“You can never write about that,” a friend once said of my first marriage, which lasted all of about six months. It wasn’t that the story was too painful or might damage my ex-wife in some way—no, it was too clichéd. The night I moved out for good from the apartment we shared just happened to be my birthday. Having no packing materials or suitcases, I stuffed all my belongings in Hefty garbage sacks—and as I jammed the last sack into the trunk of my car, yes, as though on cue, it started snowing. Slowly. Poetically. That night I crashed on a flea-infested couch at my friends’ house by the railroad tracks. They had no blankets. I put on three sweaters and slept in my shoes.
In the seventeen years since that regrettable time, I’ve done plenty of growing up—which is another cliché. But it’s true. I lived alone in the Oregon backcountry for seven months. I wrote three books and published one. I earned a PhD and married a poet, and almost five years ago our son was born.
I thought my life as a walking cliché was over. I thought clichéd lives were for those too stupid—as I had been—to understand the consequences of their actions. I felt somehow superior to clichés.
I felt superior to a lot of things. To wit: before I became a father, I thought I had fatherhood figured out. I don’t mean real fatherhood, the diapers and late-night feedings, the sleep deprivation of the early years, the constant worry about money, the loss of any and all independence of spirit—that part of the deal terrified me, and still does. I mean that I thought I knew how to be a good dad. I would just be sure not to fail my son in the ways that my father failed me. Which isn’t to say my father is a failure or that I’m somehow scarred. I love my dad. I’m just saying that the lingering hurts of childhood—if my son didn’t feel what I’d felt, didn’t know my particular loneliness and isolation, he’d turn out just fine, and my work would be done. Huzzah! The mistakes of the past have not been repeated. Now get this man a World’s Greatest Dad mug.
About those lingering hurts. They will probably sound familiar enough: though reliable, trustworthy, and an all-around decent man, my dad wasn’t a talker, a hugger, or the kind of person you would go to looking for advice. If you wanted to go fishing…well, then call Bill. And there were lots of times we went fishing, and I loved those times and credit our many trips with my affection for nature and solitude and silence. But if I’m being honest—and this will sound clichéd, too—I always felt as though something was missing. He lost his own father when I was less than a month old. I wondered if that didn’t irreparably damage our chances from the outset.
The thing about a missing feeling, however, is that it takes you a long time to realize that that’s what it is. You don’t miss something you never had (again, cliché, I know.) But it became crystal clear to me one day.
I must have been twenty-four or twenty-five. My friend D. phoned one morning with news that his dad had died. Unexpectedly. The details were murky, and it would be a few years before the whole truth came out, but on that morning D. needed me. We drove out to an ice cream stand south of town for lunch and cones. We ate and talked and told stories, and he was full of pain about his dad.
After lunch—because he was friends with my family and had always loved sitting on the dock of our farm pond, fishing—I drove him out to my folks’ house. We pulled up the driveway and there was my dad with a garden hose, washing his brand-new black pickup. I wasn’t sure that he had heard the news, and even if he had, I didn’t think he’d have much to say about it. That he was sorry maybe. That it was too bad. But as we got out of my car, he turned off the garden hose and marched right over to us. He put a hand on D.’s shoulder and left it there as he offered his condolences.
“I know what it’s like to lose a dad,” he said, looking D. square in the eyes. “It’s terrible. And I’m sorry.”
It was perhaps the most genuine and heartfelt expression of emotion I had ever seen from my father, and it shocked me. I honestly didn’t think he had it in him. I had to think that way for my own preservation because if he had it in him, then that meant he’d been holding back on me. All those years.
And I hate to tell you this because I don’t like how it makes me look—so shallow and small—but because I’m trying to be honest, I’ll say it: it pissed me off. Which I know is crazy. Crazy. I mean, D.’s dad had died that very fucking morning. He died. And yet now, just hours later, because my father had put a hand on D.’s shoulder, had shown D. some basic human compassion, I envied him?
That’s how the heart works—it doesn’t give a shit about what it’s supposed to feel, it just feels. Inconvenient? Inappropriate? Embarrassing? Too bad. Deal. Which is what I did in that moment in the driveway: I ignored that little heart-prick of anger and got on with the business of caring for my friend. We walked down to the pond, hour followed hour, more talk and stories. Eventually I handed him over to another friend to keep him company, and the days that followed peeled off like silky milkweed seeds from a pod. But I never forgot how surprised I’d been or how I’d envied D. in his time of need. Looking back, that may have been one of the first real moments when I knew—when I knew knew—what I had been missing those growing up years, what that missing-feeling in my chest was all about. I needed my dad’s hand on my shoulder.
When I became a father myself, I swore my son would never feel my absence like that—not if I could help it. I’d talk to him. I’d listen, ask questions. I’d teach him things, too, and share in the joys of his discoveries. It didn’t occur to me that what he might need would be something entirely different.
It didn’t occur to me that my son—for reasons totally beyond his control—might not be able to talk to me.
The short version of what happened is this: though pronounced healthy at birth, our son had some underlying health issues, some of which we are still—again, almost five years later—trying to figure out. As a baby, he screamed constantly and would not sleep. Not even in our arms. Every time we took him to the doctor to complain the doctors gave us some new excuse. Colic. Teething. It would take three years, endless tears, an endoscopy and a colonoscopy, a diagnosis of multiple gastrointestinal problems and some hardcore prescription medicines before he slept the night.
