Chapter 1: Finisterre
Seattle, Washington (2010)
It is early Saturday morning.
My son, Daniel, has been up for hours writing code and sitting on his bedroom floor soldering electronics onto his Arduino. When I passed his door earlier, he was so focused he barely looked up. He is twelve. My seven-year-old, Alannah, is in her pajamas, and I hear her bare feet pad down the stairs somewhere behind me. She comes and stands by me in my study where I am working intensely on a project, rubbing my lips in concentration and figuring something out.
She leans against my swivel chair and it swivels, and I ask her if she could stop that. She looks at my large dual computer monitors and asks me a question about what’s on the screen. I’m animated at the prospect of talking about my interests. I explain to her how my progress is marked out in these elaborate Excel spreadsheets and colored charts, and how I’ve set it up so that a 3D bar turns red if I miss more than two days or if the average weekly rate of progress goes down.
Like no one else in the family, she knows each and every one of my never-ending projects, and she delights, perhaps as much as I do, in my individual progress and achievements. On this early morning, she’s checking up on the number of French idioms I’ve learned. She asks me to make her some French verb cards, and for about the third or fourth time now, she’s asked me to create a daily task sheet for her. She wants me to put it on the table at the top of the stairs, but I need her to give me a minute because I’m in the middle of something, and I’m stuck, and I don’t know why I’m stuck yet. I struggle to turn my head towards her as I explain this.
If she can just give me a minute, I will help her.
She cannot use one of mine.
De quand date votre dernière confession ?
Somewhere along this 1000-mile, midlife crisis I’m about to embark on, smack in the middle of nowhere, I am going to walk into some village church in France and give the confession of a lifetime.
I am not a Catholic, and I have never given an actual confession, but I have seen them on television and in the movies, and I have a pretty good idea what might be expected of me and the order of operations. So, I will go and sit down in the wooden booth and get started. The village priest won’t understand my dreadful French, but he’ll catch enough of the keywords to know not to interrupt.
And I will tell him something like this (allow me to translate):
I am completely self-centered. I am scolding. I am impatient. I lecture my family and my employees. I complain. I don’t listen. I’m pre-occupied most of the time. I carry resentments for hours and sometimes days. I’m foolishly competitive. I need to win every contest. I don’t give up petty arguments. I need to control everything and everybody. I sulk when I don’t get my way.
I have to be held in the highest regard or my feelings are hurt. I’m exhausting. I need attention constantly. I’m over-sensitive. I anger easily. I’m difficult to work with. I’m distracted and busy when I shouldn’t be. My ambitions drain all my energies. I’m rarely present. I don’t help out much. When I do help out it has to be on my own terms. I don’t take instruction well. I don’t take criticism at all. I have childish tantrums.
As you already know, Lord, I am not a Christian.
There is momentary confusion in the adjoining booth as to whom I’m actually addressing and why, but given the rest of it, it’s hardly worth interrupting. I imagine a beat while the priest gently clears his throat and privately raises his eyebrows.
He prompts me to continue like they do in the movies.
Continue, mon enfant...
I am ashamed of the forced, uninspired and mediocre giver I’ve become. I’m not the father and husband I wanted to be, and my children are getting older so quickly. If I had to give myself a grade as a father and husband, then it would be a C+ or maybe a B-. Yes, I can see I could be a whole lot worse, but I take no comfort in the comparison.
And this isn’t some self-pitying play for praise. It’s not like I’m saying, “Oh, I shouldn’t make the team,” and everyone else is better, and “woe is me” and boo-hoo. Honestly, they’re not. Many dads and husbands are far worse, and some dads and husbands are downright awful.
So, I’m not saying everybody else seems so great. I don’t know what grades the other guys are getting, and I don’t care. I want them to do well. I want all the moms and dads to do well. It’s not a competition for me, being a dad and husband. I’m just saying my effort feels like a C+/B- effort. Average. And that’s not who I wanted to be, and I’m already 44.
But I know, or can at least imagine, what an A-/A dad and husband would be like. With all my heart I know that. I can see how supportive I would be, how attentive and helpful, how I’d listen, how I’d make the bed more and do more projects with the kids. They love when I do, and I’d do nice random things for no reason for my wife. But I just don’t. I’m busy. I’m tired. I’m lazy. I’m somewhere else mentally.
But he’s just so possible. I’m so possible. It’s like my good dad is right by a door inside me, but still I can’t make him come out when I call him, and I keep thinking he will, but he doesn’t, and day follows upon day, and he just paces behind the doorway.
I want the people I love to have that me, because that me is out there. I’ve seen him. They know him. I know him. He shows up from time to time for no reason at all, and sometimes surprises everyone in beautiful ways. Even I am surprised when he appears sometimes. Most of all, I’m surprised that the rest of my family still believes in him so completely.
But what if they stop believing in him? And what about when they get old enough that they don’t even need to believe in him so much anymore? Because this is coming, too. It has to, and it should.
And it is going to hurt.
I don’t want my loved ones to have to grow up around me and over and to the sides of me, tending to the thousand small wounds of their disappointment. I don’t want them to make it in spite of me, even though I know they could. I don’t want everyone to give up on the A+ dad and husband, their friend, their employer. But even if all of the people in my life did give up on me, even then I still don’t want to give up on me.
Father, are you still there?
You are so very, very quiet.
Feel something. For free. Twice a week.