When I was a child, adults would tell me not to make things up, warning me of what would happen if I did. As far as I can tell so far, it seems to involve lots of foreign travel and not having to get up too early in the morning.
A Letter to My Son - Tim O’Brien
A little more than a year ago, on June 20, 2003, you dropped into the world, my son, my first and only child – a surprise, a gift, a miracle, an eater of electrical cords, a fertilizer factory, a joy, a pain in the rear, a thrill in the heart, all the platitudes with a big red cherry on top.
Here’s the truth: Boy, oh boy, do I love you. And, boy, do I wish I could spend the next 50 years with my lips to your cheek, my eyes warming in yours.
But as you wobble into your sixteenth month, it occurs to me that you may never really know your dad. The actuarial stuff looks grim. Even now, I’m what they call an “older father”, and in 10 years, should I have the good luck to turn 68, I’ll almost certainly have trouble keeping up with you. Basketball will be a problem. And 20 years from now…well, it’s sad, isn’t it?
Sadder yet, that’s the very best scenario. Life is fragile. Hearts go still. So now, just in case, I want to tell you about your father, the man you think I am. And by that I mean not just the graying old coot you may vaguely remember, but the guy who shares your name and your blood and half your DNA.
Above all, I am this: I am in love with you. Pinwheeling, bedazzled, aching love. If you know nothing else, know that you were adored by your dad.
In many ways, a man is what he yearns for, and while it may never happen, I yearn to walk a golf course with at your side. I yearn for a golden afternoon in late August when you will sink a tough 12-footer to beat me by a stroke or two. I want to shake your hand. I want to say, “Nine more holes?”
I yearn to scatter good books around the house – in the bathroms, on the kitchen counter, on the floor beside your bed – and I hope I’m there to watch you pick one up and turn that first precious page. I yearn to see the rapture on your face. (Right now, you eat books.)
I yearn to learn from you. I want to be your teacher, yes, but I also want to be your student. I yearn to be taught, again and again, what I’ve already started to know: that a grown man can find pleasure in the sound of a happy squeal, a gap toothed grin, in the miraculous utterance of the word “Daddy”.
I yearn to watch you perform acts of kindness and generosity. I yearn to witness your first act of moral courage. I yearn to hear you mutter, however awkwardly, “Yeah, yeah, I love you, too,” and I yearn to believe you will mean it.
It’s hard to imagine as I watch you now, so lighthearted and purely good, so ignorant of gravestones, but, Timmy, you’re in for a world of hurt and heartache and sin and doubt and frustration and despair. You will do fine things, I know, but you will also do bad things, because you are wholly human, and I wish I could be on hand to offer forgiveness.
More than that, I long for the day when you might also forgive me. I waited too long Timmy. Until the late afternoon of June 20, 2003, I had defined myself, for better or worse, by the novels and stories I had written. I had sought myself in sentences. I had loved myself only insofar as I loved a chapter or a scene or a scrap of dialogue. This is not to demean my life or my writing. I do hope you will someday read the books and stories; I hope you will find my ghost in those pages, my best self, the man I wish to be for you. Call it pride, call it love, but I even dare to hope that you will commit a line or two to memory, for in the dream-space behind those vowels and consonants is the sound of your father’s voice, the kid I once was, the man I am now, the old man I will soon become.
That said, I would trade every syllable of my life’s work for an extra 5 or 10 years with you, whatever the going rate might be. A father’s chief duty is not to instruct or to discipline. A father’s chief duty is to be present. And I yearn to be with you forever, always present, even knowing it cannot and will not happen.
There have been advantages, of course, to becoming a father at my age. I doubt that at 28 or even 38 I would have been so willing – so eager – to walk away from my work to warm your bottle. I doubt I would have fully appreciated, as I do now, the way you toddled over to me this morning and laughed and gave me a first unsolicited hug. (You knew I was waiting, didn’t you?) I doubt I would have so easily tolerated the din at bedtime, or your stubborn recklessness, or your determination to electrocute yourself, or the mouthfuls of dirt you take from the potted plants in the foyer, or how, just a moment ago, you hit the delete key as I approached the end of this letter.
You’re on my lap now, my spectacular Timmy. I’m using your fingers to type these words.
I love you.