Last week I wrote a bit about my estranged father.
And by “a bit” I mean just that. I mentioned what happens to me when folks mention that he exists or ask questions about what he’s up to now, and then I moved on to what I believed were more interesting or compelling topics that connect to all of our lives on the other side of something that painfully hollowed (and sometimes continues to hollow) us out.
I wouldn't return to the topic of my bio-dad with a poetic flourish that let’s you know it’s not quite fixed but it’s “getting there," and a few people noticed, as if to say:
“Hello Eric, long time listener, first time caller: so about that thing with you dad. What’s up with that? You never came back to him.”
It’s funny how even if you’re the one writing about who you are, it takes kind voices looking in on you from the cheap seats to notice that even in the context of talking about your own pain, all of us ultimately have a rather pernicious tendency to sacrifice the dangling participles that comprise the raw data of our actual lives for the sepia toned filter of the Internet. So I made the unfinished rough cuts of my existence into something grandiloquent (which is the onomatopoeia of pomposity: are you impressed?) in an effort to use my familial car wreck as some sort of prop that could provide necessary “realness” like a pair of ripped jeans I paid extra for.
In my rush to sum up the thing that will probably always give my life a weird tint, I realize that I missed where the magic is accompanying work that quietly acknowledges (in the face of a big toothy grin no less) that the universe always has spinach in her teeth.
So, maybe it’s time for a bit more about mi padre, and then a bit more after that.
That is, if you’re still reading what has suddenly become a bad Dashboard Confessional song from the summer of '02.
I’m 32 years old and still remember spending every other weekend wearing clothes that didn’t fit and cozying up at night on a sleeping bag in the living room of my (then) stepmom’s house on the other side of town because I didn’t have a real bedroom once her and my father had other children. I also remember how the majority of my late childhood and early adolescence was spent trying to make a man in his mid-thirties feel better about everything, all the time. When you’re 10 and you inherently know that airing your disappointment with the aforementioned sleeping arrangement (or a lack of appropriately sized sweatpants) will result in an emotional meltdown leading to despondency and martyrdom from your much older parent, you learn how to read a room, and constantly apologize, and never ask for what you need directly.
Adolescents can't buy smokes or serve in the military, but they can inherently pick up that it’s easier to keep quiet and let your crew socks show well above what’s normal for sweatpant length, until you finally let slip in 6th grade that you’d rather not sleep over any more (because your life and that of your father aren’t really about the same things anymore), essentially inserting a feeding tube into an already touch-and-go relationship.
A relationship that would remain barely alive until, ironically enough, the life of my own son entered into the world. When I met Finn, my biological dad would too, just once, as if to see something to completion, tip his cap, and then make his way out the door, finally pulling the plug on something that hadn’t been truly alive for years. To be fair, it wasn’t all bad and it wasn’t all good, but at some point I realized that it wasn’t anything at all anymore.
Growing up I never wanted to get married or have kids. Marriage and parenthood seemed messy, and complicated, and time consuming (think how long it takes to explain irony to children: I’ll wait). When you’ve struggled with the concept of fatherhood as an institution, mostly piecing the movements together from reruns of Clarissa Explains it All and commercials for Life cereal on a dream board* seems altogether thin when your 9-year-old asks you to explain why Tennessee football was so dominant in the 90s and yet so irrelevant soon-thereafter.
(Note: sweater vests and sloshing milk over the sides of the bowl in slo-motion while eating cereal in the middle of the day are 2 of the 3 pillars of fatherhood. The other? reading newspapers with your glasses pushed to the end of your nose).
But then I met my wife in high school (I didn’t make it very long on saying no to the first thing, she was pretty and funny and lovingly intolerant of my carpenter-jeans-only approach to fashion in the early aughts), we got married after college, and moved to LA for grad school. In the process I kept finding these parts of me I had long left for dead quietly started flickering faintly again on the dashboard of soul. And then, like 7 years into the thing, I met my son Finn for the first time, and said goodbye to my bio-dad for the last time (probably).
At the danger of sounding like an acoustically overwrought episode of This is Us, I soon found this thing happening to me over and over again when I would pick Finn up, and cradle him in the middle of the night, and accidentally wipe his excrement all over my forearm and his feet. It was as if the tears I were attempting to console, and the wails I were (with teeth gritted) smiling through, and the ever-spreading feces I was wiping (screw developmental theory, most of parenthood is just wiping things off of other things forever and ever, amen) weren’t just for my infant son, they were for me as well.
In giving the most beautiful goo-ball I had ever had the pleasure of meeting (with RED HAIR and a knee-weakening vocabulary of grunts) all that I had to give without (audible) complaint, the empty place my father left inside of me that I believed I’d be attempting to fill the rest of my life, suddenly felt less cavernous and existentially gravitational. It was like the giving of what I always wanted to someone else, especially someone with whom I am able to share my love of flatulence, mysteriously gave it to me now, and to that anxious 6th grader balling up both his sleeping bag and his emotional well-being back then.
Cellular love has a way of bending both space and time.
