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The Accidental Grown Up

As I recently watched my oldest son graduate high school, still alive, hale and hearty and bound for the college of his choice, I wondered how I could possibly have gotten to this point.

In school, you may have predicted my future as one of three possibilities:

  1. Becoming—if not exactly the high-powered rifle clock tower kind of crazy—at least the loud, humming and rocking, next to a stack of raggedy wire-bound notebooks on the bus kind of crazy;
  2. Serving jail time for hacking the yellow pages database and changing all middle names to “Grievous Head-Wound;”
  3. But most likely “Wow, I have no f’n clue what the hell kind of crazy thing that dude is going to get up to, but maybe it will end up in the news one way or another.”

Nobody would have guessed mentally stable English teacher, little league coach, minivan owner with three kids, and married to my high school sweetheart. Although to be fair, I also drive a motorcycle and have spent a lot of money on speeding tickets over the decades.

My wife and I mused idly about children for years, thinking up baby names that we never used. Of course, we still made damn sure to use effective birth control. After we were married and finally decided to have kids, she got pregnant as soon as her prescription for the pill ran out. It may have even been that same day, like twenty minutes or so later.

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My father loved me very much but never really understood me very well. He often spoke about the world in carefully considered pronouncements. He would proclaim, “You know you won’t ever go back and finish college if you take a year off to travel,” or “Someday you are going to want a Cadillac,” as universal truths. Eventually, I learned to just quietly shake my head.

While looking at baby things for our first child, I told him that I still felt like I was putting one over on whoever it was that was putting me in charge of a baby—like I was just faking it and not very successfully.

He said, “The ride home from the hospital will be a transformational moment. When you put your newborn son into the car seat for the first time, like an unpadded bottle of nitroglycerin, the drive home will suddenly be the most careful drive home of your entire life.”

Poetic, right?

What actually happened was that I drove home from the hospital sleep-deprived, after having been awake for forty hours straight, except for an hour nap after the birth, and I don’t remember driving especially carefully. I do remember looking at my new son in the rearview mirror and thinking how awesome it would be if we all started speaking to him exclusively in thick, Scottish brogues until his first day of school, only to revert to our normal accents so the other parents would wonder how we ended up with this unexplained Scottish boy.

What I didn’t feel at all like, was an adult.

As he grew, I obsessed over getting enough calories into him to ensure he hit ten pounds, every tenth of a degree temperature change, and whether our incredibly calm and skinny pediatrician immediately thought, “Oh, those fuckwits again,” when they told him we were on the phone. But I have never really assumed we were prepared for the next thing. Everything still felt as if we were not only flying the plane by the seat of our pants, but that we were holding the doors closed with our feet while we grasped the wheel in our teeth.

His interests soon became our interests. My wife watched Thomas the Tank Engine so often she constructed an elaborate psycho-historical theory that the entire island of Sodor was actually a construct in the mind of Topham Hatt, as he sat in a locked ward (mumbling about how he was cross with Thomas, and how Henry was causing confusion and delay) before taking his potent anti-psychotic meds and shuffling to the art-therapy room. I generally thought the same of Steve from Blue’s Clues. But I still found myself watching these shows, even if the boy had already fallen asleep in my lap. Clearly, more complex ways of thinking about children’s programming, but not necessarily the adult way.

We have three sons now, each about five years apart because we thought that particular age gap would cut down on sibling rivalry and chaos. That assumption was totally wrong; what it actually did was make sure that the younger ones just lose badly at games with the older ones. Then the older ones mercilessly abuse the younger ones in the style of older brothers the world over. It doesn’t exactly make you feel like parent of the year to see the eldest child coercing the middle one into an unwinnable bet for all of his birthday money, and then doing a Terrell Owens touchdown dance over his younger brother when he wins, while the youngest picks that time to make annoying loud noises to get their attention.

They are not perfect, but evidence seems to show they are unlikely to become future serial killers, and they would all definitely save each other from an earthquake if they had any idea how to do that. I coach their baseball teams and volunteer for events to teach them sportsmanship and community. They participate in school events and work helping children. All three of them are turning out to be wonderful, smart, funny, and uniquely endearing people. They get voted “Best Teammate,” disarm other kids with their humor, and are memorable to their teachers and classmates. I love them more than even the best imaginable carne asada burrito even if it included free chips, guacamole, AND salsa.

But they aren’t Nobel Prize winners at fifteen, teen millionaires creating a real estate empire with their pocket change, or Olympic medalists saying that they couldn’t have done it without their dad, because they are normal like the other 6.999999999 billion of us here on the planet. I have realized that my highest goal for them is for them to be happy and to have a lesser struggle in life than the one I went through to get them there.

Before he died, my father said that creating a successful business to support his family was mostly accidental, or the result of luck and things he did because he couldn’t figure out what the hell to do next. He said that instead of sticking it out as an artist (though he described his post-impressionist painting style as “polka in an era of Rock and Roll”), he felt that one of the best moves he ever made was to put aside that dream to start a family, but admitted that one of the most difficult things he had ever done was to continue to have faith—to be certain—that it was the right decision.

So I guess that I may have accidentally grown up, though I still try to scare my oldest in the dark hallway by hiding in his closet at night, attempting the Vulcan Neck Pinch on the middle one whenever he least expects it, or making the youngest read me his homework as The Crocodile Hunter. I’m unlikely to ever feel very adult and that is fine; it’s probably less fun that way anyway.

I realize that a sequel to this story by one of my sons would probably say that their father was an odd guy who they didn’t always agree with or understand, but who was always trying to make things better in his own crazy way.

And I am fine with that.

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