-dropping feats given enough drive and cooperation, tempered by an equal and sometimes overpowering capacity to shoot itself in the foot.  Every time we think we’re finally on the right road, someone veers us back into the weeds and we take another couple of decades to dig ourselves out.  Lately it seems that the foot-shooting faction has the loudest microphones (and the biggest guns, for that matter) and one is given to muse whether all those popular dystopian novels are merely prophetic.  What do you do to get through the day and hope you’re never faced with the choice of whether you want to be Abnegation, Erudite or Dauntless, or with your kid representing your district in a fight to the death against other kids and holographic monsters?

Some trust in the unseen hand of a deity.  But that is a path I strayed off a long time ago.

A child is not born believing anything (one could argue it is our most spiritually pure state, but one would prefer to save that lengthy discussion for another time); its exposure to religion comes entirely through the actions of its parents and family, whether enforced strictly – regular memorization and expected flawless recitation of critical verses under threat of withdrawal of dessert – or the more lackadaisical approach my clan used:  remember to say grace at dinner and be sure your plaid clip-on tie is pressed for this Sunday’s service.  (I did grow up in the late 70’s/early 80’s, after all.)  I was, in point of fact, the rare sort who hated decamping to Sunday school mid-sermon to make paper cut-outs of Noah’s Ark when I preferred to stay to listen to what the pastor had to say, and looked forward to the day I could be exempt from the childish frivolities.  I think it was more that I enjoyed the idea of not being confined to the kids’ table anymore.  But I didn’t take any of what was being said to heart.  At the risk of sounding like one of these literary rejection letters, the material simply wasn’t a good fit for me.  Being smacked with a series of tough losses as I encroached upon and waded through my teenage years, increasingly inured me against what was being offered from the altar.

To make a potentially lengthy digression rather short, I have always had to find a different source of faith, a different path to spiritual realization.  I’ve always felt a bit like a human Play-Doh set, you know the one where you shove a misshapen clump in the hole in the top, press on it with a plunger to push it through a mold, and out comes a star-shape or a crescent moon or what-have-you.  I take in whatever’s available, run it through the dusty old processor upstairs and spit out some semblance of conclusion, and ninety-nine times out of a hundred it’s some variation of crap.  It’s an answer, but not THE answer.  It never adds up to 42.

Sometimes I wonder if there’s simply too much raw material being crammed into the Play-Doh hole (that sounds a lot filthier than it’s meant to).  My wife and I were talking about this on the weekend – actually she did most of the talking since I’m a decent writer but a piss-poor conversationalist – about the value of simplifying and unplugging.  FOMO makes you clench up at the first sounds of that, but then again, what is it that we’re fearing missing out on?  Clickbait articles about celebrity breakups?  Trending hashtags, affirmation-seeking selfies and endless navel-gazing ramblings about the nature of the universe?  Um…

Anyway, the point, one supposes, is that letting yourself get overwhelmed by the noise means not appreciating the value of what is right there in front of you.  One of the hardest things about success is accepting that it’s not what you think it is.  Jealous hackles raised at somebody else’s million-dollar book deal obstruct the pride you should feel upon being presented with the crude pencil drawing your son just did for you.  Slumped shoulders at the unaffordable month-long island getaway enjoyed by your more affluent acquaintances rob you of the serenity found in the chirping of the birds in your backyard.  Ironically, moaning that everyone other than you is getting everything they’ve ever wanted in life is ignoring that some of those people are thinking the very same thing about you.  More doesn’t mean better.  Mo’ money mo’ problems, as a noted poet famously once said.  What difference do all those externalities make once you’re done strutting and fretting your hour upon the stage?

The secret behind successful marketing is making you, the potential customer, feel terrible at what you don’t have.  And we are all doing it to ourselves.  Inadequacy is an emotion entirely self-imposed, and like interest, it compounds.  Like a particularly insidious virus it begins to infect your worldview.  You gravitate toward the morose; confirmation bias leads you to seek out only those stories that reaffirm this concept that the world is an irredeemably terrible place.  Consequentially, your personality starts to change.  Laughter certainly, but even smiles begin to grow rare, and what once moved you now leaves you stone and still.  Something is missing, you feel, and you rush to fill the void with more stuff instead of stepping back, taking a breath and saying whoa, things being as they are, I actually have it pretty darn good.  Till the day your friends and family question what ever happened to the vibrant sort you used to be – and you don’t have an answer for them.  You kind of stand there, struck dumb, fumbling for a rationale that remains elusive.  You can’t trace events from point A to point Z, you know only that it happened, and a lot of irreplaceable time was spent on a pointless journey into the ditch.  You loaded the bullet, cocked the pistol, and fired into your foot over and over again, and now you can’t explain why it’s bleeding.