The school of thought I spend most of my therapeutic work operating from argues that humans enter the world being owed love and trust from the people who brought them into existence, no questions asked. Meaning, that from our eyelashes to our weird coughs that keep them up all night, our parents give love and trust to us without expectation for repayment, because in a perfect world they received these two things from their parents who got them from theirs who got them from theirs, and if you’re particularly religious, who received them from the divine as cellular gifts accompanying creation.
The only way children pay their parents back is by keeping love and trust in generational circulation for everyone coming after. I guess you could say it's an arrangement built on faith.
Unfortunately, the “perfect world” and the "faith" parts trip up most of our families, leaving gaps in the delivery of love and trust somewhere along the way. Thus, forcing new parents to spend the whole of their time with their own children attempting to fill the holes left behind by their parents' inability to altruistically imbed love and trust into the DNA of the family out of which these new parents came.
Cellular pain has a way of bending both space and time.
Some 32-year-olds remember spending most of their childhood taking care of their parents' emotional stability, or setting their parents' alarm clocks so they don’t miss another shift at work, or quit school to watch siblings for parents' who are too strung out to get off the couch, or tell teachers they “fell down the stairs,” or get jobs to pay for an apartment they didn’t choose to rent, or apologize for being born, or play basketball every weekend solely because “if dad had half the talent I did he would’ve gone pro with his work ethic”.
When your life is about mitigating someone else’s pain you didn’t cause, it scars the universe by robbing all of us of the gift of who you are and what you’re here to do. If we’re going to make it we need all of you, not just the moldy leftovers. Which may also be why, counterintuitively, the only answer worth giving in the face of repetitive violence, cynicism, and pain isn’t superhuman strength, or resolve, or even a particularly astute psychotherapist (however, I am taking new clients), it’s the birth of a baby.
(one more deep breath)
I never found the birth of Jesus all that compelling as a superhero origins story. I mean, the physical presence of God is born to a teen mom and her much older fiancé in a backwater town on the underside of Roman imperial power, what’s the big deal? Oh, and I'm failing to mention that Jesus’ mom was totally a virgin and a bunch of people started crowding her (including donkeys) immediately after she gave birth. Cool, seems almost like when my son was born and everyone in North Knoxville (probably) wanted to touch him, and all my wife and I wanted to do was sleep and eat a sandwich (at the same time), and never make eye contact again.
Bruce Wayne's parents were murdered by the Joker outside the movies, and then Bruce fell into a cave with a bunch of bats, thus turning his wallowing angst at the death of his parents into caped violence against Gotham's criminals. Now that’s a hero story worth telling around the holidays, which could explain why I used to enter rooms with the phrase “I’m Batman," played air-guitar through all of the elementary Christmas musical performances in my stuffy Baptist church growing up, and always thought Jesus seemed like a sad white dude on death row, but that’s for my therapist to sort through.
Then, at 30 years of age, my son was born, grasped my finger automatically, and has yet to let go (making it incredibly hard to type). He requests bananas, brinner (breakfast + dinner), Bob Dylan, to go outside without pants on, to build “tall towers,” and to watch more TV than is appropriate for someone his age.
He’s strangely both me and not me.
I'm strangely both his dad and my own dad.
And the weird cocktail of these two timelines gives a poignancy, and depth, and inexplicable hopefulness (oh This is Us now you've got me crying on the couch again before bed) in the face of soon-coming nuclear apocalypse and his adolescence (whichever burns the world down first).
I used to think Christmas was hokey and materialistic, but then gurgling newness entered my own world and laid waste to everything I thought the rest of my life was supposed to be about fixing. When I gave someone else the things I always needed, I got to (for the first time) live in a world where dads can (from time-to-time) non defensively and non anxiously handle the anger and confusion and fear and shame and pain of their children, without it being about them and their feelings of failure. This world continues to feel like the gravity's turned off, and I’m still trying to get my bearings on what it means for every other part of who I am, but I like it.
Even without bringing a baby into the world (or “bravely" watching your spouse do it), giving someone or something else the thing you always thought you’d spend your life trying to “get” for yourself is, in my opinion, the only thing powerful enough to derail the amount of cynical violence currently in circulation. Trusting the love and grace and peace and creativity and risk inexplicably bubbling up when you most need them (especially if no one ever taught you to use or recognize them), is what keeps God in circulation, even in the face of the news cycle.
Even if religion isn't your thing, occasionally "God" is the best explanation for those moments when people from smoldering ash heaps pretending to be families give what they never got in ways all of us are holding back tears just thinking about now.
(Jack Pearson enters, stage left)
In my Christian tradition, the season of Advent is about preparing one’s self for God’s sudden entrance into a world ambling violently of course. What I think it teaches us, if we’ll hear it, is that when we spend the whole of our lives staring at the sky and waiting for God to part the heavens in order to cataclysmically fill our emptiness, we have a way of missing how the quiet and incomplete repairing we consistently undertake here on Earth, especially for those who can’t go to the bathroom on their own, is where the magic always is.
Because cellular love has a way of bending both space and time.