Until you have a son of your own . . . you will never know the joy, the love beyond feeling that resonates in the heart of a father as he looks upon his son. You will never know the sense of honor that makes a man want to be more than he is and to pass something good and hopeful into the hands of his son. And you will never know the heartbreak of the fathers who are haunted by the personal demons that keep them from being the men they want their sons to be.
Kent Nerburn (20th century), U.S. theologian and author. Letters to My Son, prologue (1993).
My son, Griffin, turned nine on Friday. He’s not any more special or important than my other three children. But, he is different. He’s the only son I have. And that’s what I wish I could figure out: what does it mean to have a son, to be a father to that child?
My experience I have of my child is made up of his curly, blond hair, his talkative nature and his angelic quality of being able to forgive and forget. I looked at blogs for over an hour and tried to find one that answered the question, “How do other men deal with having sons?” I couldn’t find anything that fit the bill. Perhaps other guys have a smoother way of coping with existential questions and have other things to blog about.
Like most parents, I worry over how my son is doing. I want him to be adjusted enough to get along with others. I want him to feel like he can succeed at things he tries to do. And, in several years, I hope he finds someone to love. Isn’t this the essence of a parent’s job? Or is it just a response to the failings I can trace back to my childhood?
The way I remember my father during my childhood was as a large presence. A little over 5’10” my father is still a barrel-chested specimen who has always weighed between 225 and 250. I have a photo of his grandfather working at his blacksmith’s furnace and anvil in the early 1900’s. He looks like my father’s twin.
My father certainly knew how to give me a hug or kiss when I was young, but it’s the fact of his presence, sometimes horseplaying with me and my sister, more often silent with dark moods, that dominates the majority of my childhood memories.
I don’t remember him encouraging me to go out for any sports. The only thing that was organized for kids my age in our town was Farm League baseball. I was afraid of pop flies and could imagine being maimed or getting a broken nose every time a ball came to me.
The flip side of this is that I don’t recall him pushing me to get into any sports, either. During the summer there were many days when you could find me hiking through ravines with my friends. And there were just as many days when you could have found me inside reading a book and trying to get from Sol to Pluto in the library’s summer reading program.
The way I remember it, it was hunting that really helped me see my dad in a more personal way. As though he wasn’t just the stranger who brought the most money home and taught me the difference between “wanting” things and “needing” things. When I went to hunt ruffed grouse with him near Orr, Minnesota, I saw this large man disappear and turn into someone who could walk without breaking twigs. He could find the birds’ scat in the midst of the clover and underbrush.
And if my dad shot and wounded a bird he would count that as the worst sin of a whole day of hunting. Much worse than “getting skunked,” or shooting at a bird and missing entirely. I am still very proud of him just from him showing me that he’s the type of person who doesn’t count the number of birds shot as the objective of hunting. He felt that the walk in the woods was a reward in itself.
My father has his flaws. There’s no doubt about that. He was better as a parent as I got older than when I was younger.
Instead of laying out a whole lot of goals for myself that will make me a better father I think that I can only expect that I make myself as available to my son as I can.
And if my son can forgive me my mistakes by the time he’s forty or so, I think that would also be some kind of accomplishment.