Monday, August 16, 2010
You are now 18. You have finished high school and are soon leaving home for college. Taking this step so suddenly will be quite a challenge. You are responsible for yourself, now; you will have to make your own choices, abide by your own decisions. In many ways you are now officially an adult. Now you can vote. You can also be drafted. You can get married. You can sign contracts. You can work in a bakery. You can buy a car. You can take out a loan. You can get your own credit cards. (You cannot drink alcohol...) If you screw up you can also go to prison. In reality becoming an adult doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process that continues for the rest of your life (according to Judge Judy, males don’t really reach adulthood until “maybe sometime in their 50s”).
My turn came at the end of August 1968 - 42 years ago - when I left home and went off to college. It was really hard leaving home, heading off to a completely new environment, alone. But I was ready, I guess.
My Dad, James, turned 18 in 1936. I don’t know when he left home. He never talked much about himself. Times were hard; he would most likely have found work nearby, living at home to help out. He did start college sometime after high school, but he couldn’t afford to stay. In 1939, he joined the Army Air Corps and was among the first groups sent overseas after the war broke out. When the war was over, he went back and finished college.
His Dad, James, your great-grandfather, turned 18 in 1905. He was living in Nebraska but eventually moved to Washington state where he met your great grandmother. He was a carpenter. And his Dad, John, your great-great grandfather, turned 18 in 1870; I think he was living in New York; he moved to Nebraska and eventually to Juneau, where he died in 1931.
John’s Dad, also named John, was your great-great-great grandfather (five generations back). He turned 18 in 1842 in Wigtown, Scotland. He left there a few years later with his new wife, bound for Australia. But they literally missed the boat and had to settle for the next one out, finding themselves in Canada in 1848; eventually settling in New York state. Before that, William, his Dad, (six generations back), turned 18 in 1812 in Wigtown, Scotland.
You should know your ancestry. I wish I knew more to pass on to you. Through time, there have been so many people involved in bringing about your existence. Contributing their DNA, or in some way contributing to the survival of the contributors. Each new birth adds a whole new universe of gene contributors to the family pool. Your ancestral gene pool is twice as large as mine - you share only half of my genes, as I only shared half of my father’s genes.
For each of us - your ancestors - there came a point in our lives where we reached adulthood. We no longer needed active guidance from our parents, we had to start living up to our own moral code, to figure out our own rules of behavior. It was time to take complete responsibility for our own actions, to be accountable first to ourselves and to the rest of the world.
Time has brought you to this point in your life; and ready or not, you are leaving. Do I think you’re ready? Absolutely. You have grown up fine. I’m unimaginably proud of you. I think you’ll do very well out there. Parents want their children to do better than themselves, to get a better education, to have a better job, to earn more money; to be more “successful”. I see you accomplishing all that, and more.
It will be hard letting you go, though. From the day you were conceived your upbringing has been one of the most important things in our lives. A sacred responsibility, an obligation passed down to us from our ancestors. As you developed you gradually grew away from us, struggling to establish your own identity in the midst of all our attention. But we were OK with that. We knew to expect it. It wasn’t always easy, but we adjusted. We learned to let you go, as we knew we had to.
But this time, it is different; this is not just another step for us, this time it’s a whole staircase.
On your 15th birthday, three years ago, I wrote this for you:
15 trips around the sun
In December 1991 I had just turned 41. Our two boys were 14 and 15; both were in high school and doing great. I had recently been promoted and had seen my income more than double. My job was fun, challenging, rewarding. I enjoyed going to work. I liked and respected (most of) my coworkers and subordinates. I was usually flying off somewhere for some sort of high-profile meeting once a month. We were living the dream, and it was pretty good. Still, in just four years our home was going to become an "empty nest". We weren't necessarily looking forward to that, but that's the way we assumed it was supposed to go.
Then Y told me, somewhat cautiously, that she thought she might be pregnant.
Conventional wisdom says I was supposed to get upset, angry, rage against the idea, etc. - at least that's how Hollywood usually portrays it. Obviously, the last thing I expected at that point in my life was to be raising another child.
