Discover more from Get Real, Man
It's not about me
Lessons from my father and my son
Before we both forget, go ahead and press that subscribe button to join the community here at Get Real, Man.
I became a father on a muggy Sunday morning, on one of those East Coast summer days where everything just moves slowly. Everything except my new son, who couldn’t have cared less what we expected. We showed up to the hospital unprepared, with only a wallet and keys and our expectation that we would get sent home for another three weeks. Instead the nurse smiled over her pink scrubs and with her warm eyes said, “You’re not going home tonight honey. You’re having a baby.”
I showed up that day as the son of my father, still trying to figure out what that meant to me, and I emerged as the father of my son, even more unprepared for what that new role would mean. I didn’t know it then, but the hours in between were the beginning of letting go of myself.
As I was sitting in the delivery room trying to be useful, I thought about my father. Specifically, I remembered my father’s chair. He had this overstuffed leather recliner. It was originally maroon, but as I remember it, the leather was so cracked that the only color left was a burnt brown imprint of his body. His chair sat in the corner of the family room so that you had to pass Dad to walk by. I remember the smell of aged sweat, skin, and leather, like an old wardrobe that wasn’t used to fresh air. My father spent hours in that chair.
I remembered being ten years old. Every evening I would soak under a hot shower while Dad waited in his chair. When I was properly wrinkled, I would dress in my pajamas, grab the gel and brush, and present myself. I remembered kneeling on the hardwood floor, relishing the pain against my knees, as he ran the comb through my blond hair. My neck would hurt as he’d tug with that wooden comb, a consequence of demanding my hair stay longer than he approved of. To his credit he never said anything about it. As he brushed my hair, his gravelly voice would drift off.
“I used to do this with your sister every night when it was just the two of us. I’d get home from college and rest on her bed while she took a bath and got dressed. I remember the stories she’d tell: of dolls and imaginary meals and everything she wanted that we couldn’t afford. I’d drift off for a few minutes before she was ready for me. And then, I’d brush her hair, running that pink brush through the knots over and over again every night. She used to cry and scream that it hurt, but I didn’t know what else to do. So I’d just keep brushing.”
For five minutes every evening it was just the two of us.
Later that chair became his escape. As the years wore him down, the leather imprint drifted from sitting to lying. Every evening after dinner he’d silently walk into the living room and sit, entombed in that chair with the TV on way too loud. He couldn’t hear it otherwise, and I’d get so mad because he could hear the smallest noise I made two rooms away. Most nights we’d eventually join him in front of the TV, on separate seats in the same room. We’d watch the nightly news, or The Simpsons, or Home Improvement, sitting together in silence as Dad gradually drifted off to sleep. As our show ended, I’d tiptoe past him, gingerly silence the lights, and hope he would stay peaceful for a few minutes. And I’d wonder if I was the reason he was always so exhausted.
Lately I’ve found myself remembering the silence. The silence filled every room – the kitchen table where we ate without talking, the family room where we let the TV talk for us, even my room where I’d escape the roar of our shared silence for a respite into my own.
I’ve unconsciously created my family routines to avoid that silence. Our home centers around a large farm style oak dining table. It’s the kind you’d see in a magazine, except ours is scratched and pitted from use. It centers a space where everyone talks and meals go on for hours. When we designed it, I saw us all talking, being serious and goofy, telling stories and learning from books and listening to each other get excited about their universe. When the words didn’t’t flow I invented games like “dinner questions” as a lubricant. The kind of connection I wanted required conversation, and I was damned if we weren’t going to talk.
Yet family conversations don’t flow naturally, and they rarely touch on the personal or existential. Getting my son to talk about anything takes time. I wonder if that’s the Autism or just karma laughing at me. He’d prefer to sit in silence, his head bowed before grabbing a handful of food and shoveling it into his mouth. Even after years of our routine, he still looks at me with horror when I invite him into a conversation.
A few months ago we were sitting around the table. The cresting sun warmed the kitchen through our back window and I was suddenly saddened by the beauty of it all, like an out of body experience that brings emotions you can’t explain. I saw us all sitting, and I desperately wanted more than anything to talk. My body demanded that connection, right then.
