Paternal’‘s Letters to Boys project offers boys (and the men who raise them) guidance in the form of sincere advice generously given by big men who show us how to take that important first step in confronting seemingly insoluble issues – by to offer honest words.
This is your 27ste birthday. You are now an honest-to-god adult; you spend your birthday week out of town on commission. As things are shaping up, it looks like the apple has not fallen far from the tree.
I write about the place I have so often occupied in your life and mine, behind this desk that once belonged to my father. As the story goes, it got him through medical school; it was supposed to get me through law school with equal determination. Prove, I think, that even when things go unexpectedly, they often work out.
Even though it’s sometimes lonely in my office, I’m never alone. Everywhere I look, there are pictures of friends, loved ones, memorable characters that I have known – an encouraging audience, it’s a testament to a life lived well; in those times when doubt arises, I need look no further. It will come as no surprise, I’m sure, that my favorite photos of you are: Drums on a set of pots and pans with wooden spoons. Grab an opposing goal scorer. Drive for a layup in traffic. Drive yourself to school for the first time. Spittin ‘rhymes at the House of Blues. Pose comically in front of our holiday home on the North Coast with your best friend Z, the third wheel that fixed our broken triangle during the last years of your stay at home.
In my favorite, I’m pretty sure you’re almost four. We peek around the living room. We are dressed identically, my winter wear: gray sweatpants and white tea shirts, loose-fitting, with black long-sleeved shirts on top.
The moment the photo was taken, I remember, I pretended to run away from you. You cling to my shirttail and try to stop me. We laugh, both of us, exuberantly. It’s a picture of joy.
You are my Mini Me.
When you’re a little older, and I assure you, in a power play against your mom, the Big Guy privilege of PlayStation, you’ll make a seven-foot-three-inch avatar on NBA 2k and make him D – call Mike, the D for Dad — then, now and always on your call and call.
Dad! Dad! Daaaad!
Grandma is jealous. She says you come to me first. That you’re a Daddy’s Boy.
And so is yours.
More than a year has passed since you moved from California, where we lived most of your life, to Atlanta, which is only about four hours away on an uninterrupted flight, but on some days to a great distance lyk. We’ve never been this far for so long. The second birthday you celebrated in your new home.
Just before you moved, you called to let me know of your plans that were already underway at the time. I was shocked by the news, spoke quickly and a little loudly, offered opinions and alternatives, expressed concern, some of it a little dramatic – because I am your father, and because your business always was my business, from that very first night you came home from the hospital.
If you slept in bed between me and your mother, you had a closed nose.
I stayed up all night, awake, afraid you would stop breathing.
And, honestly, your mother curses because she pushed me into this predicament of fatherhood, this incurable disease of the heart, which I never really wanted because I knew what was going to happen. You have become my pivotal foot. Permanent. Everything moves around you.
Anyway, when you called to say you’re going from LA to Atlanta – ironically, the place I went to college, where my adulthood began, the place I come – and I may have made it a little difficult for you to leave me here on the golden coast, you finally told me:
“I have to make my own mistakes.”
In the sense that we all enter parenthood without a product manual – the so-called experts notwithstanding – I think it is not surprising to discover that the operating system needs to be constantly updated over time. Like life itself, parenting has its stages.
The first 18 years are intensely hands-on. In the beginning, there is not a single moment of their life of which you are not a part. Later, when you teach the child to make decisions for themselves, you lead gently and lead. If you get used to it, they will not even see you.
Until they leave. And wake up in their bodies. And then they can not get fast enough far enough. Whatever you have to say, they do not want to hear it.
And you have no right to say that either.
As a parent, you start with all the control. You end up with no one. You learn to follow instead of leading. You learn to hold your tongue. You hope the transition from child to peer continues; there is no other person on the planet that you prefer as a friend.
By all accounts, Miles, your new world suits you. Despite COVID, you thrive. You have an engaging and meaningful job and a loving partner, new friends, a garden that produces the coolest purple okra, among other abundance. A dog and a cat. A silk business that fits motorcycles. A small blue house between the kudzu. N life.
Ever since you left, you’ve been in touch. You consulted when needed. You also did good on your own, as always; you’ve never told me everything I respect. Though I have helped to create you, I do not possess you or your thoughts. Best of all, despite COVID, we managed to exchange visits, the first of which came before vaccinations and necessitated some heroic travel and quarantine on your part. Your determination to get through it all – for our sake – has reached me hard and clear, good mate. You’re not trying to leave me in the dust.
Another reason why you came home: To see your grandmother, my mother, who was also visiting. She is 89. Old now but always herself.
Often, when I tell Grandma about something in my life, maybe something strange to her or different from what she’s used to, she makes a sour face. She will say, I have never heard of such a thing! Why would anyone want to do that?
At what point do I usually remind her of my age (I just turned 65) and assure her that I covered the basics.
And that not everyone does things the same way.
(And that it is no longer 1964?)
At what point, without fail, her eyes will remain kind of shiny and her head will nod briefly once. I’m pretty sure it’s involuntary. And I’m pretty sure that means: You can think what you want to think, you little fisherman: I wiped your ass.
Going forward, Miles, I promise to try my best to never do this to you.
Though of course I will always remember how I wiped your ass.
And how, once upon a time, the whole of you fit the space between my chin and my navel.
Mike Sager is a best-selling author and award-winning reporter. For more than 40 years he worked as a writer for the Washington Post, Rolling Stone, GQ and Esquire.