But... I was elated! I could not believe our fortune. Without a moment's hesitation I was coming up with possible names, wondering about the actual birth-date, etc.
I can't claim to have been a great father to A & B; after all, my parenting skills came from a twisted mother and an emotionally distant father. I had more or less come to terms with my parents' effect on me in my early 20s and I felt I knew what to guard against in myself so I wouldn't pass all that on to another generation. Still, once in a while the 'dark side' would start to come over me and begin to affect my attitude towards my kids. As often as it appeared, I fought against it and pushed it away. In spite of that, something in my psyche prevented me from getting close to my kids and being an actively loving father. I wasn't a bad father, just more distant than I wanted to be and I hadn't been able to get past that.
With age comes maturity. With maturity comes a realistic self awareness. I knew I wasn't perfect, but I also believed I could now do it better.
Immediately, I bonded with Z in the womb. I studied the sonograms and diagrams and I could locate his head, elbows, knees, and feet simply by massaging Y's stomach. I communicated this way (by massage) a lot. As soon as he started squirming around, I felt as if he were responding to my presence. As he came nearer to term, if I gently pressed on Y's stomach, Z would push back with a knee or elbow... as if we were holding hands...
Within minutes of delivery I held him in my arms, and he opened his eyes and smiled at me. He was saying hi!
Becoming the father of a newborn at 41 was a chance to do it all over again. A chance to do it right. To be close. To love my child intensely and actively. To take an active role in parenting. And I think I have done so.
Naturally Z's arrival was not the same for A and B. They were embarrassed to have a baby brother attending their school functions. They were also somewhat jealous that he was getting so much attention from us and from everybody else. They felt left out. Yet in many ways, my newly unleashed parenting "skill" spilled over into my relationships with them as well. I couldn't fix the past 15 years of benevolent distance, but I sure could try to be better. I hoped it wasn't too late to start showing them the same sort of love and affection that I'd always felt but couldn't express. I like to think that I was able to improve things with them. It wasn't easy. It was probably quite a bit harder for them, I'd guess, because they didn't know how to deal with my new-found openness and attention.
But I was able to do it right with Z, from the start. It may have helped a lot that he was a happy fun-loving kid, open to everything that life would offer. I cherished every moment with him. I found myself jealously limiting how much my work interfered with my time with my son. Travel became a burden. I never failed to call home at bedtime just to reread him one of his storybooks over the phone (from memory). It wasn't long before I started sending subordinates on business trips that I used to so eagerly take myself.
I remember every stage of his growth and development. We both were so much more relaxed this time... we'd experienced all the normal parental anxieties twice already, and we knew for a fact that indeed each stage of development would come in its own time and that us getting worked up about it was not going to help. Instead, I fully appreciated each of the struggles and challenges he had to undergo - learning to sit up, to crawl, to stand (that was so cool!), to walk, to talk, to ride a bike, and so on. I celebrated with him, each achievement. But I was also careful to fully embrace the times before each of these changes, because they were so brief and would never come back. Each stage of growth was another stage of independence and, because we'd so recently experienced it with A & B, another sign that our time together would come to an end all-too-soon.
Time has gone by so rapidly. I still see his innocent happy smile ever time I look at him. We enjoy a good, comfortable relationship. I trust him. I respect him. I ache for him. I worry about him. I am so proud of him. I want only the best for him. I love him unconditionally.
In some cultures the 15th birthday of a son or daughter is a "coming of age" and is celebrated in a grand way, attended by the extended family - some traveling great distances to attend - friends, parents of friends, friends of parents, coworkers, neighbors, etc. The celebrant is feted with lavish gifts, a catered feast, live music, dancing, and toasts. These parties rival the more elaborate wedding receptions we celebrate in our culture.
We celebrated the completion of Z's 15th journey around the sun today by eating "lunch" together at Coldstone Creamery, by going to see "Stardust" together, by having his favorite dinner together, by spending the evening together. Not as flashy as others may do it, but it worked for us.
Incidentally, Y and I also celebrated our 36th anniversary today. We still consider Z's arrival 15 years ago to be our best anniversary present.
So now what?
Now I'm going to go bake something. :)
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