Forgive me, my friends. I don’t have it in me to be fired up about what is going on in our crazy political world today. On this particular day, I can’t think clearly about what it will take for people of good conscience to right the wrongs that are robbing us of the kind of world we want every woman, man and child to live in. For me this is a day of reflection because my first-born son has become a man today- turning 21 years old.
Every father and son relationship is unique but some of my reflections today may be helpful to others in that they may be able to understand the people in their lives a little better. And if we understand better, we can do better with our sons. I certainly hope so because our sons will set the tone in their own homes, communities and workplaces for many years to come. I can attest to that first hand.
Stated plainly, there may be a lot wrong with DVH, Esquire but to this very day I open doors for all women and address them all as “ma’am” or “miss” because my father started teaching me that around the same time I was learning how to spell my name. I stand up for those who may not be able to stand up for themselves because my father told me and showed me why that was what men do. The journey for a father and his son as a child ends when that child turns 21. But the father and son journey itself is eternal. So today is my big transition from the first phase to the final phase so here I am and here we go.
A father spends a couple of decades focusing on what it is that you need to teach your son only to find out that at least half the time, your son has been the one doing the teaching. I confess that I was slow to that realization until my son taught me the biggest and most important of all lessons about our relationship:
You don’t get to decide when your job is over and your son becomes a man- your son tells you when your job is over and he has become a man.
That can be a disorienting experience but it is one that I realize my father had about 25 years ago when I served notice on him.
A father who is engaged, connected and committed to his son always factors his son into whatever he is doing or planning. You just assume that your son is going to be with you and will be a part of your plans. So when I recently divorced and was preparing to move to my new place I just assumed that my 20-year-old son was coming with me. I didn’t mean any harm- I just figured “this is my son and he is going to be with me until I get everything all set up for him to go out on his own.” But my son had other plans- announcing to me the night before we were moving that he had decided to go his own way. He was getting his own place with some friends of his from high school.
I was shocked, angry, dismayed and disappointed. I felt rejected for a whole night and I actually felt myself crying in my sleep. I don’t know if you’ve ever done that but it REALLY sucks. When you’re doing that, you are REALLY upset about something. But a funny thing happened the next day when I woke up: I wasn’t angry anymore- not even about the 11th hour disclosure. I wanted to be but I just couldn’t. This kid had screwed up my grand plans and I had built a whole two-year plan around me and him riding together until he was really ready to fly solo and it was going to be a major pain in the ass to undo all of that and recalibrate my own plans.
But then out of nowhere I had a vivid flashback to the night he was born. I was a 25-year-old 2nd year student (a 2L) at Washington University in St. Louis Law School. I was very much a young man but had a ton of miles on my engine already. He was my 1st born son but my 2nd child as his sister was already 5 years old and had been a toddler with me in Ann Arbor for my last three years of college. So I was burned out, stressed out and frankly drunk as hell the night he came. In my defense, he was 2 days early so I had been working my way through a twelve-pack that weekend as school was breaking for the Thanksgiving Holiday.
One of my best friends- who is still riding with me til this very day- had to come over and pick me up off of my bedroom floor and drive me to the hospital because I was far too drunk to drive. My son was coming when he was ready regardless of whether or not I was. Because I am a sturdy sort, I sobered up fast on the drive over to Barnes-Jewish Hospital and got there in time for every minute of his ten plus hours of labor. And when he finally came, my face was the first one he saw. I wasn’t drunk anymore. I was as clear as bell and fully aware of every movement in the room where he was welcomed into this life. I hadn’t been there for his sister’s birth so the whole thing was brand new for me AND my son. And I named him. And I promised him that I would always be there for him with my best for every day of his life however he needed me to be.
And through all of the ups and downs of my crazy life I have kept that promise to him. Now sometimes the best I had to give may have sucked- but I gave it to him just the same. I realized that morning that I couldn’t be angry at Houston because what he had done was the same on that day as he did the day he was born: HE decided when he was ready- and it had nothing to do with me. My job was to give him my best and to do my best to support him- but when he was ready, willing and able to move to the next phase I just had to roll with it. He’ll always be my son but he is a child no more. Now he’s a man and its a beautiful thing.
That was 21 years ago today. And I thank God for the privilege of being his father. And I pray that God will let me and him have a lot more time together because in this phase I don’t get to cook him dinner every night anymore and I don’t get to see his face to start every day- but that’s ok. He is a man now- just as much a man as I am. And I am proud of him for becoming that on his own terms in his own time- no matter how pissed I was at first. And I am thankful that through him, I learned the most important lesson that any man who has ever been responsible for a family can learn: loving your people is about supporting their journey- not defining their journey. Supporting and guiding is not controlling. You have to let them go their own way when they decide they are ready- not when you decide they are ready. Trust them and be there when they need you- and God will probably bless your efforts.
Thank y’all for indulging me today. I’ll be back on the attack tomorrow. Happy Birthday, 1st Born Son. Like I told you when you first opened your eyes:
Kid, I’m yours and you can count on me until somebody shuts off the lights on this planet.