Funny thing about fathers and children. If you’re a father, you worry endlessly about your children. You’re a child with an aging father, you worry endlessly about him.
My dad is 85, his health failing and with it his outlook on what’s left of his life. My mom has Alzheimer’s disease and is in a nursing home, unable to come home but begging to do so, and that weighs on him heavily as he endures her confusion and desperation. His back has long been bad and he walks stooped and worn, a posture personifying his mental as much as physical state. I ache for him and do what I can. But there’s only so much I can do.
My son is 24, a recent Army infantry veteran who served in Afghanistan, surviving physically but bearing the mental scars of seeing things no one should ever see, friends maimed and killed, leaving their blood literally on his hands. He lives with me now, works a job, and is thinking about school as he tries to find his way in a life forever altered. He has his own pain, and I ache for him and do what I can. But there’s only so much I can do.
And there I am, father and son in the middle, pushing 60 this year, looking one way to all those years behind me with my father, and the other to all those still ahead for my children. Call me part of Generation Muddle. We’re in the center of that often-claustrophobic generational divide, muddling to get through it.
We get advice throughout our lives on how to be a better father or son. But there’s scant little for those in the middle, so we take the best of what we are on both sides and try to apply what we’ve learned.
What I’ve learned from my dad is far too great to list, but chief among the lessons was following your heart, embracing wholeheartedly the passion you have for what you do. Among other things, I’m a writer and actor, both things my father always wanted to be. I also play hockey and travel the world, both filling him with worry about my safety. Worrying is, after all, a dad’s domain, no matter his age.
I’m always there for my son and daughter, and in their way, they for me, just by their enduring love. My son and I had been through some horrific times during the days he fought his demons a few years ago, but beneath it all was the unconditional love we have for each other. It got us through.
Understandably, it’s my kids I worry about most, including my daughter, 26, who’s always been fiercely independent and a worker, but who is still, and will always be, my little girl. My father nears the end of his road, but my son’s is stretched before him, clouded for now by youthful uncertainty, always with more questions than answers. He doesn’t know yet, but will, that there will always be more questions than answers, that the journey’s the thing, not the destination.
There’s a great picture in my office of my dad when he was about my age now, a bearded, robust face, cigar clamped between his teeth, looking out over the Maine woods he’s loved forever, a gleam in his eye now sadly long gone. It’s how I will always remember him.
I also have pictures of my kids when they were little, a gleam in their eyes that hopefully will burn brighter as their hearts lead them wherever they need to be.
So there I am in the middle, muddling through it all, worrying as father and child about father and children. I look at those pictures and a warming flood of memories washes over me as I mine them for some hint that I’ve done all right by my father, my children.
And on this day, knowing that perhaps I have, is the greatest gift of all.