Back in my 20s, 30s, and 40s, when someone asked if I planned to have children, my stock answer was: "I need kids like I need cholera." It was a selfish and short-sighted sentiment, and totally unfair to my wife -- make that two wives -- who selflessly respected my convictions and never pressed the baby button. And if they had, I was armed with a handbook of rationalizations, some real, some rote.
For starters, I lacked the parental instinct, always had, although the reasons remained largely unexplored. However you don't need to be Dr. Phil to venture a good guess: Two weeks before Christmas of 1955 my father passed away, leaving behind a dazed three-year-old and a pregnant wife with no palpable means of support. He was 25. To be sure, an emotional IED like this leaves a hail of shrapnel, most of it permanent.
Then there was the fear of being tethered to a needy child in the "prime of my life," whatever that means; and the expense; and the fear of something going wrong along the way; and, not least, all of those decayed food substances lodged irretrievably in the car's upholstery. What is more, for 10 of those years I was a restaurant critic, logging up to 10 meals out a week. Sitter fees alone could have paid for a summer cottage in Provence, with a good cook.
Not surprisingly, friends and relatives prodded me toward the play station with well-meaning if unoriginal arguments.
- It can change your life. (Possibly, but so can a gym membership.)
- You will come to realize what things are most important in life. (I already have a list, like football tailgating.)
- Older dads are wiser and more patient. (Some older dads.)
- You will experience a love more profound than you've ever thought possible. (Got me there.)
But like the tide that erodes a child's sand castle, age softens our blunt, youthful certitudes. And so it came to pass that, at age 52 I tumbled into the jaws of parenthood. Amy was 39 -- no schoolgirl, yet by today's standards hardly superannuated.
The evening she informed me of my new title I fell silent. Rather than buy Champagne for bar, I began making mathematical projections about how old I would be when he graduates from high school, from college, when he marries and -- if I can cling to the building's ledge long enough -- has children of his own. I fretted that this could be the biggest mistake of my life since allowing a college roommate to raise a baby python in the spare closet.
As an older parent puffing along in the early laps of child rearing, I can offer one piece of advice: Enough with the math. Resist calculating your decline against the kid's milestones. It is a downward spiral that becomes an obsession worthy of Lady Macbeth. For most people, living in the present with little attention paid to the future is a foolhardy enterprise. For older dads it is a survival tool to be wielded often.
As predicted, the day Sean graduated from the womb was epiphanic. As I cradled him awkwardly, not yet a minute old, my first thought was, hey, this slippery, squealing, party-sized hoagie is really me, or at least half of me, and, as the proverbial blank slate, he has the opportunity to rewrite the script that was botched up by the old man. The newborn's eyes were scrunched closed, and his puffed, furrowed face resembled a young bulldog. My wish was that he would grow to resemble me in every way, from the hedgerow eyebrows and rangy frame to the weird second toe, so long it appears poised for a getaway.
Kafka said the meaning of life is that it ends. This is to say, humans are terrified at the thought of expiration, though some manage to sublimate it better than others. As a consequence, we are driven to seek permanence, some marker to attest to our brief stopover on the planet, great or small: raising families, erecting monuments, building homes, creating businesses, indulging in the arts, teaching others. So, I reasoned, if this baby is my ticket to immortality, all of the senescent dad stuff should not rattle me. Try again.
In his first year -- I was a work-at-home parent assisted by a nanny -- I rarely worried or thought about being an advanced dad. My connection to Sean was pure and unexamined, age-neutral. It was only when we began spending time out of the house, at the park, shopping, at the swing set, that I became increasingly uncomfortable about my age -- or, more directly, about how other swing-setters saw me. I wish I could say this feeling has passed, but it has not. It follows me around like a dog.
Now in first grade, Sean attends an after school program and I pick him up in the early evening. Often I arrive at the same time as a thin, nervous looking woman in her mid-30s navigating one of those massive Buick Stadium Boxcar SUVs. It occupies two parking spaces and casts a shadow over half the playground. We exchange greetings, comment on the weather, and wait for our young charges to appear. This may overly self-conscious but I am convinced that she thinks it's nice that Sean has a retired relative to assist his overworked parents.
This is ridiculous, really, for notwithstanding my premature gray hair, I am young looking, and in better shape than many of the doughy, defoliating dads who attend parents' night. Still, there is the compulsion to project. While the nervous mom will be middle aged at her child's wedding, I'll be lucky to attend his ceremony without physical assistance.
A couple of weeks ago I sneaked up behind Sean at after-school where he was playing Legos with some friends in the cafeteria. One of them called out, "Sean, your grandpa is here!" In my defense, Sean dropped his Legos and set his classmate straight in no uncertain terms. This is now a joke between us. I think.
None of these experiences prepared me for what was to come. One morning last month, out of the blue, he told his mother -- we live apart -- that he had been having nightmares about me dying at age 50 and attending a funeral. My hair turned white upon hearing this. Did he pick this up from me? Or someone in school? I was shattered.
Like any mature and responsible dad, I sat him down, held his hand, smiled reassuringly--and lied. Just a little. Fifty is really young (I am considerably older than that); I will be around for a long, long, time, as long as Eliot's dad and Jake's dad and maybe you. Initially he listened quietly, betraying no emotion.
"Dad, have you seen my baseball bat?" he asked. I wasn't surprised at this, for discussions with six-year-olds are like reaching into a stuffed dryer -- you never know what will come out first. I decided to return to the subject in a few days.
Last weekend, Sean and I sailed on a historic schooner up the Hudson River along with about a dozen other families, some with children his age. At one point I walked past where he was sitting with a playmate.
"Do you have Legos?" the boy asked. "I have lots."
"Yeah, me too," Sean replied. "And when we get home, my dad and I are going to build the biggest, hugest, tallest building in the world -- bigger than the Empire State Building."
Grasp immortality wherever you find it.