My Dear Sons:
Sometimes, I am guarded about what I say to you, or around you. There are so many ways to say the wrong thing.
We are told as parents in this day and age that one shouldn’t praise a child for being smart or talented, for example; this could give children the idea that being good at something depends upon some innate quality over which they have no control. Rather, the parent should encourage the child by praising their effort. Talent without effort gets one nowhere, but effort even with only a little bit of talent can take one far.
And so it goes. Am I encouraging you the best possible way? Am I saying, “No,” when I should? If I keep reminding you to do your homework, am I setting up a situation where you will only do what needs to be done if someone is prodding you to do so?
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I am second-guessing myself every time we have an interaction. Far from it. A lot of what I do and say around you flows naturally. Most of our conversations are a simple means to and end: will you please unload the dishwasher; it’s time to turn off the TV; yes, I’ll sign that form for you to take to school.
But when we do talk about something consequential, what will you remember? How might it change you, even if you don’t remember it?
Here’s what I remember from my own youth: I remember my mom frequently telling me that I can be anything I set my mind to. I remember my paternal grandfather instilling me with aphorisms like, “If an appointment is worth making, it’s worth keeping,” and “If a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” I remember Cousin Tony’s more colorful aphorisms, delivered with gusto: “Remember to KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid,” and, “It takes less work to do it right the first time.”
I remember the occasional conversation with my father, where he would encourage me to consider that the other side of a given argument often had a valid point of view. More than once, he pointed out that most people see the world as black and white, when it’s really shades of gray.
But, there are also some conversations that are indelibly stamped upon my memory even though they did not contain easily repeated catch phrases. I don’t recall how the topic came up, for example, but one time, my father cautioned me that most people don’t choose their career path. Rather, they just fall into it. It was a disheartening idea as I recall, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that conversation was at the end of a long, difficult day at work which left him contemplating the futility of his job at the time. But that one conversation, with its mood of quiet desperation, has stuck with me and given me pause more than once.
How many conversations did I have with my father about serious topics? I really have no idea. He was certainly accessible. But, I was a kid. I was more likely to have the Big Conversations with my high school and college friends than I was with my father. How many of those conversations did I initiate? How many did he initiate? How many just happened? I truly don’t recall. What I do recall was that my father was thoughtful, and careful to point out that things weren’t always as simple as they seemed.
And yet, if you were to ask my sister, she would have a completely different set of recollections. She remembers that our parents annoyed her. Profoundly. She remembers how, when they learned she might be interested in nursing, they got her books on nursing. How insensitive! Didn’t they realize that she hated books? (Yes, of course they did. They tried to build positive associations with books. But, what she saw was them tying her negative associations with books to the things she was interested in.) She remembers that when they tried to reward her for getting good grades, how unfair it was because I got more rewards because I had better grades. Yet, when they punished her for bad behavior, that was also unfair because they didn’t punish me… even though I wasn’t the one sneaking around smoking cigarettes and the like.
It’s funny how things work out. As I write this, your Aunt is a force to be reckoned with in her career, she has a brilliant and awesome husband, and it seems to me that they are doing a fantastic job of raising your cousins. She has a penetrating intellect, a wickedly sharp sense of humor, and at the same time, she is as warm and caring as anyone I know. My sister is a wonderful person with a rich, fulfilling life. But, her memories of our parents are strained, and their relationship will likely never be fully reconciled.
My highest priority is to help you boys to develop the tools you’ll need to make the best decisions you can. I want you to be able to learn what you need to learn in order to do what you need to do. My highest wish is that you grow to become healthy, happy, well-adjusted men who make the lives of your loved ones and your communities all the better because you are a part of them.
If this happens, then I suppose it won’t matter if you remember me disapprovingly. And, if this wish isn’t achieved, then no amount of fond memories will make any difference; I will have failed you.
Even so, I can’t help but wonder: what will you remember of our days together? When you are raising your own children, what will you remember of what I say to you today? Of what you think I did right? Of what you think I did wrong?
At this particular moment in my life, I am wrestling with a number of rather large decisions regarding my work, my love life, where I live, and how I spend my time. Every one of these choices will have an impact on you in some fashion. Each choice, ultimately, is a calculated risk. I need to make each decision with care, based upon stone cold logic, educated guesses, and more than a little bit of hope.
Twenty years down the road, you’ll all be making these same kinds of decisions for yourselves. I can’t help but be curious: who will you be then? Who will I be then? And what will you remember of this time?
Whatever you remember of me ten, twenty, thirty years down the road, I hope it will include that I tried my best. Whether you remember me as being generally happy or generally sad, as too hands-on or too aloof, I hope that you will remember that I’ve always been here for you, and that I genuinely love you.