Where the idea of keeping faith enters the frame is learning, upon crawling up from that ditch, to find the value of holding faith in the faces and hearts of those who are closest to you.  Because getting out of bed every day is itself an act of faith; a choice to take what comes at you instead of hiding under the covers.  You wouldn’t do it at all if you didn’t know, innately, beneath the layers of insecurity and/or bravado, that you have got this.  So do those 95-96% of people in the world who spend their days beneath the radar of the news, doing good, pushing humanity forward against the tide that seeks to roll us back into the sea of ignorance and stupidity.  We will never hear about most of them – but we can keep faith that they are there, just as we can keep faith in the friends and family whose paths cross ours.  And thank whatever god or goddess you believe in – or thank nothing at all, if that’s your preference – that they are.  And learn to smile about it.

Maybe it’s not THE answer, maybe it’s not even the answer you wanted.  For the moment, it answers enough.  When I pick my son up later today, when he bounces into the car whooping and hollering about the amazing time he had, today’s act of faith will have been rewarded.  I knew that he’d have a good time.  Beneath his nerves, so did he.  The storm shall indeed pass, the clouds will open, and the light will shine through.  We will go on.

Have faith.

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Catch: A story of fathers and sons

SAMSUNG

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.

With a Song in My Heart: V is for…

“Valotte” – Julian Lennon, 1984.

Without exception, the first reaction anyone has when hearing Julian Lennon sing is “wow, he really sounds like his dad.”  Released a mere four years after John Lennon was murdered in New York City, “Valotte” would not sound out of place on Lennon the elder’s final album Double Fantasy.  The entertainment press of the day, as skilled as their contemporary counterparts in crafting stories from smoke and nonsense, immediately started running rumors that the three surviving Beatles were planning to reunite and begin recording again with Julian standing in for his father.  Paul McCartney shrugged them off of course, pointedly asking why Julian would ever want that.  Every son stands in the shadow of his father, and Julian (and Sean) Lennon are within the umbra of one of the most famous and beloved musicians who ever lived.  Julian writes in the introduction to his mother Cynthia’s book John that strangers approach him constantly and tell him that they loved his dad.  To him, though, John Lennon wasn’t the larger-than-life rock god who gave the world the Beatles and Imagine, he was a flawed, often absent and cruel parent, and the relationship was complicated until the moment John died and remains so long afterwards.

As I expect Julian does from time to time, I envy those friends of mine who can still ring their dad up and kvetch about the Jays and the Argos and how the kid is getting along in school.  For all but eleven of my years I’ve tried to manage a relationship with someone who is not here.  The lack of resolution, of closure, can at times feel like a wound that begins to bleed again just when you think it’s finally scabbed over.  From the moment you enter the world, you have this aspirational model waiting to show you how it should be done.  (For some, you have a cautionary tale waiting instead.)  Legacies are a difficult birthright, a yardstick by which every single thing you do will be measured, evaluated, and just as often, judged.  When the legacy is invisible, the task is even more difficult.  You’ll never be able to ask him if he’s proud, or, conversely, on a bad day, you’ll never be able to shove it in his face and say, look what I did without your help.

In his youth my father was a high school football hero fighting off women with a stick.  I was a quiet geek whose tongue would knot itself in the presence of a breath of perfume.  In career he was a civil law barrister and solicitor with his own practice.  I am… well, incredibly not.  There was a moment, maybe a couple of years in high school, where I thought I wanted to be a lawyer.  I figured out what courses I should be taking to ready myself for the inevitable university degree and law school, and yet, it isn’t as if in my spare time I was watching L.A. Law or Law & Order obsessively, or hanging out at the local courthouse watching proceedings, or tracking down my late father’s attorney friends and asking them if I could fetch coffee and read amicus briefs in their offices over the summer.  I was watching movies, writing Star Trek fan fiction, drawing James Bond comic books, playing drums in my hometown’s world-renowned marching band and trying and failing to work up the courage to step up to the plate with girls that I liked.  It was fairly obvious by my graduating year that law was not where my passion lay, despite the caveats of my grandmother (the other one) that a law degree was the golden ticket.  She’s not entirely wrong, and there are moments when I think I should have just gone ahead with it.  Hindsight and all that.  And since any success I would have would be compared to my father’s anyway, maybe it should have been an apples to apples comparison.

When the sons of John Lennon decided to go into music, they were walking into it fully understanding of the comparisons that would be made, and that the success of their father was an impossible benchmark.  At the risk of sounding a bit trite, they had to be doing it for love, and because they were driven by a desire to express their own creativity and personality, not to merely offer a pale imitation of what had gone before.  Even with your father present and guiding you, a son always has to forge his own path.  On occasion that path can venture through dark territory, and perhaps it will never lead to a place as prosperous as that achieved by your dad, but it will, at the end, be your own.  In the music video for the other single release from that 1984 album, “Too Late for Goodbyes,” Julian performs with his band while a silhouetted figure, strongly implied to be John, dances in a brightly lit doorway attempting to distract him.  Eventually Julian stops looking and continues to go his own way instead.  Rightly or wrongly, it’s his choice, as it is for the rest of us.

