Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Father's Day

About a week and a half ago, I was re-watching a scene from an overlooked movie I love, "King of the Corner." The movie was written and produced by Peter Reigert, the actor who played Boone in "Animal House," and has had wonderful roles in movies like "Local Color" and "Crossing Delancey" over the years.

There's a great scene in the movie, toward the end, where Reigert's character, Leo, gives a spontaneous eulogy for his father, whom he was never close to. In the course of a few minutes, he suddenly understands his father-- his failures and successes, and consequently his own failures and successes. It's hard not to cry while watching the scene.

Later, in the final scene, it's clear that Leo has taken his lessons to heart. It's hard not to smile at the last scene. Leo realizes, before it's too late, what the important things are in his life.

About 9 years ago or so, I was still married to second wife Cynthia. We went together, with my son, who was then about seven years old, to a party my brother's in-laws were throwing for his son's first birthday. It was, in general, a very joyous occasion; it was doubtful, when he was born, that my nephew would see his first birthday; he'd been born with a serious heart defect, which was, happily, surgically repaired.

At some point in the party, my father asked if I'd leave the party to go to a nearby electronics store with him-- he needed my help in selecting an electronic component.

Later, I realized that he had no need of help; he'd worked with computers for years and knows way more than I do about them. He just wanted to talk to me alone.

We picked up the electronic component and, since we were near it, we ran by the house we lived in in Western Springs, a western suburb of Chicago.

We drove through the cul-de-sac it was on and stopped to look at the house. I did not, in general, have good memories there. The people in that town were snotty, hypocritical and mean. It was one of the places we'd move to when my father was feeling his vague sense of dissatisfaction. He continued this pattern even after my brothers and I went off to college.

The family that lived there now was out on the front lawn. When we stopped to look at the place, the father, who was out playing with his kids, came out to say hello. We told him why we'd stopped by and talked to him about the things that were the same and the things that had been changed.

We drove a short distance, then my father pulled the car over. He started tearfully apologizing for how he had been as a father. He had, in his own words, "terrorized" my brothers and I (he had). He asked me to forgive him. I did.

The thing is that at that point, only a few years into being a parent, I'd realized that no matter how well you did as a parent, there were going to be things that you could have done better if you'd only known. He'd come from a very rough background, as I'd discovered, unbeknowest to him over the years. I'd known about the death of his own father when he was less than 2 years old. I knew about his mother remarrying to a violent drunk, and her own death in an automobile accident when he was a teenager. What I found out over the years were some other facts. His mother had not been an angel. There'd been a steady succession of men in her life-- and bed-- before and after her remarriage. I'd also discovered just how violent a guy his stepfather had been; he'd spent time in prison in Louisiana after shooting a man to death with a shotgun after he'd lost a barfight to him.

I came to understand my father much better-- the mercurial mood changes, the screaming, the battering, the sobbing apologies afterward. His unrelenting worry over what people thought about his house, his life. He has spent his life battling, like most people who were battered as children, a crippling depression. He's 72 and still struggling with it.

Today, he and I get along very well. It was good for him and cathartic to me to forgive him for his past. And it released me to let go of all the anger I had as a younger guy and to put my energy into what to me is the most important job I'll ever have: raising a couple of kids.

This July 4th will mark the 17th anniversary of the phone call I got from a then-recent ex-girlfriend informing that she was pregnant-- and keeping the baby.

I was just staggered; I didn't feel like I was father material. I was a hot-headed, hard-drinking guy. I'd been juggling a couple of relationships. My life was books, work-- two full-time jobs-- and boozy conversations every night. Looking back, I don't even know how I found the time or energy to carry on the relationships.

But the first time I held my son, at Columbus Hospital in Chicago, I knew this had to change. I'd never seen anything so helpless in my life and I was blown away by the fact that I was responsible for this guy for at least the next 18 years.

Over the next couple of years, I tried to make it work with his mother. I had originally broken up with her, before she discovered she was pregnant, because she was passive to the point that I didn't feel like I could carry on a relationship; I couldn't even carry on a conversation with her.

