I’m out here living in a fantasy/
I can’t enjoy a goddamn thing”
-Jason Isbell, “Anxiety”
“Hey Dad…….can I ask a favor?”
My youngest rarely calls me, mid-day, and rarely asks for much unless it really means something to him, so of course the answer is yes.
“I know tonight is YOUR night, but tomorrow is the first day of school, and all my stuff is organized at Mom’s, and is it going to hurt your feelings if we stay at Mom’s tonight? We don’t have to, but I just hope you won’t mind………I love you”, he hastily added at the end, as though somehow I needed verification.
Laughing, I told him “Of course, son….I get it. You like order, you like schedules and tomorrow is a BIG day; your first day of high school. Of course. Just let me know what you need from me, okay?”
An audible sigh was released from his end; clearly this had been weighing on him for a minute, and he seemed vastly relieved that I wouldn’t take it personally. My job as his father is to support and love him and his brother in whatever they need, and I try to never forget those two pillars of how I try to parent. Plus, it meant I could sleep in one more morning, and at my advanced age, that’s a pretty sweet luxury.
But the authentic reason behind my issuing no pressure to him was a reflection of my time as the kid of two households, and the terrible guilt I would carry around if I ever felt like I let my own father down. I’d been in EXACTLY that position more than once, and the first time I was kicked out of his house was in the third grade when I had the audacity to ask if I could stay at Mom’s that weekend (really, I’d just wanted to spend the night at a buddy’s house, and Mom was a much easier sell). He’d slammed the phone down on me, and waited till the dead of night to unceremoniously dump all of the treasures a 9 year old had onto my Mom & Stepdad’s front lawn up in Mission Canyon, communicating that I was no longer welcome. My folks scrambled in the morning to put all of it away before I got home, but as any savvy kid of divorce knows, THESE things belongs at THIS house, and THOSE things belong at THAT house, and we always knew SOMETHING was up when lines were crossed. I was crushed to feel the weight of rejection and not being wanted in his home. He wouldn’t speak to me for weeks, and then only after I begged for his forgiveness and apologized as though I’d committed an act of national treason, many times over. And I remember that feeling so well, SO VERY WELL, that I swore if ever I was a parent I wouldn’t visit that kind of narcissistic bullshit upon my own children. I try my best. And so, of course I said I didn’t mind.
And deep down, I felt a hurt, and the old specter of a depressive fog began rolling in off the metaphorical ocean. Every single summer since they’ve been school age, I’ve looked forward to the first day of school as it represented a fresh chapter, a little bit of freedom and the return of a schedule that I can work around. I would get excited about school events and sports and music performances and remarking casually to Mrs. Ex how much they’ve grown over the last summer. But this return was different, this year.
I can see the end of the line for those days. My boys aren’t my boys as much as they are evolving young men, each wanting to make his individual mark on this world and defining who they are and what they believe and every other single aspect that each young person must go through as they transition into adulthood. This past summer they were relatively low-maintenance, one holding down a job, both gaming like the rent depended on it and content to sleep as much as possible through the hot and humid days of a miserable Missouri summer. I’m trying to juggle several jobs in a mad-dash effort to pay for braces, bills and the consequences of being a piss-poor financial manager, honestly. Vacations paid for by me might include a movie and some Chinese; there were no boats on the lake nor trips to cultural Meccas and they seemed fine with it, but deep down, the sting of what I feel like I can’t provide is a constant.
“Anxiety, why am I never where I’m supposed to be/
Even with my lover sleeping close to me/
I’m wide awake and I’m in pain.”
-Jason Isbell, “Anxiety”
It’s been a weird year in a decade of weird years. I dropped out of the gym and at 45 years old, my body immediately went into steady fat-accumulation mode, not helped in the least by the fact that I’m working in a brewery. I thought I’d found love, and my ability to make brilliant impulsive decisions lead to an engagement that crumbled with the fury of a failing North Korean rocket launch. An unceremonious and unwanted transfer at the Fire Department was couched in terms of “needs of The Department” but felt more like a middle finger from a former Battalion Chief on his way out the door. Demotivation followed in droves, and a final attempt to participate on an administrative committee was dismissed as well. With five years or less left in the fire service, it’s getting harder and harder for me to get excited about lack of real sleep, a dearth of false alarms, medical emergencies that aren’t and the knowledge that I’m now looked at as one of “the old guys” with less to offer a younger, more educated, highly certified fire department. I was once the young guy, too, and it’s the natural order of things, but I’m reminded that my time there is limited. Trying hard to enjoy the last few years is off-set by the reminders that I’ve still never really conformed to the structure completely, and thus I operate out of the circles of favor. My Engineer is another old hand as well, and we’ll continue to sip coffee with aching joints and grey sideburns, never forgetting that the clock is counting down to our final runs as firefighters, the very thing that’s defined our lives for more than two decades.
All around, people’s lives are evolving. I’m watching relationships flourish and fall apart, and there’s a disconnect to it all. I still think about decisions I made 8 years ago that lead to the dismantling of my family, bankruptcy, the loss of my home and the trust of those around me. On good days I can tell you that I’m a better dad, more honest person and less selfish because of it all, but in truth, the reality of my fuck-ups are just that. Fallibility and ego dance hand in hand, and the cost was not worth the price. Depressive jags lead to one-sided conversations with the cat, she playing the role of other characters in my life while I try to deconstruct just how foolish I’ve been. Sleep is the best friend I’ve had, and when the reality of everything seems to hit, my age and weariness combine to drive me under the covers and try to sleep away the ghosts. I’m watching my youngest brother soar to the highest levels, on a book tour and on television, enjoying the fruits of so much labor. I’m watching the mother of my kids in a healthy, long-term relationship and my heart is glad she’s found real love again after all I put her through. I’m watching exes moving forward with new partners, proclaiming it all for the social media world to consume, effortlessly smiling in good places.
All of this self-pity bullshit just piles on the guilt. I have people close to me who would give ANYthing for more time with children they’ve lost. I’ve a good job, several of them, and friends who wouldn’t think twice about burning down the whole damn town with me, then enjoying some wings over a good laugh. The podcast grows daily, with guests gracious enough to spend an hour at a time. I’ve got to dig deep to remember the power of gratitude, but I know it’s in there. I know it.
So I signed back up at a new gym. I’m the heaviest, least in shape one in each class, but I’m showing up, slightly more consistently each week. All of those “never give up” sayings are a load of horse squeeze, because we all feel like giving up, more often than we’d like to admit. The choice to age more healthily is mine alone to make, and even though it’s a damn shame to start again at the bottom of the fitness ladder, I can’t sleep my way into good condition. And every parent out there, if they’re being honest, has leaned with head in hands over their knees and tears flowing, wondering just how bad they’re screwing up their kids with their own missteps. But here we are, showing up somehow, trying again each time we wake up.
Day in and day out, I’m waking up to a world that many would be grateful to have, and I need to remember it. So I’m gonna keep on showing up, to work, to life and most importantly, for my boys. They may not need me on the first day of school any more, but there still many moments to share, to teach and to love them.
I’ll still be here for them, always, death choking my demons back down into reality, and grateful for the chance to be their father.