The Joy and Preemptive Grief of Fatherhood
Quinton Skinner Is Trying to Find the Words
The emotional content of our existence can be particularly confusing for those of us consumed by the precision of words. It’s not uncommon for such a creature to stop and ask, Is this joy? Or is this a more anodyne form of happiness?
It can take one out of the moment, up into the head and away from the power lines of experience that we all need to fuel our journeys as meaning-making creatures. Being a parent, for instance—in my case, a father—now that’s a challenge that persists long after the circus has left town. You had yourself a little fun, and now look what you brought home.
One can be consumed with the custodial and logistical aspects, or even become caught up in the daunting managerial challenges of providing some semblance of moral leadership. But as the years pass, the ultimate challenge to a parent becomes the same as it’s always been: managing one’s self.
It doesn’t require a fatalistic temperament to experience fatherhood as piling on bricks of poignancy by the day. But it helps. Now that my two teenage children are right on the precipice of going to hide in the world, as the famously lachrymose Leonard Cohen wrote, I’m prone to all sort of emotional turbulence that can strike in the checkout line, at the butcher’s shop, while cursing my fellow man in highway traffic.
Sadness can reliably be brought on by the happiness of others—always a sure way to ensure the bitter train of reflection leaves the station on time. I visit friends with newborn twins, watch the way they juggle them in that familiar and only sporadically successful primate dance, and realize that for all the body fluids and reptilian screaming, for them there is all possibility, all ahead, all future. And almost nothing feels better than unlimited future.
And, always: the acknowledgment of my ridiculous good fortune. The bestowal of those elusive gifts of health and well being, the beautiful glow of memory and warmth that informs unexpected dreams on long winter nights. More success than not on that balance beam of mutual amusement and affection: not often enough tallying the intangible fortune is the ingratitude of the lottery winner.
None of this is the least bit of concern to my actual children, of course. They’re doing what needs to be done: cataloguing (at times affectionately) my extensive vulnerabilities and the laughable absurdities of my essential character and way of being, all the better to propel themselves into this vivid dream called adulthood, leaving me behind like a Cape Canaveral launching pad burned to a crisp by rocket ignition on a sad Florida morning in the late 1960s.
See? It all starts to come back to the same sense of sadness—or, since words are so vital, grief. It’s all grief, really, and it all feels the same no matter the source. It’s all loss, and once the texture of it is insinuated into your being you only know it by the degree to which it makes itself felt at any point in time. Which becomes your project.
It’s not their project, not yet, but that also gives you another little sting of grief, like a pinprick of extra pain from some sadistic nurse—that hall of mirrors of the old and the young, with you in the middle, as confused as ever, looking for the ticket or the guidebook that you at one time hoped would point the way.
And then, as you always do, you remind yourself to lighten up. You’re old enough now to take comfort in physics—something no reasonably sane young person would ever feel the need to do. Einstein called the passage of time a “stubbornly persistent illusion” in a universe where time itself is a hidden dimension, where it’s our particular lot to live in a dream created by incomplete perception.
They never taught me this in high school, and of course I never would have listened. Who needed it then? There were girls, and beaches, and cities, spices I had never tasted and byways of morality I needed to pass through in order to test my conception of self. I needed to sing in a rock band (alas, not terribly well). At that time I was unaware that I would never really learn to fix a car. I had more future and a past that I could only dimly remember. I didn’t need no stinking physics.
But there’s nothing as poignant as a clock or, to be more accurate, a calendar. At least when we used to have them made out of paper, and we would grind and suffer and giggle and glare our way through one of the 80 or so we were granted, then pull the thing off the wall, shake our head, and throw it in the trash can. We were luxuriant with time: bring it on. Hell, next year we’ll commemorate it with funny farm animals. We’ve got plenty of time before it gets real.
A couple cradling a newborn, a little girl in a colorful dress with an over-serious look on her face walking to the first day of kindergarten. My unreadable face, alone in the yard with the clouds passing slowly overhead in 1973. Your eyes, gleaming with possibility as a flower of joy unfurled and made you realize there were entire wings in your mansion as yet unexplored. My gaze, looking into the mirror and realizing how little there is left to me of the experience of being a son.
So this Father’s Day I spend with them, as long as they’ll have me, and we’ll be polite about what I’ve become, about this seriousness in my eyes and the hourglasses spitting sand with uncaring malevolence and calendar pages flying off with the violence of an unseen hand. I’ll wish them my love, and the best to everyone else, and continue to search for the words.