Dear Jon and Zack,
Maybe it’s because Father’s Day is approaching, but recently I’ve been thinking a little more than usual about your Grandpa, my father. This coming New Year’s Eve will mark the tenth anniversary of his death, and parts of that day are burned into my memory banks as indelibly as a branding iron marks cattle.
On that day he was at Yale-New Haven Hospital, having been sent there by the nursing home he lived at because of respiratory issues. As you may recall, his body had begun failing him years earlier and at the time of this final hospitalization the only part of his body that still functioned well was his mind. That alone must have been torture for him. An obsessively-compulsive, fastidious control freak, to have been so dependent upon others, needing help doing anything (especially using the bathroom), must have eaten at his soul like a cancer. I loved him — he was my father — but he was a very difficult father to like. Speaking kindly to my sisters and me wasn’t his style (or to almost anybody, for that matter), and his insecurities often manifested as verbal abuse. For many, many years I have heard friends and acquaintances speak of their fathers with something akin to reverence, as they recalled beloved memories. They all had many, too many to list, while I had so few, and the few sounded so lame compared with theirs, that I almost always remained silent. For the most part, I still do.
I have no doubt that he loved his children, but it took until very recently for me to finally understand and accept that he just didn’t know how to be a dad. Being a father is simple – all a man has to do is impregnate a woman. But becoming a dad requires a lot more than that. Being a dad means being there every minute of every day. It means becoming an active part of your children’s lives. Providing, or helping to provide, a roof over their heads, food on the table, clothes on their backs, are just the basics and, in fact, are legal requirements in this society.
But being there for one’s children implies involvement and active participation in their development toward becoming adults. Teaching them the nuances that make the transition a little more comprehensible; it could never be made easier. But almost entirely, my father left our rearing to my mother, who was his emotional/caring polar opposite. Your Nana was a really good mom, but could never be a dad.
The few people to whom I have opened up almost fully on my relationship with your Grandpa often opined that he was of a different generation, the generation that had women doing the child care while the men were the breadwinners. To that opinion I reply, “Bullshit.” The overwhelming majority of my friends’ fathers were of the same generation, worked jobs, and yet all but a few of them treated their sons with the same degree of disregard as Grandpa did toward me. Most of my friends’ fathers did teachable things with their sons (from this point on I will speak only of sons): auto maintenance and repair, carpentry, simple plumbing and electrical service, fishing, hunting, and so forth. Almost all had interest in sports, or a sport, and passed along their affections to their sons. And again, almost all spent significant one-on-one time with their sons.
I received very little of that. My father owned a decent selection of hand tools, but except for occasionally using a screwdriver I never saw him use any of them. According to him, he once had an interest in recreational activities and some sports, but apparently the interest didn’t survive to my time. As for one-on-one time, I can count on one hand the number of times that happened, and have a finger or two left over.
It occurs to me that this sounds as if I’m complaining; such was not my intent. There was a time – and it lasted a long while – that, in fact, these were complaints, but recently I have simply come to accept my father for the complex, complicated, and possibly misanthropic man he was. (Your Aunt Ellen once suggested to me that Grandpa was a misogynist but I disagreed. He had a fairly negative view of humans in general. Perhaps, even in toto.) No, not complaining; it’s more to serve as background to help explain one of the first things I thought when Mom told me she was pregnant with Jon: I didn’t have a damned clue how to be a dad. The thought scared me to my marrow. With two older sisters, a mother who was the primary caregiver, no close male relatives, and a father with an essentially hands-off approach to what I consider the dad aspects of fatherhood, I grew up lacking the male direction that most of my friends enjoyed, and only knew that I didn’t want to be to you what my father was to me. I wanted to be the dad who imparted useful knowledge and who provided you with the opportunities you would need to learn the vitally important life lessons that are essential for developing into decent and responsible adults. The problem is simply this: I cannot imagine a father who would do all of these things, and oh, so much more, and still fail to say, “I could have done more.”
