Thoughts From a Dad on His First Father's Day With Adult Sons

"The mother must hold the baby close so that the baby knows it is his his world. But the father must take him to he highest hill so that he can see what his world is like." - Mayan Proverb

I'm only an amateur sociologist, a weekend anthropologist and a history hobbyist, so take this for what it's worth. But speaking as a guy with two sons, it's my opinion that the biggest difference in raising boys now as opposed to all the other fathers raising all the other boys throughout the eons isn't about technology, instant communication, pop culture or social politics. It's got nothing to do about how we've raised the first generation in the history of our species to grow up understanding the tools we all use than the previous generations did. It's not even about how they can meet girls without having to call the land line in their house and be terrified to have a little brother or, God forbid, her father answer. (Lucky dogs.)

It's that a while ago, the human race stopped a universal practice that had existed since the dawn of civilization and was an essential part of life in every part of the world where people lived. 

The Rite of Passage.

The specifics of it were different, depending on the tribe, but the broad strokes were the same. A boy would reach a certain age and be taken out of the village and into the wilderness by the men. Taken away from his mother, both literally and figuratively, and be taught how to live on his own. In extreme cases, like ancient Sparta, he was left alone to fend for himself and make it back alive or die trying. In some Aboriginal cultures, they drink the blood of an adult man. Symbolically replacing their mother's milk with the blood of the hunt they will need to stay strong and feed their families. But whatever the particulars, the rite was designed to pass the boy through a trial that would take him from childhood into manhood.

At some point, we did away with that. The last vestiges of the practice might be visible with freshmen having to carry seniors' helmets and shoulder pads or frat pledges drinking cheap vodka and putting things in their buttcracks. And even those are quickly heading to the ash heap of history along with all those land lines we had to call. Even when a religion declares you an adult, it's just a matter of saying some prayers and your parents throwing you an expensive party. 

I say all this because in just the last few weeks, both of my kids reached adulthood. In both the practical sense and the legal sense. My older son graduated from college after doing a four year tour in the military and moved into an apartment in North Carolina. My younger just turned 21, is entering his senior year at a Catholic university in Ohio, and just moved into a squalid, off campus hovel with his buddies in a crummy neighborhood. The kind of place they would to fix up in the movies I watched at their age, always in a montage with 80s music, with coeds lending a woman's touch, and someone getting a wet paint roller across the nose as hilarity ensues. If those aren't examples of two former boys officially becoming men, I've got nothing else for you. 

As the father in this equation, I can't help but feel a mix of emotions I can't quite describe. It's a blender drink of accomplishment and pride, to be sure. With shot of relief. Poured over rocks of longing. And finished with a dash of the bitters that come from realizing their days of needing much in the way of my dad services are pretty much over. 

I mean, not 100%. Just because your kid earned a diploma or has an ID that will get him into a bar legally doesn't mean you've hit the finish line by any stretch. Those first 21 years are like when sea turtle hatchlings make that treacherous journey across the sand to the ocean. As the one who buried their eggs, that long trek his harrowing to watch. They're vulnerable a hundred different ways. Threatened by birds, snakes, lizards and God knows what else. When the lucky ones navigate all that and reach the waves, they're not out of danger. But they're out of your reach. All you can hope for is that when they meet whatever new threats are waiting for them in the water, they're equipped to handle them. That they're in the element where they belong. That they've got shells hard enough to protect them, fast enough flippers to help them get away, and sharp enough beaks to kill any fish that tries to mess with your boy. And that you taught them how to use them and thrive in that ecosystem where everyone is a meal for somebody else. Except when you're human, you can't lay 200 eggs. All you can do is hope to bat 1.000 against a harsh, uncaring food chain. 

So it's been a bittersweet time for the devoted and maternal Irish Rose and me. The last time the four of us were together was that college graduation. And both boys separately said the same thing in the almost identical words. To the point it was uncanny. Essentially that they're done living in Massachusetts. That on their last visit they met up with their school buddies, and still like those guys, but that the friends they made in the Marines and college, respectively, are the friends they'll have for the rest of their lives. So they've moved on. As someone who watched the Red Sox play the Dodgers in the 2018 World Series with the same group of guys in the same Weymouth barroom where we watched the 1986 Red Sox lose to the Mets (and told the same jokes), that wasn't easy to hear. It was eternity bouncing my soul into the Red Solo cup of my life and making me chug my own mortality. Or something. 