“What was your favorite thing from school this week?” I asked. Which was obviously a lame dad question, because they barely looked up from their plates.
So I thought I’d try another tack. I asked what their friends were up to this weekend and if they wanted to come play later. In unison they both responded with a barely audible sigh and a look that said they weren’t going to bite. Mind you, they’re eight and five, still too young for that teenage disdain.
Desperate to just get us talking, to open up a crack in their armor that would lead to the kind of connection I was craving, I stooped to the least imaginative question I could imagine. “What do you guys think we should do today?”
Their eyes both looked up and let me know I was failing. Instead of a great conversation, I was being ignored. And I was angry. But I’m too stubborn to admit defeat, so I tried one last volley.
“Fine, you don’t like any of my ideas. What do you like?”
My son’s eyes widened. Then he filled his lungs to prepare for the words that would all come in his next breath. And he said:
“I really like Pikachu, but Charizard is really cool too. In fact, if Charizard and Pikachu ever escaped from their Pokeballs and had a battle, I bet Pikachu would win because my Pikachu is a higher level than Charizard, unless Charizard has evolved into G-Max Charizard and then he might have a chance to defeat Pikachu with his G-Max Wildfire move.”
We all just stared.
I wonder how much my obsession with storytelling stems from insecurity about my own story. With my dad, I worried that I had caused him to be so worn out day after day. I wondered if something I did meant he needed all that silence. With my kids, I worry whether I’m doing enough to help them bloom. Am I the hero of the story, a villain, or just an extra?
I recently visited my parents home. Not the home I’d grown up in, but the house they’d built after we’d left. I told my wife it was a good chance for our kids to get to know their grandparents, but secretly I wanted to get to know my parents too. I was nearing 40 and was suddenly curious who they had been when I was growing up. If I didn’t ask all the questions that years of silence had brought up, I might miss my chance.
We sat across from each other, Dad in the new leather armchair and me on the couch like old times. Only this time we talked.
We talked of unrealized dreams. Dad had dreams of becoming an FBI agent: of chasing the bad guys and solving the case with his intellect. Yet he had shelved those dreams to support his daughter when he realized he couldn’t stay married. I saw him being fearless in that story.
We talked of pain and frustrations. Dad told me about horrible bosses who destroyed his confidence so much that he chose to move his young family to a conflict zone rather than stay. I saw how frustrated he had been while he waited for another boss to retire or die so that he could have his chance, and then they had finally tapped him after he’s stopped caring and come to hate work. I was sad to realize that he felt like he couldn’t do anything else with his career. And we talked of his painful allergy shots and never ending headaches, which I believe were his body rejecting the years of stress and hard living. They took away the only food he’d ever really enjoyed.
I saw the loneliness in his eyes. He didn’t say it, but I saw his loneliness when he moved to California and left the only support system behind for his job. I understood how hard it was watching his daughter die before him and his grandchildren grow up far away. I felt his loneliness as he lived in a place that wasn’t home but he couldn’t escape from. I don’t think he knows where home is anyway.
In the entire time we sat together, he never once looked at me. But he talked. I started to understand my father as a human being. I saw how all of those experiences had very little to do with me. He was trying to live in the world as he understood it. And that world didn’t care what he wanted.
I was a part of his life, but all the imagined hurt and separation and loneliness weren’t his story. His story was doing his best to raise a family, find his place, build a legacy. And if I wanted to understand the part I played, I needed to embrace a scary realization: all of those hurts weren’t about me.
Thankfully, I’d been prepared to accept how little life was actually about me. During COVID, my son had taught me a similar lesson.
Lockdowns were, in hindsight, a blessing for us. I spent hours with my boy. I wasn’t leaving for work before he got up and picking him up at the end of the school day; I was home with him. In those hours, I began to see parts of him I had never noticed, sides of him that no one had seen.
