Three pieces with a harbor view

I’m sitting behind a window over a little harbor, a fishing boat going by. In the lobby, last night, the clerk asked me to check a box agreeing to an extra ten dollars, if there ‘is another person.’ I was confused, then realized when men my age check into a hotel, alone for three weekend nights, they’re often meeting someone. I wished the form made sense. I wished some pretty woman were waiting for me at this port. One who doesn’t already know every idea I’ve ever had. Someone who looks at me and sees more than a list of things she wants me to do.

That’s an intense moment, and never really goes away. I can’t make sense of who I am without my wife, any more. At odd, unexpected points in any day, I imagine her face and smile out loud. Seeing her happy makes me soft and contented. She is where I am; where I hope I’ll always stay. We’ll grow into our sagging, white, crippled flesh together, and I’ll hold her hand and kiss her eyelids while she rattles her last breath.

I am old enough, my life isn’t what I am any more. It’s what I was. I didn’t do what I thought I wanted. I didn’t do what I knew I could. A thousand inconveniences got in the way. A thousand complications took up my time. I looked in the mirror this morning, and realized, partly my life’s been easy because, well, I’m a good looking guy. I remember the boy who wanted so much. I was so excited, looking forward to it. But I didn’t do that. I did something else. Nobody’s fault but my own.

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At night, I lie on some bed with my family and pray. Dear Lord. Hear my plea. I mean it.

I preach to my family. I preach to myself. I preach to you. Two days ago I was enraged by my child at dinner. I yelled at him. I swore at him. I called him names. He was confused, and frightened, and mad. He can be as mean as I am, now. His mother sat beside him, defending him. Every nasty accusation I made was met by equally thoughtless retorts. I looked across the table and yelled at my family. I couldn’t even hear the words. I saw their mouths open, angrily, yelling back. ‘At least they’re not afraid of me,’ I thought, even proud of myself. The angry adults had terrified me, when I was a kid.

My heart just sobs. It’s not the first time I’ve been mean. My prayers make a mockery of my faith. I can’t go to the family bed. My children learn not what I teach, but what I do. This is what I have done. I want to declare it’s actually the right thing. I want to blame my poor kid, and justify my despair on holy principles. I want to wage war and cause suffering, so people know how I feel. I’m fastidious and thoughtful. I check everyone’s schedule. I finish up some clerical work. Wash the dishes. Leave a note. And drive far away.

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When I was a young man I had a young dog, and it disobeyed and I punished. It was a puppy, so of course it continued to disobey. And I to punish. Then one day, I reached out to strike, and it turned mean. It’s a big God, indeed, who will forgive a thing like that. I don’t beat my children, so I can’t make the same mistake with them. But of course I have. I’ve just done it with words. I think up the worst labels I can, and I call my son those, thinking, ‘he won’t want to be those, so he’ll change.’ Unh-uh. He just feels like hell inside, thinks I hate him, thinks up the worst labels he can (usually my own words) and calls me those, too.

When I was a kid I read a lot of books, and plenty had stories of terrible fathers. Terrible fathers and anxious mothers, privately telling their sons that Father is trying to be good. He means well. He’s just doing what he thinks is right. He really loves you. What a joke.

At least now I know how it happens (I guess the stories couldn’t change the inevitable). I do know my child will grow up. I do know what my child will want. He’ll want appreciation, recognition, and a whole lot of love. He’ll want the deep satisfaction of doing well the things he was created able to do. He’ll get those, if he does get them, through hard work, self-sacrifice, and honesty. A little boy isn’t hard working, self-sacrificing, or even honest. He’s a little boy. But you’ve got to get the lesson, kid. Failure is pretty horrible. This is Fear, cursing at you across the table. Your dad is an old guy, who knows. All your talent and promise is dead weight that will drown you. Wake up!

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