(An essay on the lessons of life and fatherhood)
Most of us know that it doesn’t take much to become a father. Afterall, I’ve performed the feat five times without even thinking about it; and it was the easiest ten minutes of my life… twelve counting warm-up time. But the decision to be a father (and the best one I could be) is one of the toughest things I’ve ever attempted to do and, in my humble opinion, one of the noblest things I have ever aspired to become. Any man who has dared to step up to the challenge of raising kids to adulthood will tell you that fatherhood is hard.
To be fair to the ladies, motherhood is no walk in the park either. Fact is: there is no book (rule or play) for either parent to go by that comes with a “Get Your Life Back” guarantee. Still, motherhood — at its worst — is a safe bet; while fatherhood — at its best — is a stacked one. Win, lose or draw, mothers always get the shout out, the trophy and the game ball. Fathers, if we’re lucky, get to sit beside her when she does. To paraphrase Bill Cosby: A father’s odds are never better than 50/50. We’ll either get it wrong, or we’ll fail to get it right, because our children just aren’t reading the right books.
That being said, and all things considered; the reason I believe I’m qualified to talk about the merits of fatherhood is not because I believe I’m a good one. It’s simply because I’ve been doing it for almost three decades now. I’ve helped raise four daughters (did I mention I’m also a twice divorced, non-custodial parent? But that’s another blog!) who are intelligent, beautiful, college educated and independent young women who know and believe they are fully capable of taking care of themselves. Suffice it to say: They have made this father proud! But this story is not about them either!
You see, I also have a soon-to-be teenaged son. The third successive generation of males to carry the name given to my father, Robert, which happens to mean strong willed. To say I love this kid is the typical understatement. I love him more than I do life itself. In fact, those who truly know me also know that save for the God who gave him to me and the wife who labored thirty-six hours to bear him for me – there is no person or thing, on or of this earth, that I love more. He is, in every way imaginable, just like me. He looks like me. He acts and thinks like me, or rather, like I did when I was his age – and sometimes that scares the hell out of me! And true to our name, he has a will stronger than adamantium. Indeed; our name fits the both of us like a latex glove.
It’s difficult to describe what I see and feel sometimes when I am watching my son – especially when he’s unaware of it. For there are the times in his very young life, just as there were in mine, when being strong willed is sometimes akin to simply being foolish and, in the absence of knowledge and wisdom, utterly foolish. Of course he doesn’t know this yet; any more than I did when I was his age. And it’s on these ocassions when I attempt to school him. To prepare him for the rigorous tests of manhood that are still yet to come, by pointing out what I believe he did wrong as well as right. But there are times when the roles are reversed. When he becomes a two way mirror into my past and I see, however briefly, the young, foolish, stubborn and strong-willed me in him; and have cause to remember the words of Wordsworth: That the child is father of the man. It is truly amazing what this kid has taught me during those times.
I remember one late summer day, shortly after his eighth birthday, something happened that took me back more than thirty years to a time when I was not much older than him. I was working in the game room of our home, where I had set up a small electronics lab, testing a device I’d designed for a company I did contract work for. Robert was outside playing basketball with a handful of his friends, six to be exact, on the other side of the cul-de-sac we lived on. We called it the loop. I had watched them for a few moments through a large window overlooking the loop before returning to the task at hand. Just listening to the rhythm of the ball bouncing on the blacktop and reverberating off the rim and backboard brought back memories of my own youth and times long past. Some of those times were good ones. Some were not so good. But the memories I had that day were as fresh and new as if it had been yesterday.
I remember thinking how fortunate my son was to grow up in a place that was a world away from the concrete jungles of my childhood. Where he was free to just be and act like an eight year old kid. He had spent the summer hanging out with his friends at a day camp on a scenic mountain top and at weekend sleepovers. His days consisted of playing basketball, swimming, playing his drums, roller-blading and skate boarding, and spending countless hours on the Playstation when there was nothing else to do. He had no idea what it was like to live and play in an urban war zone where gang members, not much older than himself, were trying to earn their colors; and drug dealers were openly practicing their trade and guarding their turf with a ferocity worse than guerilla warfare. He would not know what it was like to return to a school where students had to pass through metal detectors and hall monitors were armed security guards and police officers with tazers and trigger happy fingers. I thanked God for allowing me to spare him from such a childhood. A childhood he would be living if he was growing up in the same place I had.
