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Dear Son,

It’s Father’s Day. I’ve never really known what to do about that. It was just the two of us until we got the House Leroy, then it was just the three of us, and he was very clear that you had a dad–however far away he might live–that I was the Parent of Record, and that he was, well, our House Leroy.

The last time we talked about Father’s Day you said thoughtfully that, while your father didn’t really feel like a dad, you hoped that the two of you could be friends. “You’ve really been both my mom and my dad,” you said. And then you insisted that we go to Dairy Queen, where you went inside and explained that to the server, and wangled me a free Father’s Day ice cream cone. I wanted to cry, but I didn’t. I said “thank you,” and gave you a hug, and tried not to think about all the things a dad might have taught you that I hadn’t.

But that wasn’t true. You had Leroy, who showed  you how to do home repairs, and sat and joked with you, and drove me to all your out-of-town games, meets, concerts, and solo festivals, and bragged to all the neighbors that he wished he’d had a son like you. You have your football, wrestling, and weight-training coaches, men who have taught you about sportsmanship, and about what it’s like to be a man among men and boys. You have Uncle Tommy, who by living his life honestly as a “little person” in a “big world”  teaches you every day what it’s like to be a man in the face of enormous challenges. You’ve had a number of teachers who have seen things to admire and foster in you–and have done both things. And this year, your dad has started helping with some of your musical expenses.

None of those men are–or were–your “fathers” in the traditional sense. None of them were married to your mother (though the House Leroy came closest). None of them left our house to go to work every day, and came home every night and threw a football around the yard with you, fought with you about your hair, and taught you how to drive. Those things matter, but we’ve filled those needs if we decided we needed them filled. Having Leroy live with us taught you that it’s possible for men, women, and children to not only live in peace, but to actively enjoy each others’ company. I work every day. We don’t fight about your hair because, hey, it’s on your head, and it’s clean and you’re not running into “Stop” signs.

So why is it that I feel that there’s still something missing for you? Why is it that when your friends’ dads and grandfathers spend time with you I see a side of you that I don’t see otherwise? Why is it that I look in your eyes I sometimes wonder if you understand that you’re growing into a wonderful man, as well as a wonderful human being? I wish I could say that to you in words you could hear. I’ve tried. And I’ve done a pretty good job.

You know how to mow the lawn. You are a whiz at math, writing, literature, music–just about anything you set your mind to. You’re kind–I love watching you with my friends’ children and grandchildren. You’re respectful, even though you have a mind of your own. When we fight, we fight to find a solution, not to hurt each other. You know how to be part of a family. In a household as small as ours everyone plays an important role. And you play yours well. You’re amazing. I wish I could say that it was my doing, but you’ve always been that way. True, I’ve tried not to screw you up too badly, but you are who you are because that’s who you’ve always been. I just wish I was sure you understood what an incredible person–what an incredible man–you are. Do you? Do you really?

When you were little you worried that  some flaw in you had driven your dad away. “Maybe if I was lean..” you’d say. “Maybe if I liked football more…” “Maybe if my eyes were blue…” I don’t think that my explanation that people are who they are, and that if your dad’s love depended on those things the lack was his, not yours, soaked in. Maybe because secretly I was asking myself the same sorts of questions. Maybe if I were thin…maybe if I were blonde…maybe if I earned more money…maybe if I were better at sex…Maybe if I weren’t so smart…Maybe if I weren’t an artist…Maybe if I were funnier…maybe…maybe…maybe…

Maybe the truth was that some people just aren’t meant to be together not because they can’t be, but because relationships are hard, and they only work if at some point both parties see something irreplaceable in each other. I was with your dad because I wanted to be part of a family, I wanted to be loved and to love, he was funny, and it was better than being alone. He was with me because, hey, money and free sex. The things that made me unique weren’t things that he valued. And so we were better apart. All that happened before you ever came into the picture. The flaws were ours, not yours. He went on and found someone he loves, and who loved him. We went on and found Leroy. We found teachers. We found coaches. We found friends. Each of those good and caring men has helped you find something amazing in yourself. I hope you see those things for the gifts they are. I hope you realize that in our efforts to replace the gap not having a dad left in your life have in some ways challenged you to become more than you would perhaps have been otherwise. I don’t know. Woulda shoulda coulda.

There’s a saying that the people who best know what childhood should be are those who never had one. I suspect that not having a “real dad”–even though you’ve had a lot of good and kind men in your life–has taught you what a dad should be. You will have fortunate children. Happy Father’s Day, son. I love you.

Mom.

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