For the first time since we first got married, when both children existed only in the wishes a mother's heart makes, we're looking to move. To sell the house and downsize. Live like the empty nesters we slowly became, but only just now came to grips with that reality. Now I catch myself doing the things I've been doing since the mid-90s, but realize I'll soon be doing them for the last time. Mowing the lawns where their mom and I would hang out watching them play on a day where we had nowhere else to be the afternoon seemed to stretch on forever. Where they learned how to throw and catch and ride bikes, and just how many swear words their uncles could work into one conversation at a cookout. Sitting down in the den where I showed a boy who was home from school sick The Princess Bride, a movie about a kid who is home from school sick. 

What were once bedrooms are just spare rooms, with beds and some clothes that no longer fit them after years of gym memberships and protein shakes. But to the guy who spent uncountable hours sitting on the floor reading Harry Potter books in character, trying to remember how to do the Snape and Hermoine voices he was nailing the night before, they're National Heritage sites. That will soon belong to someone else to make memories in. And somewhere in the attic is a crib where a preschooler's tears once fell on the railing because his infant brother looked up at him and smiled. Tears that were echoed last month by their mom as she watched that infant pull away in his SUV, heading back to his senior year college. Now an adult. Forever her baby. 

As forlorn as any of this sounds - and that is a part of it for sure - there's comfort in realizing this is the ultimate goal of starting a family. Doing what you can while you can, and figuring it out along the way. But understanding that this is what you signed on for when you made a baby. And it's important to consider the alternative. I've known far too many people whose kids never got the chance to strike out on their own into the adult world. In some cases because they lack the capacity. (My sainted mom's beloved only brother was Special Needs and lived with us until he passed at the age of 78, so I can relate the lifetime commitment of these parents. And their unconditional love.) Most because they met some tragedy. Accidents. Overdoses. Losing battles to PTSD. And a random, utterly senseless act of violence I won't get into. The point being that when it's finally time for your children go out on their own, you can't let it be about you. (No matter how much it is all about you.) Instead you have to bear in mind that this was the arrangement all along. Written into the Purchase & Sale Agreement you signed with life when you created one. So be happy. I guess.

There's a duet in Dear Evan Hansen (not a good movie) between two frustrated moms called, "Does Anybody Have a Map?" with the lyrics, "Anybody maybe happen to know how the hell to do this? I don't know if you can tell, but this is me just pretending to know. I'm flying blind, and I'm making this up as I go." I mention it because it occurred to me that it's not really a map you give your kids. And it's certainly not GPS. Ever notice that when you use turn-by-turn navigation that it gets you to your destination, but don't remember how you got there? GPS doesn't teach you; It tells you. And there's a world of difference. The best thing you can do is hope your child knows what direction they want to head in, hand them a sextant, and teach them how to use it to chart their course. Then wave goodbye at the docks and pray for safe passage. And add a prayer of thanksgiving that you got to be along on the voyage as long as you have.

That's where I'm at on this Father's Day. If you'll pardon the self-indulgent, clout-chasing, Proud Dadism, my sons have grown up to be the men I'd hoped they'd be. To be clear, I'm not taking credit. I've never been anyone's idea of a role model. There aren't any inspirational life lessons filled with sage advice and wisdom that include, "Why, when I wanted to make something of myself in this world, I dusted myself off, pulled myself up by the bootstraps, and carved out a life of telling jokes in nightclubs and writing snarky blogs for a smutty sports site!!!" They sorted things out more or less on their own. 

One has his degree in Criminal Justice and an interview scheduled with a federal agency. The other is studying Psychology and has a summer job working with the mentally ill. I'll add that their mom has combined her two greatest gifts - music and understanding children - into a career. Whereas two days ago I got frustrated hearing "Bust a Move" on the Classic Hits station because "Your best friend Harry has a brother Larry, in five days from now he's gonna marry." Because it hit me that if Harry's your best friend, then why are you Larry's best man? It makes no sense, not even for rhyming purposes. But also I was mad because "Bust a Move" is now on the Classic Hits station. And because I realized that if 30 year old song lyrics can bother me, I'm definitely not making the medal stand in a four person family when they award prizes for being a good human. 

But I do qualify as a father. Of two young adults who are finding their way in this wicked world. Despite not having any Rites of Passage, and without having the sort of grounded, Greatest Generation dad I had, they've branched out on their own and are figuring it out. I'll miss having them home today. But as I kick back with beers, cigars, TV golf and a charcoal grill today, that thought will be my present. 

Happy Father's Day to you all. Tell yours you love him.