Had I tried to be more like my father, it’s arguable I might have had a more financially rewarding career, more options now for experiencing more of the world and giving those closest to me more options with theirs as well.  Would that translate to a better life?  The people I know who are wealthy certainly don’t seem like pillars of joy.  Maybe we’d be happiest of all sitting on a pebble by a river playing guitar.  When we truly commit to our life and become willing to accept the consequences of our choices whatever they may be, the shadow of the father fades away.  I think about this in the context of being a father myself and knowing that at the very least, my son will have a better life than his birth dad’s, and every opportunity to exceed my achievements as well.  But none of that matters so long as at the end of it all, he can look back and say that he was happy.  I guess that’s the irony that becomes apparent only when you get to the other side of the divide between having a parent and being one.  You expend so much energy in thinking you’ll never live up to your father’s impossible standard only to find that he never wanted you to in the first place.  He always wanted you to be your own man, and to pass the same lesson on to your own son.  That’s how you make him proud, even if he’s not here to see it.

With a Song in My Heart: P is for…

“Part-Time Lover” – Stevie Wonder, 1985.

Single mothers have been one of the many banes of existence for the right wing since long before Dan Quayle’s infamous jibe at Murphy Brown.  For what reason, exactly, I’ve never entirely been able to fathom.  Scratch that, I know why – because of this invented image of an overweight, chain-smoking sponge, the utter antithesis of the “hard-workin'” folks who are the backbone of the economy (that and obscenely rich people, of course).  Said image, as with most things such conservatives dream up, is entirely at odds with the truth of single motherhood.  I can attest to this, having been raised by a single mother, one who had no choice in the matter and refused to let anyone feel sorry for her or ever expect life to hand her a break.  I suspect she was by no means unique.

My mother had been an elementary school teacher, but set her career aside apart from the occasional supply gig once her children were born.  My father’s unexpected death in 1987 left her with an 11 and 8-year-old and no means of support.  There was never any choice for Mom – she immediately went back to work, securing a full-time position and trying to manage the demands of a home, a job and a family with a tremendous and yet reserved strength of will.  I talked before in the “D” entry about how my mom was one to slide into the background and avoid the spotlight, doing the work without seeking the accolades.  Honestly, after a year as a parent of only one kid, and with a partner to share the load, I cannot fathom how she managed it.  By the end of a week, between the needs of a child still adjusting to life with us, our work commitments and after school duties, a house requiring constant upkeep and two kittens who seem determined to deny us more than two consecutive hours of sleep, my wife and I are completely spent.  Maybe they built people tougher back then.

By the time I was in high school, the three of us had settled into a comfortable routine.  I’d be up first to use the main floor shower, while my mother and sister would go about their respective ablutions and we’d convene in the kitchen for cereal, juice and toast.  There was a ghetto blaster occupying the floor in our sunroom adjacent to the kitchen, which Mom would always flip on.  It was tuned to the local soft rock hits station, and for whatever reason – limited song bank, unimaginative programming director – Stevie Wonder’s “Part-Time Lover” would play during that 7:00 a.m. – 8:00 a.m. slot at least once, if not a couple of times a week.  I often rolled my eyes upon hearing it start up yet again as the sun cracked over the treeline in our backyard.  Somehow though I never asked Mom to change the station.  I must have known it was her favorite.

Indeed, my mother allowed herself precious few pleasures of her own.  She had almost no outside interests apart from her monthly bridge club.  Rather, her energies were directed singularly into ensuring that we had everything we needed, and that we didn’t miss out on what life could offer.  The mere thought of something for herself seemed alien.  According to her, that just wasn’t what you did when you had kids.  It was more important that we had bountiful Christmases and birthdays and that the fridge was always full.  That we got the chance to belong to marching bands and dance studios, that we were able to take school trips to New Orleans and family vacations to Disney World.  It was more important that we taste culture with plays, musicals, operas and symphonies.  It was more important that we experienced the world beyond the front door of our family home; somewhere a teenager especially would have been content to laze about in front of a television screen and a computer monitor (VGA of course).

I was fortunate enough to have these things and these experiences because my mother worked hard for them, with the selflessness and courage that is the hallmark of the greatest of single mothers.  When I have those moments where everything overwhelms and seems much too hard, I have to force myself to remember my mother’s attitude:  never question, never complain, just do, without thought of return.  In the tempest of hormones that is teenagehood I know I didn’t reciprocate her gifts very often.  In fact, her refusal to take any credit probably led me to feeling a little more entitled than I should have.  Some of the nice-to-haves became expectations.  It was only when I was much older and recognized the price of a comfortable life – the costs to both pocketbook and soul – did I begin to appreciate what she put herself through and how fortunate my sister and I were to have her guiding and protecting us as we coped with the loss of our father and the struggle to figure out who we were.  Motherhood, especially single motherhood, is most certainly not a job for part-timers, and anyone who refuses to recognize that is, without mincing words or anything, an idiot.

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.