“Son, wake up,” my dad said.
It was 3 a.m. on a school night, but the house was not burning down. There was no emergency, nothing that would qualify me for a future made-for-TV movie on Lifetime.
My dad just wanted his third-grade son to watch “Red River.”
In the days before cable, VHS/DVD/Blu-Ray, and video on demand, our local ABC affiliate showed old movies in the middle of the night. My father was nocturnal, especially during that period of my life, and he wanted company. My mother, who woke up as he went to bed so she could get ready to teach all day, would have harmed him — though lovingly — if he rose her out of bed to watch a movie at 3 a.m.
I didn’t know better, so I did as he asked, mumbling the entire way.
"Dad, why did you and mom get a divorce?"
The question, asked earlier this year en route from the airport to the beach, did not come as a surprise. I've been waiting for it for more than 15 years, ever since the day Nicholas’ mom and I split, just after he turned 2.
"I had become someone I wasn't," I told him.
Today, Dec. 9, my first-born son officially becomes an adult, although he still loves to channel his inner third-grader. It’s appropriate that Nicholas’ 18th birthday kicks off our familial holiday parade of candles and chaos, a period in which all four of my children have birthdays in an 18-day period.
His upbringing has been very different from my own, which is what I hoped would happen, though not exactly in the way I thought when he was born.
In my case, I feel like I’ve been an adult since I was 8. That’s when things veered dramatically in my family, when my father’s illness consumed everything, sucking most of the oxygen out of the room. In the afternoons, my sister and I walked around on eggshells, worried that we would wake him up from a long (surely prescription-induced) nap.
If you think the mom threat, “Just you wait until your father gets home…” puts chills down your spine, think about this one: “Do you really want me to wake your father up to deal with this?” That definitely struck terror with my 8 to 12-year-old self, but I’ve got to give mom credit, it was also very effective.
At the time, I didn’t know what to think, but it’s safe to say I harbored a great deal of resentment amid my adolescent hormonal confusion. Or, as I told Emma earlier this week: “What you curse me for now, you will apologize to me for when you’re in your 20s, or at least by the time you become a parent.”
Today, as an adult and as a parent, I look back at what my mom and grandparents did for my father and for our family and think of them as heroes.
Every day, you see bits and pieces of yourself in your children, things that by habit, luck, or genetic predisposition they were bound to replicate.
Emma, in so many ways, reminds me of her mom. She is thoughtful, funny, smart, and beautiful. She and Ben get their blue eyes from me. She has an innate love for learning, which her mom and I share, is loyal to a fault (me, I think), and endlessly curious about things others consider trivial (me). Emma also is not afraid to ask a tough question (me again) but is not naturally assertive (Jill).
Ben can sing, dance, and act (Jill, in spades), but his personality and approach is much closer to my own. I can sit and watch his wheels go ’round and ’round, trying to figure out how to maneuver his way toward the next Nerf gun or Xbox 360 game (definitely me). We love to watch movies together, a trait I’m glad I share with him and with my father. If Ben likes something, he becomes obsessed with it (me again) but he is very good at measuring and planning his time (Jill).
Kate has my stubborn streak and Jill’s kindness, my gift of gab and Jill’s lack of patience when she feels her time is being wasted. She can vacillate dramatically from ambivalent to obsessed (me again) and has to get in the last word (definitely me). At the same time, she has an extremely strong moral code (Jill), great talent at almost anything she tries (Jill), and is extremely beautiful and smart (you guessed it, Jill).
With Nicholas, you would think I had little to no genetic role in his life, but his love for the arts and his alternately introverted/extraverted personality all come from me. It's one of the great ironies of divorce; every time I see him, I see his mom. Every time he appears on stage, she sees me.
Because each thing we experience is unique, memory is a fascinating quilt, especially where family is concerned. My perspective on my upbringing is different from that of my parents, just as I’m sure the perspective of my children will be different from mine.
Things I remember as fact, childhood memories that struck me as funny or terrifying when I was a kid, are mundane, run-of-the-mill moments to others. I call this phenomenon “familial Rashoman,” or in the case of my wife and kids, “The Magnificent Six.”
Other examples of selective memory are the conversations I had with my father.
I can count the number of deep talks we had on one hand. In fact, I really can’t count much past the middle finger, although that’s not his fault. Nor really is it mine.
Without question, when I look back at my dad, I can shake my head at his eccentricities, chafe (ever so slightly) at his political views — how a Kennedy Democrat became a Republican is one of the most vexing questions in my life — and marvel at his kindness and absolute love for my mom.
Of the three or four deep conversations we had, at least two were about those latter topics.
For any one of a number of reasons, 50 percent of marriages end in divorce. It's a disturbing statistic under any circumstance, one made even more so when you are playing in the World Series of life and relationships with a whiffle ball and a tiny plastic bat. Separating from your spouse, no matter whether it’s necessary or not, is one of the toughest decisions anyone can ever make.
My parents were married for 43 years and three years after my dad's death, Mom still wears her wedding ring. They survived all sorts of physical strum and drang and managed to make it work, holding hands and looking at each other until the end.
By contrast, my first go-round was a seven-year relationship that flamed out before we reached our fifth anniversary. My sister took a similar path.
That night in the car with Nicholas, I cited my father’s advice as I tried to explain to him the reasons I left his mom. When I was debating whether to end my first marriage, I asked my father how he and mom had remained together.
“Well,” he said, “when I look at your mom, I still see the same person I fell in love with.”
Dad went on to explain that bodies change, that people change over the decades, that no marriage (obviously) is perfect. The difference, he believed, was that the fundamental reason he fell for her in the first place never changed.
“So many people get married for the right reasons, but at the wrong time to the wrong person,” he said. “It doesn’t mean the other person is a bad human being, but that they are just wrong for you. I got lucky.”
I am lucky to have had my dad in my life, fortunate to have memories of him waking me up in the middle of the night to watch “Red River,” fortunate to have listened to his advise, fortunate to have my stories (more of which I will share later). I hope that Nicholas, and my other children, feel the same about me when they are my age.
One of my great regrets is that my father and Nicholas did not know each other as well as I wish they could. When I was growing up, I felt surrounded by grandparents, and I know Nicholas would have benefitted so much from getting to know my father.
Sometimes, I wonder if they would have discussed art, a common talent they shared. At others, I wonder how they would have gotten along, because many of their interests are so disparate. Either way, I know my dad would be proud of his oldest grandchild.
Just as I am tonight… Happy birthday, Nicholas.