(Author’s note: the names have been changed to protect me from the gentlemen who would rightly give me a beating for talking about them. Love you guys!)
With Father’s Day coming up, I find myself reflecting on the crazy train I’ve been riding on the past four years. When I look back, it’s a minor miracle that I have managed to actually keep myself, let alone the boys, alive and relatively free of emotional and physical scars (keep in mind, I’m not getting cocky. I’m fully aware of how young they still are, and how much time I have to still screw them up bigly).
I still maintain that you ought to be given some kind of instruction manual before leaving the hospital. It amazes me that you have to be licensed to drive, you have to pass a background check to purchase a firearm, but they’ll just hand you a small, wiggly human to take care of for the next 18 or so years. “Here you go. Enjoy! See you for the next one!” Even worse, Mama Angel dived into the whole parenting thing with a zeal and skill that belied her lack of experience. Sure she had read every damn “what to expect when expecting” book ever printed in the English language, but that still didn’t explain her almost preternatural skill when it came to caring for the child.
I was just terrified I was going to pick him up wrong and watch his head pop right off.
All of which left me desperate for any kind of direction on what the hell I was supposed to do now that I was “Dad”. This is of course when I came to an amazing epiphany: “Hey! I have an older brother! He’s a dad! And we have a dad! Who also had a dad! I’ll just do what they did!”
Then out of nowhere a particular song lyric started playing over and over in my head: “Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right……”
First we have Great Grandpa Woody. I loved this man more than I can ever properly express in words, mostly due to the fact that he told abysmal old man jokes and had taken to always calling me “Polecat”. He did this from the time I was 5 up until I was 27, when he passed away. That was great, but I didn’t really have the opportunity to catch any big “Dad” moments from him. By the time I hit the scene, his kids had grown and had kids of their own, so it wasn’t like I ever got to see his parenting skills in action. Besides, as far as I could tell, he was more than happy to defer to Great Granny Greatness with any household decisions. Wasn’t much of a stretch to imagine he probably did the same with child rearing.
Which bring us to my dad (since christened G-Pa by my boys). Now as with all young boys, I viewed him as the ultimate man; confident, athletic, determined to insure we never missed a viewing of Sunday morning WWF, etc. With the exception of the Sunday morning wrassling, however, he seemed to follow in Woody’s footsteps by deferring the early child-rearing to my mother. That worked out pretty well, seeing as the introverted little tub of fluff that I was, I tended to be more of a momma’s boy. There was no question that he loved me to death, but I wasn’t sure that he always knew what to do with me. I was the quiet book-worm who was more than content just to disappear into my room with a stack of comics and entertain myself for hours. My brother tended to be the one he would spend most of the time with, by virtue of the fact that he was the jock, and Dad ended up coaching his little league team as well as cheering him on at various sporting events through his school years. How athletic my brother turned out to be was really quite amazing considering how my father once accidentally dropped him on his head while passing him back and forth with one of my cousins when he was a baby. Yeah. Baby dropping. That’s what I was actively trying to avoid.
Which brings us to my big brother, Uncle Studly. Now as you may have noticed in the picture preceding this therapy session, we could not be any more different looks-wise. Which is fine, because we also couldn’t be any more different in personality or demeanor. He runs hot, I run cold. He’s all about action, I’m all about reading about action. He’s cocky, I’m neurotic. Still, we were (and still are) as tight as a big and little brother can be, even taking into account the time he and his buddy took my pudgy little 10-year-old self to the bottom of a really steep road and tried to convince me to run up it by having my brother dangle a bunch of doughnuts from the back of a pick-up truck as an incentive.
Before you start sharpening your pitchforks, please keep in mind that he was sixteen at the time, with the commensurate quality of decision-making skills. He really did mean well.
Aside from that though, he didn’t have any baby-raising experience I could draw from. He had two step-daughters, who he was incredible with, but they were both older than eight by the time he met them. That and the fact that he seemed just as terrified of popping my kid’s head off as I was didn’t really help much.
So these were the guys I had to learn from. The old guy with the horrible jokes and bad polyester suits, the guy who dropped my brother on his head during a game of “Pass-The-Baby”, and the guy with no discernible baby experience whatsoever who tried to coerce me into a remake of the “Rocky” montage with a box of cream-filled Dunkin’ Donuts. I was doomed.
Until I really considered what it must have been like for them when they were in my shoes, and what they did next.
Gentlemen, let’s face it. There are very few of us who just automatically turn nurturer when the kids first show up. Mothers seem to naturally ease into it, but it takes us some time. That’s okay, though, because it’s not about being perfect from day one. It’s about how much you love your kid, and how much you’re willing to put yourself out there for them. With that in mind, I couldn’t have hoped for better examples.
Great Grandpa Woody may have been a low-key jokester, but he was also a man of great faith. He showed me the importance of believing in something, and how holding on to your faith (whatever that may be) even in the worst of times can help you see them through. Now I’m not a devout church-goer like he was, but he did instill in me the importance of believing in something. Jokester he may have been, but he was also no man’s fool. If he believed, there has to be something to it.
My dad may not have always known what to do with me, but that never stopped him from putting himself out there for me. We may not have naturally had the same interests, but he still worked hard to connect with me. He took me on my first trip to the comic book store. He shared his love of classic Looney Toons shorts with me, spending hours together laughing our tails off at the old re-runs they used to play on TNT. We may not have had much in common, but he always made time for me when I reached out, even after the divorce.
Most importantly, he supported me in everything I did, period. He believed in me when I couldn’t believe in myself. On the day I needed him most, he drove halfway across the country at the drop of a hat to pick me up when I felt like I had failed in a way that I could never bounce back from. He didn’t complain. He didn’t judge. He just spent the week helping me pack up to come home, all the while insisting that I wasn’t a failure, it wasn’t the end of the world, and that there was absolutely no shame in throwing in the towel when faced with a completely untenable situation.
Finally, there’s Uncle Studly. The big brother who always, ALWAYS, has the back of the people he loves, and will do ANYTHING to take care of them. The man is like a slightly smaller version of the Terminator, if the Terminator was programmed to support and nurture. He will drop everything else going on in his life and laser focus on doing whatever needs to be done to get us out of whatever jam we find ourselves in, and he WILL NOT STOP until he has done so. Ever. The man simply doesn’t know how to quit or to accept defeat, and he won’t let his loved ones, either.
Faith, the willingness to put yourself out there to connect with and support your kids no matter what, and the absolute commitment to do whatever it takes to take care of the people you love. To me, these are the keys to making a good father. I’m lucky. I have three men to look to that have these traits in spades. While we do thrive in heckling one another, the truth is that I respect and love these men more than I can say, not just for what they’ve done for me, but for showing me what it takes to be “Dad”. If I do half the job they did (and if the little wildebeests let me live that long) hopefully my kids will someday talk about me the same way.
Happy Father’s Day, guys. I couldn’t do it without you.