My father turns 80 next week. Having recently entered my own new decade of life, I was thinking that it must feel strange to have that birthday. For most people, it’s likely the last milestone of age you’ll celebrate… although given the experience of my father’s parents and siblings, there’s a good chance he’ll see 90 and more. He’s still pretty healthy, plays tennis, works in the yard — though he’s beginning to look a little old.
My father and I have a complicated relationship. Nah, I can’t even say that. It sucks. Like many American men of earlier generations, he was a distant, quiet father. Still, he managed to say and do things to me growing up that were emotionally cruel and devastating. I would think in those moments, and still do today,” There’s no way this guy loves me.” I don’t love him.
My approach to parenting Mtuseni is partly based on life with my father — I do the opposite of everything my father did with me. I’m still amazed by the way Mtuseni takes much needed sustenance and strength from the frequent times I tell him, “I love you, bud.” And how my pep talks spur him to keep stretching beyond his comfort zone, trusting in my assertions that I’ll never let him fall. Mtuseni often says that much of what he’s been able to accomplish the past few years has been due to my support. Whatever I’ve accomplished in my own life has been in spite of my father.
And yet… this guy’s turning 80. Even with that sturdy Polish-German pedigree, there’s not much sand left in the hourglass. Mtuseni will sometimes say how he’s bothered by the strained relationship I have with my parents — despite the fact that he will not speak to his own father. He sent me a Mxit message saying he was glad I went to see them Christmas Eve, because he thinks I should “spend more time with them while they still around.” I’ve often said that the learning in this relationship with Mtuseni goes both ways.
Honestly, it’s hard to come up with positives when thinking about my father. He bought our summer house on Cape Cod, which formed my lifelong attachment to the ocean. I inherited his intellect and youthful aging… along with his solitary nature and propensity for depression. I have flashes of memories from long ago, before first grade, when I would excitedly run up the street to meet him on his way home from work. It all went downhill after that.
Sometimes in my father’s deep blue eyes I capture a glimpse of a man trapped. Fifty years and counting in a toxic marriage. Kids who have difficulty talking to him. Siblings who all died without speaking to him for thirty years. Strip away the “father” label and he’s a man in his final act who perhaps laments many past choices. Or maybe not; he can be a stubborn dick.
An 80th birthday. Do I acknowledge it? I’ve ignored the last 30 or 40. Communicating with my father is a crap shoot that, for me, usually comes up snake eyes. He’s not big on the phone. He’s never sent an e-mail. I’m not driving up to their snowbound house in the mountains of New Hampshire. Every birthday card for fathers is filled with gag-inducing saccharine sentiment that rings hollow for both of us.
And yet there’s that flicker of vulnerable humanity in those aging eyes. And there’s my South African son who would expect me to do the honorable thing. I just don’t know.
What I do know — or surely hope — is that Mtuseni will never have these conflicted feelings toward me. And that some day when he’s a father, I will have been a better parenting role model than our fathers were.
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