I was reading through final papers from a freshman non-fiction creative writing class I was teaching. The students were asked to argue whether or not they had come of age, and one young man told a short story about his father. He described viewing his father as an all-knowing titan until he turned ten and asked him for a ride to a friend’s house. The father told him he was too tired, but turns out he was too drunk. This began a heartbreaking string of events that led to the young man’s discovery that his father was an alcoholic.
This story really rang true to me because I went through something similar with my father. I was nine years old when it happened. My dad sat on the living room floor, shoeless, his back against the base of the sofa, legs crossed Indian style. I sat next to him. We were alone. The room was reflected in our weighty wooden RCA home theater. This must have been ’89 or ’90. Face closer than necessary, he whispered a secret. “I feel real good,” he said. “Pretty damn okay.” He slouched, mouth twisted, head to the side, lips smacking with each suck of air. His eyes drifted shut, but his lazy smirk kept resurfacing, sloppy and leaning to one side. This was the first time I can remember seeing him high on painkillers. It was the moment I realized that my father was not flawless. In fact, he had a very deep flaw that 10 years after that moment would take his life.
I think most people realize their parents are human at one point, however, I don’t think it is always this dramatic. At some point you look at your father and realize that he can’t seem to keep his shirt tucked, or can’t manage a budget, or doesn’t understand how to use a computer. At some point you start to see the cracks in the pavement.
And while I know I saw this moment very clearly in my life, with my father, I am starting to wonder when my son will see it in me. He’s eight years old and while I know that he will never discover that I’m really an alcoholic or addicted to painkillers like I did with my father, he will one day realize that I can’t spell or do much more than simple math problems. He will one day understand that I have an unhealthy addiction to diet soda, and that I can’t fix a car. He might even notice that sometimes I piss off his mother because I load the dishwasher like a jerk, and although I have a graduate degree, I work in education, which means I have a white collar education but earn a blue collar wage. Some day he is going to look at me, and realize that I’m not all that good at sports and that without Google I’m kind of clueless.
And I suppose the really scary part about all this is that I know I’m human. I know a lot about my flaws, and I have to assume that there are flaws I can’t even see, hiding under the surface of my skin, waiting for my teenage son to point out. But what I don’t know is when this transition will happen for him.
I don’t know when he will finally realize that I’m just some dude who loves the hell out of him, and tries to give him good advice, but may in fact be a complete dumb ass.
Perhaps it wont be a dramatic turn like it was with my father. Perhaps it will be a slow process of me tripping and falling through one life challenge after another until Tristan says to himself, “You know what. I’m better at using technology than Dad. I wonder what else I’m better at.”
The scariest part about all of this is that I don’t know what it will mean for our relationship. I will admit, I like my son looking up to me. Last year we bought a basketball hoop. I don’t know much about playing basketball. I know how to dribble, and I can take a shot, but that’s about it. I think I’ve played in a handful of church ball games, and that must have been ten years ago. But when Tristan and I were in the driveway, and I showed him how to dribble and hold the ball, he looked up at me with bright blue eyes that seemed to say, “You are a god.”
I used to get that look a lot. But recently, in the past few months, he doesn’t do that anymore. Mostly he rolls his eyes, his face saying, “You have no idea what you’re doing, Dad.”
And perhaps that’s the real problem. The problem that I’ve known for some time, but he is only just now figuring out. I do, in fact, have no idea what I’m doing. As a father, I feel like a perpetually lost soldier, wandering through the woods, looking for my commander. Looking for someone that might have all the answers. And for a long time that made me feel bitter because I assumed my commander should have been my own father, but seeing as how he wasn’t around, I had to figure out things as I went. But now I realize that most parents feel just as lost as I do, without a strong father figure to lean on. Now, eight years into parenting, I feel like my son is starting to realize just how lost I really am, and maybe, just maybe, slowly decide to stop following me. To lose faith in me, and my advice, and start to strike out on his own.
They say this is all natural. They say a child is supposed to do as the Three Little Pigs did, “go their own way and build their own houses.” But I don’t know if I want that just yet. Because honestly, what I am starting to understand is that Tristan’s eventual realization that I am actually a flawed person is the start of him stepping away, becoming an adult, and eventually leaving me.
Obviously this is about me more than him. It’s about me struggling with the progression of my sweet little boy into a man, and learning to, like all parents must, let go.