ecently my son blew up what had been one my most cherished memories of fatherhood. He didn’t exactly refute my memory; he just tilted his head, like the dog does when I crack a tuna can, and shrugged. He also smiled — the indulgent kind of smile, the one that says, “Sure, I can roll with that story if it works for you, Dad. It’s all good.”
I told my dad about this emotional gut punch. He said, “Huh,” nodded, and asked me if I remembered the car ride after I had been cut from a hockey team when I was 9, the one where I cried for an hour holding his hand and told him all the things I was going to do to be better. I didn’t remember. Now, along with the gut punch, I also had guilt. This is being a Dad in middle age, seesawing back and forth between parenthood and childhood. Gut punches and guilt notwithstanding, it’s the best time of all to be a Dad.
My son, Jasper, loves to skateboard, and this means I have spent a lot of idle hours sitting in the sun watching him do his thing. It’s what dads do. Jasper doesn’t just skateboard: he is a Skater. And if you are a Skater, then the kickflip is the trick that grants you entry into this community.
A kickflip — a move that involves rotating the board in the air 360 degrees and landing back on it — is really hard, especially for lighter skaters, and Jasper spent two years trying to complete one. The need to do this ate at his soul. His sister did the math and estimated that between the ages of 8 and 10, Jasper attempted 9,152 kickflips — and she had to watch every one of them. (Her math is good, but no way she watched more than 7,000.)
One morning just after Jasper turned 10, I sat in the last bit of shade watching Jasper mingle with his skate park mates, a hodgepodge of peers and older Skaters who were pierced and tattooed but welcoming of the grommets (beginners). Jasper stood with one foot on his board, rolling it back and forth, shoulders soft with the distracted air of a kid taking in the scene but not watching anything in particular. As I watched, Jasper focused on his board and rolled forward, distant and relaxed. I saw it in slow motion: a bend at the knees, pursing lips, and a pop into the air of board and body. In less than a second the board finished its rotation, landed flat and Jasper came down on it, both feet solid. He stiffened as he felt the deck under his feet, and went still as he rolled forward, gaping at his shoes, stunned.
His head rose up with a shout and he leaped off his board, face flush. He looked where I was sitting and ran towards me, tears streaming down his freckled cheeks. He leaped into my arms and buried his head under my chin, trembling. He cried hard tears of pent-up stress, 9,152 failures pouring out of him.
I whispered into my his ear, “You did it, buddy.” I squeezed him tight, binding him and my composure. This moment revealed so much about my son, and maybe the man to be. His perseverance, the pressure he put on himself, and for now, his sense it was still okay to cry and hug his Dad when big things happened. After a moment Jasper wiped his face and joined his friends. The other kids congratulated him, the Skaters gave him fist bumps. I almost didn’t cry.
Fathers have inherited a bogus storyline on what it means to be middle-aged. Raising kids in your 40s is far better and more complicated than inherited wisdom makes it out to be. Middle age isn’t about getting fat, losing hair, and buying impractical, overpriced toys. These things happen (I have five bicycles and no hair, but don’t you dare call me fat), but I think these cliches of the mid-life male exist because they allow flailing fathers a place to fail into, a “that’s so stereotypical” default they can live with. How bad can your failings be if so many before you faltered the same way? Each stereotype fulfilled provides a soft landing for the fumbling father who comes after us, like we are a bunch of lemmings following one another off of Bad Dad Ridge.
I don’t buy it. It’s too easy and overlooks the gift of fatherhood in middle age: living in the middle of three generations, balancing the weight and rewards of being a child to older parents and a parent to kids growing up in a world more complicated every day. We are the fulcrum of the teeter-totter, arms akimbo, lifting parents up and cushioning kids’ falls. Raising kids to fly, helping parents to ground. It’s a heavy lift (yoga helps; wine, too), but you are living in two directions, building memories of the ups and downs on both sides of the teeter-totter.
I am closer to my dad now than I was as a kid, which is discomforting as I see him only a few times a year, and he was a present and loving father throughout my childhood. The fact is that kids are self-involved creatures, as they should be as they grow into their own skins. Important childhood moments are a cacophony of senses, and our parents’ place in the picture can slide to the periphery. For parents, these same moments feel like the total reason for our existence.
Twelve-year-old Jasper remembered his first kickflip, but had forgotten I was there. Yes, I was there, dammit, and it was one of the best moments of my life. My dad tried to cheer me up.
“Remember that time you got an A in math and helped me fix the car, and then we went out to dinner to celebrate?” he asked.
“No,” I said, baffled. More guilt.
“Yeah, me neither. But I bet you’ll remember this moment now.”
One side of the teeter-totter hits ground, the other rises high.