When I was much younger, living a life much, much different than this one, the thought of having kids, of being a father, was completely laughable to me. I grew up in a family with seven kids. I know how difficult it was for Mom and Dad. I remember the tough times. I remember gravy meat.
Kids aren’t easy. Kids are not cheap.
As I grew older, nothing really shook me from my fatherhood-phobia. I was happy working hard, building a career, going out a few times a week and rolling through life blissfully, proudly irresponsible. I was cool spending my time and money on me and my friends. I was, I concluded, way too selfish for kids.
Things changed, though, as things have a way of doing, when the right woman entered my life. After a while, Mary Jo and I decided that maybe a little family wouldn’t be too bad of an idea. It might give us something new to do. Someone to pal around with. Someone to clean up around the house. A little tax deduction. It could be a kick.
So it was that 21 years ago — 21 years to this day — damned if we didn’t find ourselves with a kid on our hands. A nine pound, 15-ounce mass of arms and legs and spit-up and poop and adult-sized responsibility.
I remember getting ready to leave the hospital after my little life had changed for good, with Mary Jo and that not-so-little blob of swaddled-up blank slate in the back seat of the car. Everybody was strapped in, the baby in his new seat facing backward, and I distinctly recall looking up at the nurse and thinking:
“Come on, now. Certainly we can stay a few more days, can’t we? Maybe a week? Two? I mean, look at us. Look at that thing. Look at us. We are NOT ready for this …”
The patient folks at Northside Hospital pushed us out the door with a knowing nod and, somehow, here we are. With a 6-foot-1, 180-poundish, stubbly (^), smart-alecky, almost completely autonomous legally sanctioned adult to our credit.
Seriously. Don’t we get some kind of prize for this?
Like every parent ever, of course, we made a few thousand mistakes along the way. For one, letting my oldest brother sit our relatively newborn kid on the dining room table, only to have the Weeble topple backward onto his still-soft noggin. For another, allowing the little tyke, maybe 6 at the time, to get away from me at the big wave pool at Six Flags. I dove frantically to the bottom so many times that they had to stop the wave-maker. When I popped up for what seemed like the 50th time, bug-eyed and scared more than I ever have been, I finally spotted the boy bobbing calmly on the surface, holding onto someone else’s inner tube and pretending that he didn’t know the crazy man who had short-circuited the ride. It was the Lazy River from then on out.
We pushed too hard some times, Mary Jo and I, and not hard enough at others. We yelled when we shouldn’t have and stayed quiet when going nuts probably was the better move. Too often, I wasn’t there when I should have been. I missed him getting bonked in the eyebrow with a baseball bat one long-ago October (–>), missed the ambulance ride and the multitude of stitches as I stood on a ramp at old Busch Stadium in St. Louis while Mary Jo phoned me with all the blood-caked details.
We prodded our kid into piano lessons, which seemed to take, and baseball practices, which didn’t. We read every Harry Potter book with him, starting when he was barely able to pick out words and ending with him reading whole chapters to us. We occasionally caught him playing video games we didn’t want him to and once, when we found out he was chatting online with some strange “girl” in another town — he must’ve been 8 or 9 — we freaked. We celebrated when things went right, worried when they didn’t.
One time, because we somehow felt it was the right thing to do, I spanked him for some since-forgotten slip-up. Took him up to my office. Told him I was going to do it. Explained to him in my best dad voice that actions have consequences. Put the semi-perplexed but completely unafraid boy across my knee. Regretted it immediately. Never did it again.
What dummies we were. What complete idiots. I’d bet he doesn’t even remember it.
Back in our old kid-free days, we used to go to bars, Mary Jo and I, me pulling on a beer while she boot-scooted across the dance floor. We used to fire off to beach vacations, too, in the times Before Kid. After Kid, we could think of doing so only after meticulous planning, a Jenga-like packing of chairs and sand tools into the truck and a long trip that (sigh) did not end up with just two of us in a big bed in a hotel room.
Still, that was then. From the day that we pulled away from Northside to this one, even as the kid sits in his apartment off Georgia Tech’s campus doing god knows what — probably chatting online with some stranger and buying cheap Chinese goods on eBay — he has occupied the center chair in the front row of our lives. We rarely have made a move in the past two-plus decades, rarely thought a thought, without considering Luke first. It is something that would have been unthinkable to our former selves.
Now he’s planning a trip overseas next summer without us. And we, somewhat gingerly, are slipping back into a life where what we want, suddenly, seems to count a little more. It’s weird. It’s funny.
What we have come to find out, in this long adventure of ours, is that what we want most now still is all about Luke. What we want most, now, is that our boy grab everything that this world has to offer and wring it for all it’s worth. We can’t make him do it, of course. It’s becoming increasingly up to him. He is, as he has told us on more than one occasion lately, a grown-ass man.
Still, we want it. We want to be there for him, too, on the ridiculously off-chance that he’ll ask for some input. (And, yeah, we’ll offer it up even when he doesn’t ask.) We want to be a part of his life as he builds a fantastic one of his own. We want, as we always have for this smart, funny, kind, caring, cool-headed, still-growing young man who has been front-row center for the most important, challenging, uplifting, chaotic, heart-fulfilling, soul-satisfying part of our lives … everything. Just everything.
We want, we want, we want. We are, as it turns out, still selfish that way.
Happy Birthday to our 21-year-old grown-ass kid. We love you, Luke.