But when we moved in together, she turned into a bullying, screaming hellion. It puzzled me. Later, I discovered that this was the way her father, a father she hated, and who had died before she had a chance to make peace with him, was.

After two years, I moved out. Things were pretty friendly, as long as she had hope that we'd reconcile. When it became clear that we weren't, we had a knock-down drag-out custody fight that left both of us broke and my son upset.

Around the same time, I finished my teaching certification and spent most of the next ten years working as a teacher.

I had had a brief marriage in the late nineties. I ended it when it was clear that she was not willing to be a step-parent. A couple of years later, I reconciled with an old girlfriend and married her. I thought things were going to be good, but it became apparent that she resented my son. Worse, she wanted her own kids. My gut told me that this was a bad idea.

Flash forward to my nephew's birthday party. My father told me that that day, my wife had cornered him and cried and told me how hard it was to be there with all those kids when she was probably never going to have her own children. My father told me later about this conversation and his feeling about it: that if she and I had children, she would try to get me to marginalize my son. He confirmed exactly what I had been thinking. A few months later, she and I separated and then ended the marriage.

She has since remarried and had a child.

When I decided to start dating again a couple of years later, I decided that I'd only consider people who had their own kids; they were the only ones who would understand that your kids come first. I remarried, and acquired an eight-year-old stepdaughter in the process.

My wife's ex-husband, who is a writer of some note, remarried even before I met Kim. The woman he married is openly resentful of my stepdaughter, and he seems to have had less and less interest in parenting.

In the meantime, over the years, my ex-girlfriend seems to have been hell-bent on making sure my son hates her. According to my son, she's continued her tradition of screaming at and belittling the person she lives with. She's thrown him out of the house twice, the first time when he was eight. The second time, I was at work. I could hear him wailing in the background as she said, and I quote, "Come pick this piece of sh*t up." I'm not making that up or exaggerating. She has frequently criticized him telling him that "You're just like your father."

I don't think he takes this as an insult.

A few years back, I discovered that several of the parents on my block were strongly encouraging their kids to play with my son when he was at my home. They liked the fact that he was polite and well-mannered. I shook my head, thinking of my ex- telling him he was worthless.

A couple of weeks ago, my wife got home from work exhausted and conked out. My stepdaughter asked if I'd go for a walk with her. I was happy to.

We talked about school, her friends and then she brought up her father and his wife. It was no secret that his wife was awful to her. My stepdaughter complained that back before the stepmother was in the picture, her dad and her would always do stuff together-- go to the park, go to movies, etc. Over time, this stuff has dwindled to nothing.

This father's day, I didn't see either of my kids, not for long, at least. My son asked me to put off hanging out together-- he had an oppurtunity to hang out with my ex-'s family, a close-knit Chinese-American clan, who are, unlike my ex, lovely people. He told me that we'd hang out an extra day the next weekend he was over. I told him that was okay. And my stepdaughter's father asked to hang out with her on Father's Day. It was all fine with me-- I had an opportunity to work a lucrative double that day, and right now money's a big consideration; my wife was unemployed a lot of the last year, and I will start having to make payments on next semester's tuition soon. Finishing a nursing school is a priority; it will allow me to pay for my kids' college.

Because I have a different philosophy on college than my wife's ex, who who said "I paid for my own college, why can't she pay for her own?," my feeling is "Gee, I really want my kids to study whatever they want, without having the worry of having a crippling debt afterward." Because you see, that's what a parent does-- we make sure, to the best of our ability, that our kids have a better life than we had.

If I were to sit down with my ex and Kim's ex, I'd explain, at the risk of sounding smug, what parenting is all about, and why my kids still like hanging around me.

It's not, like both of you like to think, that I'm lenient. You see, not being arbitrary about discipline, about having set rules, not rules you pull out of your ass randomly-- that's important. I don't think that makes me lenient. It makes me fair.

