My greatest fear is that my failures as a father and as a man will damage my son, and maybe even drive him to hurt himself some day.
I will start with admitting that I have intentionally never read or listened to Liverpool’s or Chinese Downhill’s testimony about losing a child to suicide. It is irrational but there is some part of me that thinks by not seeing them I am avoiding opening one of those “isn’t it ironic” moments. “He just read a story about a guy he knows whose kid committed suicide and then look what happened. It’s like he invited it in. Life is strange.”
Full disclosure: I have erased and rewritten the paragraph above 5 times now. I am not normally a superstitious man but all bets seem to be off where the kid is concerned.
Having a child is an amazing experience, but one that I forgot to check the fine print on. I missed the part about not sleeping through the night any more and mentally telegraphing every action he does to 10 years into the future and seeing the worst case playing out.
He avoids sports and exercise (like I did really up until F3) because he is “the slowest kid in his school” (read: doesn’t want to fail or lose when he assumes it is a lost cause from the start). Every day when I pick him up there was some bully to stand up to or some person who was giving him a hard time. Then there are the down turns. One bad test grade defines everything he is (or isn’t).
He is a happy kid most times but depression runs in the family and to be honest I am scared almost to inaction over what to do. Do I push him harder so that he sees that he can do it, or that failure stings but doesn’t really wound? Do I go easy and encourage him in what he thinks he is good at (e.g., comic books, drawing, and Minecraft)?
We all know too well how weight and fitness and lack of being a part of a team can play into Sad Clown syndrome. I see it so clearly on the horizon waiting to claim him. God help me I am so scared for him because, like most people seem to these days, I know a person who took his life because he just felt trapped and lost and that was the only way to end the pain.
Did our fathers and grandfathers worry so much about fatherhood? My grandfather was a German immigrant that came to America in the 30’s. He was (according to my dad) mean as a snake on a good day. Every day was a fight for “the Old Man” against some unseen, unknown “them”—the ones who wanted to take what he had or to embarrass him. He doled out corporal punishment to my dad and uncle liberally. (“You’ve probably done something I don’t know about.”). He had very specific ways he wanted things done and very predictable responses when they weren’t.
Maybe he believed his kids needed to be “tough” to survive and he was helping prepare them for a tough life in an unforgiving world. Or maybe he was just a jerk who was bitter about getting crippled during WWII as a sailor and took his limitations as an insult to his manhood.
My own father took up the war against “them” too. He was a “nobody” from a ‘wind-whistle’ town (wind whistled as the cars drove fast through it on the way to somewhere important). At first, he partied his way out of 2-3 colleges then sobered up when the Army came looking for him for the draft. He enlisted in the Navy and 28 years later he retired as a Captain. He had a reputation for telling it like it is.
Once at the Pentagon he got into an argument with some high ranking army officer. “Pal, my philosophy is ‘Just give me my tank and I’ll take the next hill!’” They were in a multi-Service budget meeting (read: bloody fight to the finish). “Sir, give my Supply its spares parts and you’ll have 20 tanks that you can take ALL the hills with.”
But physical discipline was abhorrent to him, maybe because he had spent so much time on the receiving end of it as a kid. Maybe because it seemed to be such a mainstay of parenting in the farming community where he grew up. But, man, he could turn a phrase that would cut to the quick. Sarcasm was like a martial art and he had a black belt. The times I have felt the smallest in my life I can count on one hand and every one of them was from something he said to me.
I see that in my son, that collapsing inward when I toss some ill-considered, offhanded comment at him. Or when I snap at him because he wants to do it himself but I “don’t have time to screw around”.
In the gloom I’m known as a pretty friendly guy. And at work while I take care of my people I can be fairly relentless and sometimes outright vicious when dealing with cross functional peers. (“Doesn’t play well with others…”). I’ve inherited from my father and grandfather the trait of having no patience for people who fail to deliver or who I feel are bullies (yeah, yeah, I just caught that parallel to what I said above about the kid). I admit I have verbally eviscerated someone in a meeting when I wanted to send a message or encourage them to set more realistic expectations next time.
My kid has been in the other room or watching TV when I’ve taken these calls at night. I get a lot of stuff done at work and fix a lot of broken situations, but maybe seeing how I get it done, what I am capable of doing and saying isn’t the best method of parenting. My father probably could have done some real physical damage to me but I never once worried about that or even thought about it. It just wasn’t a part of his M.O. (verbal on the other hand…)
When I was writing this my son walked by and asked if he could read it. Normally I’d say yes because he’s the only one in the house who wants to, but this time I told him no because I wasn’t sure if he was ready for it. I confided in him that I might not even submit it and just beg off the contest.
Then why write it, he asked, and I said because sometimes things need to be said even if just out loud with some close friends.
Then he said something that still sticks with me and I have no idea what he meant by it or where it even came from.
“Will it help you live?” he asked.
“Maybe,” I said because I was focusing on the piece. Then what he said processed in my brain and I sat there for a minute with my mouth wide open. I told him he was a smart kid and hopefully it would.
I live in terror of coming home one day or getting a call and finding out something horrible has happened to him. I am not and never will be strong enough to bear that. And I don’t know that I want to be as cowardly as that sounds. But it would tear my wife to shreds so maybe I need to be regardless for her. I don’t know.
There is this book about a kid like mine written by a guy called Jocko. There is a scene where the kid is bitching to his Navy SEAL uncle about all of his problems. The uncle listens to all of them then says “That’s great. Those are all things you can solve.” These are things I can solve hopefully. Not the fear that doesn’t seem to want to go away. And maybe that is good because when you get comfortable is when you slip. I want to know how to live so that he, my son, has the best chance to be safe and secure and confident.
So now I am going to close this piece and reject all of my night time work calls. Screw them, they can get up early for a while. I love my wife. I love my son. God help me be the High Impact Man I need to be for their sakes. And mine.
Maybe fear is a gift. My greatest fear? It’s that someday I won’t have anything to fear.