I don’t know how long I sat there lost in reverie, but I suddenly sensed that something was wrong. The world had gone silent. Rising from my chair, I walked over to the window and looked across the loop. Two of the boys, one of them my son, were clearly engaged in a shoving match while the other boys looked on. I reached for the two-way radio clipped to my belt and started to call him on the one he always had to take with him whenever he left the house. The radios had a range of almost five miles and, in the mountains where I lived, they were more reliable than cell phones. But then I stopped, and for some reason, probably curiosity, I decided not to call. Instead, I grabbed my shades and phone and headed downstairs. This, I thought, was the perfect opportunity to explain to these young guys the merits of friendship. What I did not know is that I would learn just as much as I thought I would teach.
By the time I reached the other side of the loop I had already seen and heard enough to figure out what was happening. Each boy was shoving the other at the insistence of those who were watching. “Push him back”, I heard one of the older boys say just before my son gave his best friend and now adversary, a kid named Matthew a hard shove. Matthew just stood there after righting himself, as if he were waiting to be told what to do next. It was obvious by the look on their faces that neither wanted to fight. The two of them usually spent the entire day together at day camp, and the remainder of the day afterwards. It was also obvious that none on them were aware of my ensuing approach. “Push him back!” The oldest boy in the group ordered Matthew just before I decided to make my presence known.
“That’s enough fellas!” I shouted from about ten feet away. The six of them looked at me and froze like deer in a pair of headlights. The two oldest boys in the group, Michael and Malik, were teenagers who happened to be brothers. I knew their parents and other other siblings, all of whom were all frequent guests in my home. I shook my head in disappointment. “You two ought to know better!” I scolded them. “You should have been trying to prevent this instead of encouraging them to fight.” The oldest, Michael, attempted to redeem himself but I wasn’t interested in hearing his explanation. “You don’t have to explain it to me.” I said. “You can explain it to your parents.” I told my son to get his radio and bike and head home. Then I looked at Matthew and told him do likewise. “Tell your parents Robert and I will be over in a few minutes.”
When we got home I had Robert clean himself up, and told him we would talk on the way to Matthew’s house, about a mile away. As we walked and talked, he could not give me a good reason for why he was pushing his friend Matthew, or vice-versa. Fact is: he really didn’t have one. Every attempt to explain his or Matthew’s behavior was preceded with “Michael said, or Malik said.” It didn’t take much to put the rest of the story together.
I told my son that he was wrong for not standing up to the other boys by refusing to fight his friend. That he had failed his friend by failing to be a friend. Then I shared a story with him, very much like the one he had told me. I explained how I had come close to fighting a friend simply because that was what some other boys wanted us to do. “I didn’t even want to fight him.” I explained to my son. “And I was too ashamed to face him and tell him that the the next time I saw him.”
“So, what happened?” He asked.
“He ran home,” I replied. “And I lost a real good friend that day. But he refused to do what he didn’t want to do,” I added. “And I wish I had done the same.”
When we got to Matthew’s house I explained what had happened to his parents, and told Robert that he owed his friend an apology; which he gave him. I left shortly after that, but I let him stay there for awhile with his friend. Matthew’s parents agreed to bring him home later that evening! Three years later, Matthew was there to celebrate my son’s eleventh birthday and they’re still friends to this day.
As I walked home I thought about what had happened. Not just on that day, but that day over thirty years ago when I had failed my friend by failing to be a friend; and failed myself by failing to be myself. Truth be told: I’d thought about it many times, but I was all the more grateful for the lesson I had learned that day through my son, and the lesson I believed I had taught him. I told myself that if I ever got the chance to right that wrong I would do so. I would tell that old friend from my childhood that he did what I did not have the courage to do: The right thing. Not because I was motivated by shame, or guilt; but simply by the truth as I now understood it to be.
Thanks A.T., for giving me the chance!
Frank A Clark wrote that a father is a man who expects his son to be the man he meant to be.
I am a father.