Every day we went to our neighborhood playground where he would climb all over the play set and act out the same Mickey Mouse spaceship story. As he told the story of Mickey donning his space suit and Donald checking the rocket, he always started at the southwest corner of the sandbox, walked the same 11 steps snaking by the bench, inspected the exact same spot underneath the platform, and pointed out the same nut that had only been tightened 14 turns instead of 17. The fifth time he did it was impressive, by the tenth time I started getting worried, and on the 37th day in a row I was so lost I didn’t know what to do. I started to question if I was really seeing what I thought I was. Finally we were able to restart therapy and I pleaded with his therapist to take a look.
As I pulled the fraying strap on his carseat after that session, she followed me to the car. In a hushed voice— I think she was trying to hide it from him, a pattern I’ve come to know too well — she said “I think it’s time to have him checked for Autism.” Then she handed me a ripped piece of paper with a colleague’s phone number on it and walked away.
I felt queasy. My worst fears all came rushing up at once, responding to this word I didn’t really know but still hated. On the drive home I couldn’t hold it in and drove home sobbing.
As my body spasmed with tears, my son, from the back seat, told me for the 38th time how Mickey and Donald gathered their space suits. Over his description of them buckling in, I released every ounce of stored grief. I cried for the connections and moments that hadn’t come, and the connections that would seemingly never come. I sobbed for the vision I had of fatherhood. I grieved all the way home.
Sitting at the kitchen island, I told my wife through between sobs how he probably had Autism. I told her how I felt so lonely and so tired of hearing the same damned story of Mickey Mouse and how ashamed I was of those feelings. All I really wanted was to know that he heard me and cared about me anywhere near as much as I cared about him. I saw the ruins of my dreams as a father come crashing down.
As I sat and felt sorry for myself, he walked with awkward toddler steps to the island holding his favorite Space Station Lego. He sat down next to me, put the bricks on my lap, and looked up to me. I wanted to run. I wanted to be angry that he cared about these Legos more than me. Most of all I wanted to hate the world that had given him Autism. But my wife wouldn’t let me. She told me to look closer. In his hands was a yellow space man that he was holding up to me. He opened the space station to show me where it went, but he wasn’t looking at the Legos. His brown eyes were looking up at me, asking me to play.
That was the first time I realized my fears were actually my stories, not his. He was inviting me into his world, and I got to choose whether to accept. If I wanted a relationship with my son, it was going to be on his terms.
Being a father meant taking a back seat to what I believed being a father was supposed to be. In that moment I had to learn that it wasn’t about me.
I’ve been thinking about all this lately, about relationships and connection and my part in the stories of other people, because a friend and I have been talking about legacies. I want to know that the world, or at least the people around me, are better off because I was here. I want my children to be good people. And I don’t want them to struggle in the same ways I have.
Just last week my daughter insisted she could cross the street by herself. At five years old. The same street where large pickup trucks regularly whiz by at 55. The street where I was almost hit by a farm tractor. No way.
But I’m ready she said. And I told her she might be ready but I’m not.
But I’m old enough she said. And I told her it’s not her age, but that I didn’t trust the drivers to see her.
But I know how to be safe she said. And all I had was the same I’m not ready, I’m still nervous.
Seeing that I wasn’t moving, she fixed her almond eyes on me with the furrowed brows and the welling tears which are my downfall. She stared through me as the frustration filled her body, refusing to let me off that easy. We stood stuck; I finally budged. I told her we could walk to the road together and, only when I agreed, she could cross it by herself as I watched.
She walked two inches taller to that road, while I squeezed her little hand. I told myself I was preparing her to be confident, safe and responsible. I was showing her how to grow when I might not be there to protect her. But then I remembered my parents had been here to protect me. Always. Yet I still had to go through my own hurt, my own loss, my own feelings of loneliness.
I realized that the worry that really grips me is what kind of world I’m creating for my kids while I’m still in it. How do I leave space so they don’t have to learn my same lessons 35 years from now? How do I be in their life so they never have to wonder if my struggles are actually about them?
Tonight, like most nights I sit alone after they’ve gone to sleep, and I wonder if I made today about me.
Get Real, Man is my endeavor to use stories to help you live a more fulfilled life. If you subscribe now, you’ll never miss them.