I started writing letters to my oldest son before he was even born, little missives of hope and ponderances on impending fatherhood and reflections on my own frailties.
I published them in the newspaper I used to work for, and “Letters to Ezra” became something that readers enjoyed. I don’t claim to be Mike Brady or Cliff Huxtable or any sort of model father, but they seemed to spark a connection with people. I think there’s something about introspection and honesty that reaches people on a deeper level, and I credit that entirely to recovery. The program teaches those of us who are members to open up, to share about our thoughts and feelings and fears, and that kind of vulnerability is often viewed with a healthy amount of respect and incredulity by most “normal” people.
A few years ago, however, he came to me and asked me to stop writing about him in the newspaper. I agreed to that boundary, but it represented the severing of another tie between the man that I am and the boy he once was.
As his 14th birthday approaches on Sunday, I’ve been thinking a lot about those ties: how they’re similar to the ones that bound me to my own father, and how his growth has paralleled my own in a lot of ways.
He was a year old when his mother and I decided to separate and divorce, and for the next couple of years, we both did a lot of growing up. I worked from home on Fridays so he and I could spend time together, and our morning ritual involved breakfast at Midland Restaurant in Alcoa, where he slowly grew from a high chair to a booster seat to no assistance at all. All of the waitresses and the owner knew him by name, and he loved for them to lift him up so he could punch the keys on the cash register as we paid the bill.
Those memories are like ghosts now, things so tangible that I can still see them with vivid clarity, which is ironic, because to him, they’re fleeting snapshots of ancient history. He feels far removed from that tow-headed little boy, and the pressures of peers and the angst of adolescence swing from his neck like twin albatrosses. Of the two of us, he’s changed the most, but what’s changed more than anything is what he sees when he looks at me.
It’s a phase every child goes through, and I remember it well: My father went from being a figurehead to an old man out of touch with my reality. What, my teenage self wondered, could that old man possibly know about my life, my thoughts, my fears?
It’s difficult for teens not to feel like they’re the only ones experiencing that angst, and some of us hang on to that unenviable form of self-pity long into adulthood. In the rooms of recovery, we call it “terminal uniqueness” — the idea that no one could possibly understand what we’re going through or experiencing or feeling. My teenage son is in that place, and I get it. That crippling anxiety of being seen as apart from rather than a part of is a driving force behind so many decisions at that age. I remember it well, so I wasn’t surprised when he asked me not to mention him in the newspaper anymore. I wasn’t surprised when he started using, in conversations about video games or social situations at school, that old saw, “You wouldn’t understand.”
I do, of course. More than he realizes, but that’s a lesson he’ll have to come around to himself. My own father chose the route of frustration and confrontation more often than not, but thanks to recovery, I know a better way. That doesn’t mean that his angst doesn’t grate at my serenity from time to time, but thanks to the program, I can let him be where he’s at, lead when necessary and allow him to find himself in his own time, as long as I look for opportunities between the fits and shadows of disdain and morose apathy to impart a little wisdom or share a little experience, strength and hope.
It probably won’t change anything, and on the other side of that, I have to remember that his journey is different from mine. He’s not me, and his future isn’t my past. He’s my son, but he’s his own person.
His own man, so to speak, or at least closer to it every day.
I know not what the future holds. Mistakes will be made, by him and by me. I’ve long since accepted that the best job I can do as a parent is to screw him, and my other children, up a little less than my parents screwed me up. That may sound harsh, but it’s also reality: We all pass on a little damage, a little of our own flaws and character defects, to our kids — not because we want to, but because we’re flawed and fallible human beings.
But if I can use the lessons of recovery to be a better father, then maybe … just maybe … he’ll see, one of these days, that I did my best. That’s all I want, and all I can hope for.
Happy birthday, Ezra.