The very nature of fatherhood has changed dramatically over the past half-century with fathers becoming a much greater part of the caregiving team for their children. Prior to that, for the most part, and especially in the urban parts of the world, a man had virtually no involvement with childbirth beyond taking the mother-to-be to a hospital for delivery. Once the woman was registered she was taken to the delivery room while the father-to-be sat in a waiting room preparing to hand out cigars. Following the delivery, many hospitals wouldn’t let the father hold the baby – he was shown the infant through a window that looked into a room housing other newborns, all lying in their respective hospital cribs. And then, for the most part, the mother became the primary source for child-rearing.
This long-established pattern saw a major change within the last forty or fifty years. And now, it is commonplace for fathers to assist with the delivery and to be much more involved with child care. This is not to suggest there aren’t exceptions, just that now the norm is for fathers to share caregiving responsibilities with the mother.
You’ve more than likely heard some of the clichés associated with being a parent, especially, “Being a parent is the hardest job you’ll ever love.” It’s true, of course (at least for the overwhelming majority of parents I know). And there’s no training for the “job.” Oh, there are books, videos, and even courses on parenthood, but they largely amount to being ways for other people to make money. In co-parenting with Mom, I did what I thought was right for the both of you, and especially tried to encourage any and all of your interests. In so many ways, I wish I could have done more.
Despite my many deficiencies, you both matured into exactly what your mother and I hoped you would become; it is simultaneously wonderful and humbling to know our boys have become such fine young men. Still, there are things I hope I taught to you but honestly don’t remember for certain if I did. Well, life is for learning, so let me see if I can help smooth your life’s path a little. Here are some things — certainly not everything — I’ve learned over the years that I have found helpful. Apply or ignore them as you will and, possibly, at your risk:
- Do not allow a day to go by without laughing at least once. Life is too short not to find the humor. It is also too long not to.
- If you are not comfortable with the silences of those with whom you are especially close you won’t be comfortable with their words, either. This is also true of their relationship with you.
- Getting drunk is a physical manifestation of stupid.
- Acknowledge everyone. Saying “Hi,” even in passing, can make a positive difference to someone.
- Don’t ask the question, “How are you?” unless you really want to know.
- Always speak truthfully, but don’t always speak.
- Don’t undercook chicken.
- Read a book on a subject you know nothing about.
- Read books. Period.
- Whatever your creative muse is, feed it. Feed it well and feed it often.
- If you have to slam on your brakes either to stop at a red light/stop sign or to prevent an accident, you need to practice your driving skills.
- Always shave with the grain.
- Always rinse your face with cold water after shaving.
- Never argue with the pig you’re about to put on a spit and roast.
- Through actions there are thousands of ways to say “I love you.” Learn them all.
- Sometime in your life you will have to fire someone (perhaps several times to several people). It will either be a person who works for you who is not fulfilling her or his role properly, or someone in your personal life who is not fulfilling her or his role properly. The firing will neither be easy nor pleasant, but it will be necessary.
- Whatever hits the fan is never dispersed evenly.
- That said, never be the one who turns on the fan.
- Marinate for a long time; dry rub just before cooking.
- Study the first ten amendments (at least the first ten) to the Constitution. Until you know and understand their history, don’t offer an opinion about any of them.
- Purely evil people are rare, but they do exist.
- Tomato soup and a grilled-cheese sandwich might be the best thing to find on the table after you’ve spent an hour or two shoveling snow.
- The lessons learned from the worst thing that ever happened to you will probably not prepare you adequately for the next worst thing that ever happens to you.
- Check your tire pressure and tread depth regularly.
- Listen, really listen and pay attention. Because you can, and because most people don’t.
- Support your cause. That means a lot more than giving money to some group; give of yourself.
- Be a mentor to a young person who really needs one.
- Present with confidence and they will listen.
- What you will stand for is less important than how long you will stand for it. Defend your principles.
- There is no greater gift than being able to soothe a soul.
- Never buy cheap tools.
- Love with your heart, mind, and soul.
- There is never enough time.
I cherish the relationship we share: the camaraderie, the mutual respect, the commitment to drive everyone else crazy with our seemingly endless puns. And I am confident that no matter what else the future brings, you two will face any and all situations with optimistic aplomb. To which I say in closing, thank goodness for your mother’s contribution to your DNA.