I'd explain to them some things about parenting. It's the hardest, most satisfying thing I've ever done. It's been alternately excruciating boring and mind-blowingly thrilling. Yes, it's meant a million games of Candyland, checkers and Monopoly. It's meant sitting watching baseball games in weather so cold that I coudn't feel my hands at the end, or watching a lacrosse game in the heat. But it's also meant seeing my son pitch in a championship series, and seeing my daughter hit her first base-hit ever in softball. It's meant taking shifts at my second job as a waiter when I was a teacher so that I could take care of my kids, and working that waitering job, a job I'm really too old for, so that I can provide for them while I'm in nursing school.

I'd show them this picture:

To them, it may look like an alley. To me, it's the place where I taught two children how to ride bicycles. This was important to me; my old man didn't teach me to ride. I taught myself, and then taught my two brothers how to in an alley about a mile from here.

I'd show them these pictures:

What is that? It's a three-bedroom house in a two-flat on the north side of Chicago. Yes, it's a beautiful place-- not too big, but full of wood and books and laughter and love. It's a place that two kids consider home, despite the fact that one of them spends more time at the other house. It's a place that the parties tend to land because everyone knows they're welcome here-- including my kids. If I were to talk to the two of you about it, my ex and my wife's ex, I'd thank you. Because even if I put aside the fact that I love parenting, I suspect I'd still look better by comparison. You've made, in a weird way, parenting easier for me. Your failings probably would have made me look better anyway.

So in the end, it didn't bother me that this one Father's Day that I didn't get to hang out with my kids. Tomorrow, I'll pick my son up at my ex-girlfriend's house, bring him home and I'll have dinner with he and my daughter. Probably barbecue, because I know they love it. My son and I will probably go to a book reading at a nearby bookstore, and then we'll come back home and we'll all hang out, eat popcorn, watch a movie or play Rock Band.

Because you see, being a parent isn't just providing financially for them, like the two of you seem to think. To be sure, that's part of it, and I have no problem sacrificing to do that. But it's so much more than that. It's listening to them rather than scolding and criticizing them. It's them knowing that they can come talk to me about anything. It's them knowing I'd never be with someone who tried to make them anything less than the most important two people in my life. It's them knowing that I think that a hit they got in baseball or softball is the greatest achievement known to humanity. It's knowing, when they ride their bikes to a friend's house, that they could do that thanks to the fact that taking the time to teach them was more important to me than watching tv. It's late night conversations and schlepping them off to games and events. It's them knowing that this is their home. It's knowing that they won't have to spend the beginning of their adulthoods unravelling just why I was so angry and difficult all the time, because I took the time to unravel that myself and not lay it on them. Unlike Leo in "King of the Corner," they won't have to wait until my funeral some day decades from now to understand me, because I'm close to them now and always will be. Because, you see, to me, every day is Father's Day-- a day to enjoy with my kids.


Pat Tillett said...

What a beautiful post! You are so right, they are grown and gone before we know it... I have a few regrets about child raising decisions I made, but then, who doesn't? Overall, I had a blast. I'll always remember the little league, softball, soccer, band, school plays, vacations, etc, etc, etc...

great bit of writing...

Erik Donald France said...

Beautifully wrought and well-shown that every day is Father's Day. It's powerful seeing how things move down the generations, and across the various connections, like a daisy chain.

SkylersDad said...

This was my favorite post of yours, and that says a lot because you are a fantastic writer.

You are an amazing dad my friend, and you have earned your kids adoration in the way you have handled yourself through tough times, and always been constant.

mi said...

such a wonderful post!
and those kids are damn lucky to have you!

bubbles said...

Loved this post, JY, er, I mean JR. I think we have always been on the same page about child rearing. I think so, anyway. You've inspired me to post, acutally. I've been contemplating how my life is rapidly changing into a new place. The time goes so fast. I can't believe I've "known" you for so long! Thing One is an adult, Adam is rapidly approaching.
Happy belated father's day! Your kids are so lucky! (and Kim, too!)