The longer version of the story is that we’re still dealing with the physical, emotional and developmental fallout from those first hard years. The simplest way to put it is this. Imagine you had a bellyache every day—that you were nauseated, and that you suffered alternating bouts of constipation and diarrhea, and that because of your belly you couldn’t sleep more than an hour or two at a time. Oh, and let’s take away your ability to tell anyone how you feel because you don’t have language, just your cries of abject pain. Say that’s your reality, every day, for three years. What would that do to you? What should the world reasonably expect from you once the meds have kicked in and your symptoms have diminished and you have begun sleeping the night? If you’re a young child like our son, the world still expects you to be a normal, friendly, chatty, happy-go-lucky cherub. Well, guess what? He’s not. While incredibly cute and loving and gifted with the biggest goddamn heart of anybody I’ve ever known, the little guy struggles.
When he gets angry, he rages and screams as any child might—only the intensity and the duration of his tirades are that much greater. He lacks core muscle strength. He’s clumsy. He doesn’t draw—maybe because using a pencil hurts his hands, or maybe he just doesn’t have the patience, or doesn’t care. If he doesn’t like what we’re asking him to do, he’ll take a swat at us. Maybe even kick us.
And though he has the vocabulary of a seven-year-old, as evidenced by some tests his speech therapist performed, he can’t use words in service of talking. Not really. He makes demands—for milk, television, music, for the places he wants to go, the things he wants to do—but concepts elude him. He memorizes and repeats things, books, TV commercials. I feel certain he’s the only kid at his preschool, a therapy-based school, who can sing every word on REM’s Green album. He may also be the only kid there who, at two years old, could do a 100-piece jigsaw puzzle. “He’s our mystery child,” his speech therapist has told us more than once. On days when his behavior hasn’t run us ragged, my wife and I are grateful for who and what he is.
For what he might become.
Yesterday while we were getting ready for preschool, he said he wanted to write a letter to Miss T. Miss T. is one of his teachers who had recently had to take time off from her job to pursue a course of chemotherapy for breast cancer. They had written her a letter at school. He wanted to write another one.
I got a piece of a paper, a pen and an envelope. I told him that I would write down whatever he wanted to say to Miss T.
“Dear Miss T.,” he said.
“Okay,” I said.
“What do you want to say?”
“Happy Valentine’s Day,” he said.
“What else?” I said.
“Thank you,” he said.
“I love you.”
“What else? Keep going.”
“Can I eat the TV?”
“Can I eat the TV?”
“No. You can’t eat the TV.”
“But I want to eat the TV. I want to eat it.”
“We’re writing a letter right now. What do you want to say to Miss T.? What should we write next? Come on, Bud. Focus.”
“Happy Valentine’s Day.”
“You already said that—”
“Happy Valentine’s Day again!”
“Happy Tuesday,” he said.
Finally I read him back the letter in its entirety:
Dear Miss T.,
Happy Valentine’s Day! Thank you. I love you. Happy Valentine’s Day again. Happy Tuesday!
Then I had him attempt his name in big block letters, and I added the date: May 19, 2014. Which may seem a tad late for Valentine’s wishes, but it was at Valentine’s that we found out Miss T. would need to take a leave of absence from work. In his mind, when he thought of her, he thought of Valentine’s.
My son’s deep tenderness—from what I can decipher of it—reminds me so much of my own tenderness as a child. I used to let my grandma win at Canasta. When my brother was diagnosed with scoliosis, I’d wished it was me instead of him. Once when we bought a new car, I patted the old one on the bumper and told it it had been a good car, that we would miss it. And because I see parts of myself in him (if you will indulge me a moment of clichéd narcissism), I realize from time to time: my job isn’t to be the father I wish I’d had; my job is to be the father that he needs. Which is one of those statements that sounds so self-evident you wonder how it could ever come as a startling revelation. But it does. And it never fails to surprise me. Like a goldfish circling its castle for the millionth time, I discover the idea anew: I need to be what he needs me to be.
And it doesn’t stop there. The sensitive little boy I’d been, and the heartsick young man licking his wounds after a divorce, and the envious friend—I need to be what they need me to be, too. I need to be what my wife needs me to be, what my family needs me to be. What the world needs me to be. If that means sometimes being a cliché, I’m fine with that. It’s inevitable, and I don’t mind it—not like I used to. I no longer feel superior to clichés. If I’d never offered myself up to the familiar indignities of fatherhood, I would never have known my son who is a complete fucking original. If I’d never in my life been a chump, a dumbass, a fool, how would I have learned to laugh? Maybe if what the world wants me to be is a writer, and a hopefully good one—hopefully—my whole life will have to be one giant cliché just so I have an impediment to overcome when I sit down to create real lives on the blank page. Maybe the best father for a boy who can’t really talk is a man whose own father couldn’t really talk to him. Maybe remembering and forgetting is what heals us and what makes us whole. And maybe the next time my son asks if he can eat the television I’ll say, “Why not?” and hand him a spoon.