undeaddad

explorations of mindful fatherhood


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Bruce Lee is Dead: A Fish Burial

150_5092Coming home from a grueling day of work this past week, I found my wife sitting at the kitchen table with my son standing at her side. They stared at me, tears welling up in my son’s eyes.

“Bruce Lee is dead,” my wife said. My son burst out crying and nuzzled his face into my wife’s neck.

Bruce Lee was one of the four Koi fish we keep in our small backyard pond. The pond has been there since we moved in two years ago, but only last May did we buy four 5-inch long koi to fill the pond and, by the end of the summer, each was at least a foot long. Bruce Lee was named for his impressive golden scales with black trim, reminiscent of his name-sake’s iconic jumpsuit from the movie Game of Death.

Bruce Lee had been sick for a few weeks, and I made several efforts to help him, but his scales were inflamed and he lost his equilibrium at times. I was really torn up about him being sick, trying whatever I could to help a situation that might have been inevitable. I felt a great deal of responsibility to make it better.

But that day when I came home to find the fished had died, I wasn’t anguished by the news. In fact, it was a relief. I knew the ordeal was over, the pain that he might have felt was done. In fact, my only sympathies were for my son, who was devastated.  He was the one to find him dead, which was heart-breaking for him. I wanted to comfort him.

But instead of sitting with his sadness, I jumped into fix-it mode. I knew I had to get the fish out of the pond and into the ground before the sun went down. Right after dinner, I rushed my son outside so we could dig a hole and net our dead friend.

While waiting for my wife before the burial, my son wrote a letter to the fish. He asked me to contribute every other line, in a sort of joint eulogy. We wrote that we’d miss him, that the other fish would miss him, that we hoped he was happy in the big pond in the sky. After writing his final words, my son sank his 7-year-old face into my neck and burst into tears. I was surprised at how much this affected him, and had to take stock in the situation.

Bruce LeeI have this tendency to compartmentalize sad feelings in order to get the job done. If something shocking or saddening happens, I somehow feel that it’s my duty to trudge forward. In these situations, it sometimes helps that I put aside my feelings so that things get done. For instance, there was a time when my son spews vomit all over the bed in the middle of the night, coating every fabric-covered surface in yuck. While my wife helps our son to the bathroom, I had the gross job of cleaning up. Or when the basement toilet backs up and spits sewage all over the floor, I’m the one cleaning up. When things are gross or shocking, I put away my feelings, put on my “man-hat”, and git-r-done. In these very practical situations, it works. Vomit and feces don’t pick up themselves.

But this same compartmentalization can happen when there’s loss, and the job needs to be done to pick things up and move along. I have learned the hard way that this is not the way to deal with grief. When there has been loss or great sadness, there are times when I cordon off my feelings and move forward. There’s a part of me that feels like this is just how I take care of others. I want to help get them to a better place. I want to show them hope. But in doing so, I can overlook the grief and the anguish, as though they don’t exist. My approach can leave others feeling unsupported and overlooked. Granted, sometimes there needs to be a pragmatic voice within a family when things are gloomy, but to charge forward solely in a utilitarian mode only denies others their sadness.

Charging forward also denies my own sadness. When I put my grief to the side in order to make things better, I don’t sit with the sadness of it all and end up feeling wrecked in the end, while my loved ones feel overlooked.

All of this came back as I sat at the kitchen table with my son, composing a fish eulogy. I had to take a breath, and sit with the sadness of a boy who had bought, named, and nurtured a 5-inch baby fish into a 14-inch glory. He was heartbroken, and I couldn’t go too fast. I had to sit with the sadness of it all. I had toforget the waning sunlight and the hardened ground and think about this small boy who had just confronted death face-to-face. Sure there was a job to be done, but that job was right in front of me: hugging my son and accepting his tears.

 

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One of My Biggest Fears

20130531-070751.jpgMy dad has issues. For a three year stint, he didn’t talk to me, for unknown reasons. I tried reaching out the olive branch on several occasions, through letters and email, but these attempts were met with absolute silence. It wasn’t until a pending trip to Chicago, that he responded to an email of mine. His response was pretty much, “What’s the problem. You know I’m not a good conversationalist.”

This is what scares me….neither am I.

When it comes down to it, my fear is that this legacy of emotional and communicative disconnect is going to bleed into my relationship with my own son.

My dad has his own set of problems. Born in the 1940’s and shipped to Viet Nam in his 20’s, I always knew my dad as the guy who “doesn’t like to talk about things.” This was the family narrative. You didn’t ask my dad about his life. The war was off limits. Discussions about his parents, especially his father, were out of bounds because his dad was institutionalized after a bout of incapacitating meningitis. Talk about his extended family was out of the question because he just hated the bastards. Aside from that, his only real interests seemed to be hunting and electronics, leaving few common interests between him and me (or most people).

“Alexithymic” is probably also a good way of describing my dad. It’s a word I picked up in grad school, which characterizes a person who is neither able to name his/her emotions or describe them in words. My dad and I have never had a single conversation about his feelings, nor has he ever offered up a description of them. In spite of his divorce, the death of his mother, his own cancer, none of these things enlivened a single visible emotion or mention of his feelings.

These two issues make it nearly impossible for me to talk with my dad, outside of topics such as the weather, traffic, or consumer electronics. We’ve never had the ability to talk. There were times in my life when my father and I just did more things together, and therefore spent more with one another. And yet, we weren’t necessarily close. So, as an adult man, separated from my father by half the country, there’s no way of connecting. We don’t live close enough to do things together, and conversations fall short, so our relationship languishes.

And so, each time I sit across from my son at the breakfast table in silence, or drive home with him in a quiet car, I project 20 years into a future in which we have nothing to say to one another. No bond.

There are times when conversations with my son really fall flat. My son is a relatively quiet kid. I’ve spent time with kids who provide a running narration or their thoughts or actions. Kids that are always talking. Or for some kids, once their interest is peaked, they can talk a mile a minute. This isn’t my son. He’s shy most of the time, and even when someone inquires about something he knows well, he gets self-conscious, or hesitant, preventing him from share what he knows. This is true whether it’s a stranger at a cash register, or even his parents at home.

Somehow, my wife has a magic with him, and they can have the longest conversations. I find that when I try, I’m pulling teeth. I get feedback that it’s my style. Sometimes I come across like an interviewer when having a discussion. I can pelt a person with endless questions. For my son, that doesn’t work, and he turns into a deer in headlights. I’ve tried easing up, and inquiring or opening up conversations in an inquisitive, non-threatening way. And yet I find these conversations still falter.

These scenarios bring up two things for me: anger and fear. The anger is directed at my own father. When I find myself stuck in conversation, I can’t help but think part of the reason is that I never got good modeling as a kid. If my dad was a bit more skilled, or for that matter, simply tried just a little bit harder, I might have some vocabulary for father-son dialogue. I feel robbed of some kind of formative experience that would have taught me the skills for connecting with my own son.

The second feeling is the fear I mentioned: that fear that in a few years or decades, my son and I won’t know what to say to one another. He’ll live far away and I won’t have any way of building in-roads with him, his family, or his life. Perhaps it’s a bit catastrophic, but nonetheless, it’s where my mind goes. I so desperately want a better relationship with my son, but when face-to-face, I sometimes feel incapacitated.

I substitute with time, activity, interest. When he’s around, I try to do things with him, or take an interest in the things he likes. For now, I think this works. But as he emerges into his teenage years and doesn’t want to spend time with me, or when he goes off to college, what am I to do? It’s something that I constantly grapple with, and need to keep facing head-on, before the years slip away.